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Four years after Haider disappearance, his family continues to seek closure

The Dickinson Police Department's investigation into Eric Haider's death is officially closed and its report details the struggle to find his body at the construction site he disappeared from in 2012.

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Mary Ellen Suchan, the mother of Eric Haider, who died in May 2012 in what Dickinson Police say was an accident at a construction site, stands in front of the Dickinson Public Safety Center. (Press Photo by Dustin Monke)
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The Dickinson Police Department's investigation into Eric Haider's death is officially closed and its report details the struggle to find his body at the construction site he disappeared from in 2012.

Haider's remains were unearthed May 21, 2015, by private investigators working with a construction company.

Still, Maryellen Suchan, Haider's mother, says how her son died has been a difficult open question.

"I want closure, like any parent would want," Suchan said. "We want the truth."

At the time of his death, Haider was 30 years old, living in Bismarck and working for Cofell Plumbing and Heating Inc., a company based out of that same city. He went missing on May 24, 2012, while working at a Cofell job site near the Baker Hughes offices in north Dickinson. That particular job was for the underground work, installing sewer and waterlines where Fourth Avenue East was slated to be placed.

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Haider's remains were found last May during excavation for road construction, buried under the earth in a crouched, kneeling position and facing the same length of pipe he'd been working on three years earlier.

Arguable basis for either manslaughter or negligent homicide

In early March of this year, Stark County State's Attorney Tom Henning declined to file criminal charges in the incident. His decision, however, wasn't unchallenged.

Suchan and a small group of Haider's family and friends held protests of both the Dickinson Police Department and Henning's office on March 4 to contest the matter and insist on finding justice for the disappeared worker they believed had been buried alive by coworkers while on the job.

But in a May interview, Henning said his decision not to file didn't mean he didn't believe a crime wasn't possibly committed, but rather that the nature of the event made it difficult to develop probable cause for a case.

"You look at it from the standpoint of whether there was a crime committed-then I'd say yeah, we have an arguable basis of saying either manslaughter or negligent homicide occurred here," Henning said.

Though Henning said it seems a crime was committed, it's unclear as to who would take accountability. At the time Haider was likely buried, there were two heavy machinery operators backfilling the trench he was in.

Even after the police investigation, Henning said it isn't clear which of the two operators were responsible for Haider's death. The state's attorney questioned whether the court would have reasonable grounds to believe either accused backfiller was truly the one who committed the crime, given the available information.

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"The judge is going to say, 'Aren't there two shovels out there? Can you tell me where they are, with precision?'" Henning said. He answered his own question with "no" almost immediately before continuing with what he believes would be potential court dialogue. "'So you're saying you can't discern from one operator to the other?' 'No.' 'It's likely this guy or that guy?' 'Yes.' 'Can you confirm that it's one of those two?' 'I can't even be sure I can do that.'"

Henning said, from a standpoint of criminal culpability, it was possible for the foreman of the operators to be held accountable. Businesses can also be charged with crimes, but Henning said cases which would require that more often go to civil suits.

He added that death offenses, like negligent homicide or manslaughter, generally have no statute of limitations.

Body found 'less than 10 feet' from 2012 police excavation

When Henning chose not to file charges, the Dickinson Police Department decided to close the Haider case, an action which opened the record of the incident and the subsequent investigation to the public.

A narrative within that record filed by Dickinson Police Detective Sgt. Kylan Klauzer, the lead investigator in the case, states Haider's body was positioned in a "manner that was consistent with dirt being pushed in on top of it while it was seated near the pipe or while it had been standing and had been forced to the ground."

Klauzer stated in the report that the initial find was made by a pair of investigators from Discovery Investigations Inc., a Rapid City, S.D., private investigation firm hired by Suchan to look into her son's disappearance. The investigators' account is also included in police records.

According to that account, two Discovery investigators worked with BEK Consulting workers, who were excavating the area to add drainage functions, to dig strategically in an area where they were "80% convinced" Haider had last been working. Several weeks earlier, the Discovery report adds, cadaver dogs had recorded a non-definitive hit at that location.

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With the help of BEK workers, the body was discovered at a depth of about 6½ feet.

