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Western ND deputy cleared of hitting motorcyclist during high-speed chase

Corporal Travis Bateman of the McKenzie County Sheriff's Office walks out of the county courthouse following his acquittal on a felony charge of reckless endangerment on Wednesday. (Williston Herald Photo by Elizabeth Hackenburg)

WATFORD CITY -- A McKenzie County deputy who was standing trial this week for reckless endangerment in relation to a police pursuit last year has been acquitted.

Southwest District Judge William Herauf delivered the decision early Wednesday afternoon, bringing an abrupt end to a trial that began Tuesday and was expected to last for several days.

Following the announcement, Corporal Travis Bateman shared emotional hugs with tearful family members and co-workers who’d sat through hours of courtroom testimony.

“I’m elated,” Bateman said. “I’m just glad that the truth came out and was exposed through this.”

Bateman, 32, was charged with reckless endangerment, a Class C felony, for allegedly hitting a fleeing motorcyclist with his patrol car on an August night last year.

The motorcycle rider, Robert Volk, 56, of Watford City, suffered serious injuries as a result of the crash, and Cheryl Lyons, his passenger, had a broken leg.

Several witnesses testified this week about how the pursuit unfolded, although none said Bateman’s car was moving at the time of the impact.

Bateman approached the chase by heading west on Highway 85B outside Watford City, as Volk, tailed by a state trooper, was riding east. As he neared the oncoming vehicles, Bateman drove onto the eastbound shoulder, then cut back into the lane, where Volk, who had been riding on the shoulder, clipped the patrol car as he tried to ride around it.

Prosecutor Seymour Jordan maintained that videos of the incident taken from dashboard cameras showed that Bateman drove into Volk’s motorcycle, but by midday on Wednesday, defense attorney Mike Geiermann protested that the case was too shaky to proceed.

“There is zero evidence that supports the state’s claim that Corporal Bateman struck that motorcycle,” Geiermann told Herauf. “All of the evidence supports that the motorcycle struck a stationary (patrol car.)”

Herauf granted Geiermann’s motion for acquittal, pointing out that emergency responders can legally make maneuvers to stop situations such as pursuits.

“There was no eyewitness that’s been presented that suggests he moved,” the judge said, after reviewing videos of the crash.

Jordan declined to comment on the outcome of the case, or whether he plans to appeal to the state supreme court.

Bateman, a police dog officer and three-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, will now return to patrol duties after spending the past 10 months in an administrative role.

“I can’t say I was expecting this, but I was hoping. I knew in my mind and my heart what happened that night, and it was anything but what the state was trying to prove,” he said.

When reached by phone, Volk said he had no comment on the day’s outcome. He is facing DUI and other charges relating to the pursuit.

McKenzie County Sheriff Gary Schwartzenberger, who sat in on portions of the trial, wasn’t surprised by the judge’s decision.

“I’m sure the truth will prevail in all these cases, and I believe it did today,” Schwartzenberger said. “Justice through the truth has prevailed today.”

Bateman’s case was one of three involving the county’s sheriff’s office employees this year.

Schwartzenberger is facing a misdemeanor charge of misapplication of entrusted property for allegedly misusing the department’s credit card at a law enforcement convention early last year, and Detective Michael Schmitz is charged with two misdemeanor counts of making false reports to law enforcement. State investigators allege Schmitz lied to them about a prescription pill habit, and his involvement in a divorce and domestic violence case.

No trial date has been set for Schwartzenberger, who is due in court in August for a hearing. Schmitz’s case is set for trial on Nov. 15.