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Bus driver accepts plea deal in fatal I-94 crash that killed Pelican Rapids teen

Loren Ernst

FARGO -- The driver in a bus crash that killed an area teenager in 2008 accepted a plea deal Monday that gives him no more than 30 days in jail.

Loren Ernst, the 71-year-old bus driver from Moorhead, was facing serious charges - including two felonies - in a trial that had been set to start Monday.

Instead, he pleaded guilty to a gross misdemeanor of criminal vehicular operation, the lightest of charges he faced. Charges of criminal vehicular injury and criminal vehicular homicide were dismissed.

Prosecutor Brian Lutes said the parents of Jessica Weishair - the 16-year-old of Pelican Rapids, who died in the crash - signed off on the deal.

About 90 minutes before the crash at 5:48 a.m. on April 5, 2008, Ernst told a fellow driver he was tiring, according to court records.

The charter bus Ernst was driving, carrying 48 band members and chaperones returning from a trip to Chicago, left Interstate 94 near Albertville, Minn., hitting a ramp before skidding on its side. Weishair was pinned beneath the bus and died.

Lutes, an assistant Wright County (Minn.) attorney, said the plea deal calls for no more than 30 days in jail, in addition to a home-detention term of 30 days or less and up to 30 days of community service.

There may be fines and fees added to the sentence, which will be handed down on March 5. Lutes said Weishair's parents plan to speak at the sentencing.

Lutes said Ernst could be ordered to pay restitution for any medical bills not covered by the insurance of the Moorhead firm that chartered the bus, Richards Transportation.

Ernst's lawyer, Eric Olson, didn't return a phone message seeking comment on Monday. He previously told The Forum that a 180-day sentence Lutes previously offered - served as a mix of jail and home detention, like the deal sealed on Monday - was too long.

A deal was in the works when a plea hearing was scheduled in October. But the negotiations fell apart, and the case headed toward trial. Given the prior failures to strike a deal, "it was nice to get it done," Lutes said.

Ernst's license to drive was one of the major sticking points in negotiations, Lutes said. Under the plea deal, he'll lose his license for a year.

He could have faced a driving suspension for as long as six years, said the prosecutor.