Klauzer noted in his report that the police department conducted its own excavation of the area shortly after Haider's disappearance. That search found neither a body nor anything "that indicated Eric was buried."

In a May interview, Klauzer said the eventual length of Haider's disappearance came down to a matter of yards.

"From the point of the first excavation, we were within 10 feet of where Eric was located," Klauzer said. "From all of the information that we had at that time, in confirmation with talking to everybody in the crew and as many people on the work site as possible, with the parameters we dealt with, we still believed we had went wider and farther than all the information at hand."

Haider had been checking seals in the ditch he died in

Police records also include interviews with Cofell staff who were with Haider the day he went missing. Klauzer said "there were things that they had implied" through conversation, but that none of the workers ever directly admitted to knowing they buried Haider.

Jack Bettenhausen, the Cofell foreman that day, told police he had shouted down to Haider to ask about a seal as Haider worked on a pipe in the hole earlier in the day. The report later states that Bettenhausen viewed surveillance footage of the site with Klauzer of the day Haider disappeared. Klauzer's report noted that Bettenhausen "did not seem nervous" while watching the video and "stated he feels confident" that Haider had not been buried on-site.

Some other Cofell employees told police they last saw Haider when they all went out to lunch at a fast-food restaurant. Some told authorities they believed Haider, who carpooled from Bismarck with other workers, had walked off the job site without informing them. Haider had reportedly had a request for vacation time denied, and had expressed frustration to at least one of his coworkers.

After the discovery of the body, interviews conducted with the coworkers in the summer of 2015 indicated they believed Haider may have been buried in the ditch by backfilling operations while he was checking pipe connections for leaks, as coworkers believed he'd been instructed to do by Bettenhausen.

One of the two backfillers who worked that day recalled to Klauzer there was a "high pile of dirt" near a connection in the waterline that would have obscured the sightline to the bottom of the ditch where Haider would have been working. While the other backfiller invoked his right to remain silent when contacted by police after the discovery of Haider's body, a coworker described him as operating his backfiller like a "raped ape."

The backfiller that did speak with police a second time did not describe his counterpart as reckless, but said he worked fast. The cooperative backfiller did not believe he had buried Haider, but couldn't say whether or not he thought his counterpart did.

Calls made by Cofell workers to Haider's cellphone after his disappearance were reported to have gone straight to voicemail. When Haider didn't reappear, the workers eventually left the scene and returned to Bismarck.

Cofell representatives did not return a request for comment.

Disappearance theories included run-away, foul play

Speculation was rampant in the days after Haider seemingly vanished, and when the first excavation failed to turn up answers, community members supplied their own to Dickinson police.

Tipsters pointed investigators to drug dealers and other illegal actors, alleging Haider had fallen on the radar of violent characters.

Haider had some criminal history and issues with drug use in his past, and some of those who contacted the police believed that former affiliates may have had reason to cause him harm. Others believed Haider's disappearance may have been connected to other cases in the Bakken and others beyond that alleged the man was safe from harm and lying low somewhere. Suchan still believes her son met with foul play.

Klauzer said he told Suchan at the beginning of the case that the department would do its best in looking into all information that came across its way. Still, when the various stories were investigated, Klauzer said they didn't amount to much.

"There was nothing-they were dead-ends, so to speak," he said.

Klauzer said the abundance of less-credible information isn't uncommon when people go missing.

"With cases like this, any time you get into missing persons or similar sort of case, when it draws any sort of attention, you'll find people will come forward with certain pieces of information," he said. "It's not necessarily with malice in intent, but oftentimes it's not with always the best intentions. That might not be the best way of saying it, but sometimes people tell us things and want their name tied to it."

'It's my flesh and blood'

Suchan and her family, including Haider's siblings and his daughter, marked a four-year memorial of his disappearance on May 24.

They have also hired an attorney to explore their legal options.

Suchan described the last four years as "hell, as a non-stop roller coaster" but said she wouldn't stop seeking accountability for the death of her son.

In that, she looks to Cofell.

"What they don't realize is how much of my life they took away," she said. "It's my flesh and blood. It's a constant. We can't finalize it yet, so it's still open and it's like pouring salt in that wound every time something comes up. It's four years today, and we're still fighting."

Eric Haider
Eric Haider

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