Charges move forward against Hutterite colony in fatal crash

AP News
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Posted: Mar 15, 2017 5:37 PM

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A federal judge in South Dakota has rejected a request to dismiss charges against a Hutterite religious colony accused of negligence in a deadly traffic crash, which could send the case to trial later this year.

Judge Charles Kornmann ruled recently the Deerfield Hutterian Brethren Colony near Ipswich had a duty to supervise and control its vehicles, including one used by a 17-year-old member in the Feb. 9, 2014, crash that killed Vannah Decker, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/2msnzBD ) reported.

The family of the 15-year-old girl sued the colony, alleging it was reckless and negligent by allowing Janos Stahl access to a GMC Jimmy. Many Hutterites, members of a Protestant sect dating to the Radical Reformation of the 16th century, live in commune-like colonies in rural areas of the western U.S. and Canada.

Stahl drove the Deerfield Hutterian-owned vehicle to meet Decker at the Plainview Colony about four miles away. The teen consumed two beers on his way to meet Decker and drank more as they drove back to Deerfield, according to authorities.

Stahl reached 97 mph before losing control of the vehicle and crashing. Decker was killed in the crash and Stahl served a year in the Edmunds County Jail for manslaughter.

The colony argued that Stahl was prohibited from driving the colony's vehicle on public roads. But Stahl and others testified unlicensed boys routinely drove vehicles outside of the colony.

"Like most boys on the colony, Janos taught himself to drive by driving vehicles owned by Deerfield Colony without a driver's license or permit beginning at the age of 12," Kornmann wrote. "When Janos taught himself to drive, he was not required to ask for permission or ask for the keys to any particular vehicle, as the keys were always readily available to him."

The judge said in rejecting the defense request to dismiss the case that the possibility of injury increases when the vehicle keys and alcohol are "readily available."

Court records say there are about three dozen Hutterite colonies in South Dakota. One of the basic tenets of Hutterites' religion is communal living and sharing with others.

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Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com