Nearly two years after a fatal crash claimed the life of a beloved coach and teacher, the culprit was sentenced in the Stark County District Court.
Sergio Ruiz Ledezma, who currently is serving a 20-year sentence at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck, is not eligible for parole until 2031. Following his mandatory sentence, Ledezma will be placed on three years of supervised probation. Stark County State’s Attorney Amanda Engelstad detailed the widely publicized case and successful conclusion by her office.
According to court documents, the fatal incident in 2019 was the third legal run-in Ledezma who had been convicted of three DUIs prior. At the time of the crash in Dickinson, Ledezma’s blood alcohol content level was at .404% — or five times over the legal limit of .08%.
“Anytime you see a blood alcohol content at that level, there is going to be severe impairment,” Engelstad remarked.
One previous charge of driving under the influence of alcohol was a Class B misdemeanor, stemming from an incident in March 2018. In that incident, Ledezma pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 30 days in jail, receiving 30 days suspended and placed on unsupervised probation. He was ordered to pay $750 in fees.
Details of the crash
On Dec. 4, 2019, Shawn Flaherty, 64, was driving in Dickinson on his way back home to New England in his blue Ford Escape. Ledezma, in a white Toyota Tundra, was traveling southbound. According to the North Dakota Highway Patrol, drivers Matthew Biel and Flaherty were both traveling northbound on State Avenue when Ledezma's vehicle crossed the center line and struck Biel's vehicle on the rear driver's side.
After striking Biel's vehicle, Ledezma's vehicle struck head-on with Flaherty's vehicle killing the coach. Biel's vehicle came to rest partially on the northbound roadway and the east sidewalk, while Ledezma and Flaherty's vehicles came to rest within the intersection of State and Diamond.
The three drivers were wearing their seat belts at the time of the crash.
At approximately 4:15 p.m., Dickinson Police officers responded to a 9-11 report of a multiple vehicle accident with serious injuries on South State Avenue near the intersection of Diamond Drive.
“When officers arrived on scene, they saw two vehicles that were damaged… I can tell you that his car was just smashed; it was horrific,” Engelstad said, reading details from the Dickinson Police report.
According to the North Dakota Highway Patrol Accident Reconstruction Report that was made following the accident, Ledezma was traveling at a speed range of 67 to 72 mph in a white Toyota Tundra. Approximately 4.7 seconds prior to the crash, he accelerated to a speed range of 72 to 77 mph. At the time of the impact on Flaherty’s blue Ford Escape, Ledezma was at a speed of 60 to 65 mph in a speed limit zone of 35 mph.
Ledezma was transported to CHI St. Alexius Hospital and later transferred to Bismarck Sanford Hospital by Dickinson Ambulance for injuries sustained in the crash.
Biel was not injured in the crash, but Flaherty was pronounced deceased at the scene from injuries sustained in the crash.
Charges following fatal crash
“So what the judge ultimately ruled on... was based on Mr. Ledezma’s prior driving-under-the-influence criminal history. The North Dakota Century Code actually has a mandatory minimum sentencing requirement for individuals to cause death while driving under the influence,” Engelstad said. “So if you are convicted or plead guilty to essentially a criminal vehicular homicide and you don't have any driving under the influence in your past, then it is a mandatory minimum of three years. But if you have any prior DUIs, there's a mandatory minimum of 10 years.
“So Mr. Ledezma was essentially looking at a sentence that could potentially have ranged from 10 years to 20 years, and the ceiling being 20 years because it's an A felony and that was the maximum number of years that the state could request and the court could sentence up to. So the state, during the sentencing hearing, did argue for the maximum of 20 years based on Ledezma’s previous criminal history… (and) just the severity and how horrific the accident was. Mr. Ledezma was on an alcohol monitoring program when this happened from a prior DUI, so he should not have been drinking at all. (it) happened in the afternoon; there was just a lot of aggravating circumstances from the state perspective that led to believing that that 20 years was appropriate and obviously the family was a huge motivator in asking for that 20 years as well.”
On Jan. 6, 2020, Ledezma waived a preliminary hearing in Stark County District Court, where he pleaded not guilty. Then on May 17, 2021, he entered a plea of guilty to the criminal offense of criminal vehicular homicide — a class A felony.
Vehicular homicide is a type of crime that results in the death of a person that isn't the driver. Vehicular homicide always falls into the category of either criminal negligence, or an intent of committing murder with the vehicle. Vehicular homicide is in no way different from a regular murder, the only characteristic being that a vehicle is used as the weapon.
“There were a lot of aggravating factors that were taken into consideration when we had argued for the very ceiling of the sentence,” she noted. “... It was a terrible accident that was 100% preventable.”
During the sentence hearing in August, Engelstad noted that the police officer’s testimony detailed that the driver’s driving was “aggressive” and the accident looked like other cases that take place in higher-speed zoned areas.
“Individuals that have severe addiction issues, you’ll see it in any substance — whether it be alcohol, heroin, meth, pills or whatever — they tend to build up a tolerance. So an amount in someone’s body that would maybe kill someone else or very negatively affect them, might not have as severe of an impact on that individual,” Engelstad said.
Engelstad, who’s been working cases in Stark County for the past six years, said that she’s seen three cases of this nature — a DUI resulting in a fatality. Besides the Ledezma case, there was an incident that occurred on Jan. 1, 2017, and a current case that is still pending, which involves the forthcoming trial for Morgan LaRoche. LaRoche has been charged with criminal vehicular homicide for her involvement in a July 29 vehicle and pedestrian fatal crash.
Drinking and driving tend to be in the top three main arrest types each month for the Dickinson Police Department, with 11 in August and in July of this year.
Engelstad urges people to always take into account the aftermath of drinking and how vital it is to reserve a ride home, such as through the services of ride sharing options like Lyft service, through conventional ride services like taxis, or by having a designated driver to prevent the possibility of taking someone's life.
“I wouldn't say there's any joy in it because at the end of the day, you have a family and friends who have suffered the worst loss from something that is absolutely preventable. Driving under the influence is pretty much a 100% preventable crime. And the defendants have family and friends that are incredibly impacted by this as well… Ultimately, I'm glad that there was justice served. I think that the sentence was appropriate," she said, adding, "But at the end of the day, no matter what, you have people's lives that have just absolutely been destroyed by something that is 100% preventable.”