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DNA evidence helps prosecutors get maximum 10-year sentence against driver in deadly DUI case

By Paul Walsh and Curt Brown, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) –

MINNEAPOLIS — Prosecutors can usually rely on blood-alcohol tests to put the worst drunken drivers in prison. But in a deadly crash that killed a 19-year-old man in 2009, authorities never gave Eugene Rivetts a blood test.

Why would they? They thought he was the passenger, not the driver.

When they arrived at the horrific scene of the Hummer-Corolla crash on a hilly central Minnesota county road three summers ago, they at first believed what the two intoxicated men in the ditch told them about who was driving the Hummer.

But using DNA samples of blood and tissue scraped from an airbag, plus bartender testimony and cooperation from the real passenger, who said he was coerced into giving his initial roadside confession, Stearns County prosecutors were able to get the maximum 10-year sentence Wednesday.

For Rivetts, 44, it was the second deadly crash he caused in Minnesota and the third time he tried to say someone else was driving.

“Science put him behind the wheel,” said Assistant County Attorney Will Brost, who expects Rivetts to appeal the sentence. Asked if 10 years was sufficient to protect the public safety, Brost said: “In my opinion, the answer is no.”

Jurors convicted Rivetts, of Maple Park in northern Illinois, of two counts of criminal vehicular homicide in the death of Christian rock singer Ryan DeZurik, 19, who was 6 miles from his home in Holdingford on County Road 17 when Rivetts’ Hummer crossed the center line at 96 miles per hour and tore the teenager’s Toyota in half.

Stearns County District Judge Mary Mahler gave Rivetts the maximum sentence after jurors cited several aggravating factors in the crash on Aug. 16, 2009: Rivetts’ excessive speed, his extensive drinking that day, his history of drunken driving, a 1989 conviction for criminal vehicular homicide, and his placing of blame on passenger Timothy Rausch.

Brost estimates Rivetts had consumed at least 15 drinks, including beer and Jack Daniels whiskey, prior to the crash. He based that number in part on Rausch’s 0.26 blood-alcohol level — triple the legal limit — gleaned from tests taken when they believed he was driving.

Rausch, 32, of Cushing, Minn., was originally charged with criminal vehicular homicide, but charges were dropped when DNA tests put Rivetts behind the wheel. Rausch pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of aiding an offender to avoid arrest and was sentenced to 35 days in jail and fined $900. He testified against Rivetts, saying he was asleep before the crash woke him.

When the Hummer stopped in a ditch, Rivetts repeatedly told Rausch that he “needed to say he was driving and Rivetts was not,” according to court documents.

Rausch, who had no criminal history before the crash, said he didn’t know that night that the Hummer had hit another vehicle or that anyone had been killed.

The circumstances in Rivetts’ first deadly drunken-driving crash “are kind of consistent” with the latest case, Brost said.

In Crow Wing County in July 1988, Rivetts and two friends spent the day drinking. Rivetts was driving his pickup near Brainerd and got into a fender-bender with another vehicle.

Rivetts sped away on a gravel road and crashed into a utility pole, killing one passenger, Scott M. Fairbanks, 24, of Little Falls, Minn.

He tried to blame his surviving passenger but was convicted and served less than two years in prison.

Even while awaiting trial in that case, Rivetts drove drunk again and crashed into a snowplow in Monticello, Minn. Again, he tried without success to blame his passenger for the collision.

DeZurik was driving home from his job collecting grocery carts at a St. Cloud grocery store. He was taking college courses and would regularly help his grandfather pour lead to make custom fishing lure jigs and played in a popular Christian rock band.

His mother, Sherrie, read some of his poetry and lyrics in the courtroom Wednesday morning.

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all I can say is: what a piece of SHIT this guy is.

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