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MOORHEAD, Minn. – The sneakers are lined up neatly alongside the basketball court at the Kvalvog home. Workout goals are scrawled on a whiteboard. A crumpled plastic water bottle lies on the floor next to a treadmill.

They've been untouched for six years.

In the basement hallway, a glass trophy case seems to go on forever, filled to bursting with awards, ribbons, plaques, photos and certificates. It holds the life's work of two young athletes — brothers who dreamed of big things, supported by loving parents who did everything they could to advance their sons' goals.

The dream ended on an interstate highway six years ago in a violent crash that left 18-year-old Zachary Kvalvog and his 14-year-old brother Connor dead on the roadside. And a nightmare began for Ray and Kathie Kvalvog, who have spent those six years fighting for answers they believe they've been denied.

"It's all ugly. It's a vortex of darkness, is what it's been," said Kathie Kvalvog, seated at the kitchen table at their home in this Red River Valley city some 230 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

Police investigators and officials at their sons' school "have mischaracterized, avoided and flat-out lied," Ray Kvalvog said. "They have turned a great many people against us, and we're just two people who lost our sons. Aren't we afforded the luxury of finding out what happened?"

In their long fight, the Kvalvogs lost a lawsuit in state court, then lost an appeal in the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Undaunted, they recently filed a case in federal court alleging that the Minnesota State Patrol investigation of their sons' deaths was tainted because the lead officer had close ties to officials of the boys' school and cut corners in his investigation to help the school avoid responsibility.

"You drop your kids off for a school event and they come home in body bags?" Ray Kvalvog said, his voice rising in anger. "My kids are dead, and my wife and I are supposed to let it go?"

"We are not gonna get our boys back," Kathie Kvalvog said. "We know that. But we are gonna make damn sure this doesn't happen to another family."

School trip turned tragic

Zach Kvalvog was the captain of the basketball team at Park Christian School in Moorhead and its best player. He and his brother — widely viewed as having even more athletic promise — had attended the small private school since prekindergarten. The team was coming off a 20-win season in 2014 and was aiming to make the state high school tournament.

In June 2015, the school coaches had entered the team in a summer tournament in the Wisconsin Dells, but they didn't arrange for a school bus. In violation of school policy, which forbade students from driving private vehicles on school outings, they decided to carpool for the 450-mile trip. Tim Kerr, the school football coach, drove one car. Josh Lee, the head basketball coach, drove another.

After some last-minute confusion, the coaches asked Zach to drive the third car in the carpool. With his brother and two other players in the family's Ram pickup, they headed down Interstate Hwy. 94 to the Twin Cities.

The coaches were moving fast, and Zach, as the last car in line, was expected to keep up. In statements and court testimony, the coaches admitted they were exceeding the 70 mph speed limit, estimating their speed at somewhere between 73 and 75 mph. A control module from the Kvalvog pickup later revealed that the vehicle was traveling between 80 and 84 mph when it left the road just outside Dalton, Minn., about an hour from Moorhead.

It hit the median, went airborne and rolled, with its roof ripping off in the crash. Connor Kvalvog was ejected and died in the road. Zach Kvalvog was found dead in the truck, upside down, still belted in his seat.

In a final indignity, a first responder from the Dalton Fire and Rescue Squad stole money from one of the boys' wallets. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail, the only adult to be punished in connection with the crash.

The 'phantom semi'

Multiple witnesses said the Kvalvog pickup was passing a semitrailer truck when it moved into his lane, forcing him to correct and causing him to lose control. According to court records, witnesses also placed Josh Lee's car close to the front of the semi, suggesting that he may have cut off the semi, forcing it to evade him and triggering the sequence that led to the crash.

The events leading up to the crash and its immediate aftermath have been the subject of multiple lawsuits. They've been debated and dissected by lawyers, witnesses and experts, generating thousands of pages of statements, reports and court testimony.

The Kvalvogs sued the school in Clay County District Court, along with several school officials and coaches. After a civil trial in 2019, the jury placed blame for the crash on the semi driver. The driver didn't stop after the crash, and has never been identified or located; in fact, the driver is often referred to in court filings as "the phantom semi."

Crucially, the jury was not given the option of finding the school liable because the Kvalvogs' lawyer made a tactical trial decision to leave the school off the verdict form, a decision that at least one juror said was "very weird," according to a court filing.

The Kvalvogs appealed the verdict to the state Court of Appeals and lost that case earlier this year. The appellate court agreed that the school couldn't be held liable because the Kvalvogs' attorney decided to focus all liability on coach Lee, who was not found liable by the jury. Soon after, the Kvalvogs filed their federal lawsuit, which includes the school and four employees as defendants, in addition to the State Patrol and three of its officers.

Leaders at Park Christian "tried to cover up the story and lied from the get-go," said Austen Schauer, a North Dakota state representative and friend of the Kvalvogs who previously worked at Park Christian as a development officer.

"A lot of people say [Ray] should stop," Schauer added. "He's doing it to hold accountable the people who are responsible for this, and who covered it up and who did not do their investigative work. That is his right in honor of his dead boys."

In a legal memo filed in federal court, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison argues that the latest case should be dismissed, saying that it simply rehashes the same arguments that were rejected in state court. Park Christian School and the State Patrol declined to comment on the Kvalvogs' lawsuit.

Mom: 'I prayed for death'

The crash and its extended aftermath have been covered extensively by the Fargo-Moorhead media. Ray and Kathie Kvalvog have repeatedly been attacked on social media, they say, and have been shunned by members of the Park Christian community.

"You wouldn't believe those good Christians," Kathie Kvalvog said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "They called us the devil. We were hung in the press and by all the Facebook trolls. We've been beaten up. It's gotten to the point where it's just us."

The Kvalvogs own several hotels and rental properties, and have the means to continue a long legal fight. But many in the community have asked why they can't just let it go.

"People say, 'Why don't you move? Get away, start over,' " Ray Kvalvog said. "We've done nothing wrong. All we've done is tell the truth. Why should we run away?"

Fighting in the courts is a picnic compared with what the couple has been through, Kathie Kvalvog said.

"I don't think hell could be worse," she said of the years following her sons' deaths. "There were three years when it was quiet, and it was absolute hell. I prayed for death."

Three years ago, at age 52, Kathie Kvalvog gave birth to a son after conceiving through in vitro fertilization. Someday, perhaps, a different set of sneakers will take to the basketball court, a new set of goals will be on the whiteboard and Brooks Kvalvog may add some trophies to his brothers' case.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402