Dr. Michael Ray Bendel-Stenzel, his wife Ellen and their son Linus were headed south on I-35 near Northfield on Sept. 25, 2020, when an inattentive speeding driver blew past road work signs and slammed into their compact car from behind — causing a fiery chain-reaction crash that killed the Edina pediatrician and injured his passengers.
Bendel-Stenzel's death was met with shock and sadness in the Twin Cities pediatric community, where the 55-year-old was revered as both a teacher at the University of Minnesota and hospitalist at Children's Minnesota hospital, known for his colorful bow ties and gentle bedside manner. He was remembered just as fondly for his devotion to his family and his love of golf, snacking on Cheerios morning and night, and honing his talents as a gifted musician.
Now, 2 1⁄2 years later, Bendel-Stenzel's family says that despite their devastating loss, the driver who caused the fatal crash made a "tragic mistake" and her life should not be destroyed as well — giving their blessing to a proposed sentence that will spare Kaytlen Greenlee prison time.
Greenlee, 25, of Adams, Minn., and the Rice County Attorney's Office reached a plea agreement this week that spares her a likely four-year sentence under state guidelines, which would have meant about 2 2⁄3 years in prison.
The Bendel-Stenzels say they are content with the potential consequences for Greenlee, who will hear July 21 whether Judge Jeffrey Johnson agrees and imposes the terms of the plea deal. Johnson said in court Wednesday that he was likely to adopt the agreement as crafted.
In a statement Thursday, the family said Bendel-Stenzel's death "has been a tremendous loss to the family, but they do not see the need to ruin the defendant's life as well. It was a tragic mistake on [Greenlee's] part, but we support the county attorney's work on the plea agreement in the case."
Rather than prison for her guilty pleas to criminal vehicular homicide on the basis of gross negligence and criminal vehicular operation, Greenlee agreed to serve 30 days of electronic home monitoring every August during five years of probation. Messages for Greenlee were not returned.
County Attorney Brian Mortenson said cases such as these require prosecutors to weigh the victim's or their family's wishes against an uncertain result from a trial.
"The outcome [in this case] is appropriate in light of the circumstances," said Mortenson, who cautioned that violating the terms of the probation would risk prison for Greenlee.
"I thought it was very merciful" that the family took into account the fate of the driver who was responsible, Mortenson added.
Cases of criminal vehicular homicide are more commonly filed in Minnesota when drug use, drunkenness or distracted driving is involved. There was no evidence of those factors in connection with this crash, the County Attorney's Office said.
According to court documents and the State Patrol:
Late in the afternoon on Sept. 25, 2020, Greenlee was heading south in her SUV on I-35 about 7 miles west of Northfield when she failed to obey signs warning drivers of road work and that traffic ahead was stopped or slowed.
Greenlee hit Bendel-Stenzel's Mini Cooper, setting off a chain reaction that involved two more vehicles. The Mini Cooper ended up on its side and on fire. Ellen, 56, suffered broken ribs and a tear in her thoracic aorta that required emergency surgery. Linus, 23, was cut and bruised.
Greenlee said she tried to slow down, but an analysis of her SUV's "black box" showed it was traveling at least 74 miles per hour in a 70 mph zone and the brakes were not applied during any of the final 8 seconds before impact.
Greenlee's passenger, 28-year-old Megan R. Koch, of Austin, Minn., survived her injuries. The two were on their way back from a visit to the Minnesota Zoo in Apple Valley.
The drivers in the other vehicles and one passenger were not hurt.
The Bendel-Stenzels were heading to Iowa to see their daughter, Lilly, according to Michael Bendel-Stenzel's obituary.
Michael Bendel-Stenzel received a degree in 1992 from the University of Minnesota Medical School. He later became an associate professor of pediatrics at the university.
From 2008 until his death, he worked at Children's Minnesota as a hospitalist, where "he was known for his wide array of bow ties and his knowledge, skill and kindness to his patients and their families," the obituary read.
Four days before his death, the Bendel-Stenzels bought a home in Rochester, where Ellen joined the Mayo Clinic as a neonatologist.
"Michael's death is an irreparable loss," his obituary read. "But the healing he brought to his patients and the love he gave to family and friends will endure."