Lake Elmo Fire Chief Dustin Kalis drove on without stopping after passing multiple vehicles on a rural stretch of highway in February and sending an oncoming motorist into the ditch, according to a witness.
While a Minnesota state trooper's report said improper passing and speeding were factors in the incident, the trooper ultimately decided no citation was warranted and closed the case. Kalis, meanwhile, said he did not see a vehicle go off the side of the road and that there was nothing unsafe about the way he passed that day.
A witness who was following behind Kalis, though, said it was a clear case of reckless driving.
"That was one of the stupidest things I've ever witnessed there," said Kenneth Hendrickson. "I was kind of surprised to learn that was a fire chief."
Hendrickson was so alarmed by the Feb. 6 near-collision on Hwy. 64 north of Motley that he gunned his engine to chase down Kalis' Hyundai Santa Fe to record its license plate. He then turned back to check on the occupants of the Subaru Outback in the ditch, Eric and Shannon Lee.
It took more than four months before Eric Lee got assurances this past week from Kalis' insurance company that it would cover more than $3,000 in damage to his car. He is still waiting on a satisfactory apology from Kalis, he said.
The incident took place between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. on a Sunday, a time when southbound routes are often clogged with people returning to the Twin Cities after a weekend Up North.
On a straight section of road with good visibility, Kalis attempted to pass multiple cars at once on the two-lane highway, putting him on a collision course with an oncoming car driven by Lee, who lived in Bemidji at the time.
Chief: Unaware car in ditch
In an interview June 15, Kalis said he didn't learn that a car had gone off the road until days later, when a state trooper contacted him. The trooper's report says it was 12 days later.
Kalis said he told the trooper that he remembered the incident, and recalled seeing an oncoming vehicle in the northbound lane go onto the shoulder as Kalis, heading south, completed his pass. He said he returned to his lane of travel as the two cars passed each other.
"When I made the maneuver I didn't think it was an unsafe maneuver," he said, adding that he was returning from a hockey tournament with his family in his SUV. "I wouldn't have put my family in harm's way like that."
Kalis didn't recall if he was going faster than the 60 mph posted limit, but state law allows a driver to go 10 mph over the posted limit on two-lane rural highways to make a pass. He also disputed that he was passing three cars at once, saying he doesn't recall if it was one or two. Lee said it was at least two cars and possibly three, but couldn't be sure. Hendrickson, the witness, said it was three cars.
Oncoming driver honked
"There's no way he was going to make it," said Hendrickson, who watched from behind. "I could tell that when he first took off."
Lee saw the approaching Santa Fe, too, and honked his horn. "I honked at him as soon as I saw him pull out because I saw he wasn't going to make it," said Lee, who was also hitting his brakes. Kalis kept coming, Lee said, so Lee drove off the highway and hit a snowbank.
The crash was enough to launch one of his dogs from the rear seat to the front. Lee said he and his wife, who was in the passenger seat, were rattled but not injured. Sections of his Subaru bumper, fog lamps, and quarter panel were damaged or broken off. The estimated repair cost is $3,261.62.
Lee said he couldn't have been on the shoulder when the two vehicles passed, as Kalis said, because Hwy. 64 north of Motley doesn't have much of a shoulder. "By the time we passed, I was trying to control my car as it went into the ditch."
A trooper's report
State trooper Darcy Weinrich noted on an incident report that the road has a 1- to 2-foot shoulder.
No citation was issued. A spokesman for the State Patrol said it was up to the trooper's discretion after speaking with Lee, Hendrickson and Kalis.
The trooper's report shows a diagram of Kalis' vehicle forcing Lee's off the road. The report says Kalis' vehicle "ran other vehicle off road" and cites "improper passing" as a contributing factor. The report also says Kalis was exceeding the speed limit. It's also a violation of state law to leave the scene of a collision that leads to injuries or property damage.
The State Patrol declined a request to speak to the trooper's supervisors about the decision not to issue a citation.
Lee talked with the trooper in February. "I was under the impression that I would need to appear to testify. ... With that reason given to me, I said I was OK with him not writing a citation because I wouldn't be able to travel," Lee said. "The decision of him getting a citation seemed like it was given to me, not something that the trooper was deciding."
Lee's location would not have mattered, State Police spokesman Lt. Gordon Shank said. "Troopers do not base their investigations upon the location of parties involved. Troopers issue citations or recommend charges based on their investigations as they evolve through the course of their investigations."
Wrangling over insurance
Kalis said this past week that he didn't see Lee crash. "Safety is the only thing I've been focused on for the past 18 years in the fire service," he said. "Having my own family which matters absolutely most to me, I would never have put them in harm's way," he added. Kalis said that when Weinrich contacted him, he said he wouldn't be issuing a citation. Kalis said he apologized to Lee when they eventually spoke by phone, but Lee doesn't agree.
"He was sorry about how I felt," said Lee, saying it wasn't an apology for his actions. "The entirety of the phone conversation I had with him was him backpedaling and saying that he was confident in his driving abilities."
That was little comfort to Lee, who spent months wrangling with Kalis' insurance company to get it to cover damages to his Subaru. He was told by Kalis' agent that the fire chief didn't want to allow the claim to go forward. The insurance company agreed to pay half of the damage earlier this month.
On June 14, after Lee set up a time for Kalis' insurance company to speak to Hendrickson, Lee was told that Kalis' insurance company would cover all of his costs.