The Surreal Story of How a Deadly Crash Upended South Dakota Politics

Barnabas, who grew up in the Highmore area and now lives in Taylor, Michigan, made the claim in February in an email to the prosecutors in the case. “I’ve known Joe since childhood and we bonded in college some 20 years ago as young adults. Joe was more than a well-read, unsettled intellectual,” he wrote. “He was an admitted alcoholic with a brooding depressive streak unparalleled by anyone else I have ever known.” Oddly, Barnabas told me his motivations for coming forward were not to exonerate Ravnsborg, but rather to prove that the attorney general knew he had killed Boever. In the same email, Barnabas wrote that, because he is certain his cousin committed suicide, he likewise believes Ravnsborg “has been lying about it from the start, going so far as to let the public believe he carelessly drove off the road and hit Joe.” A month after he sent the email, Barnabas was interviewed by North Dakota agents in Highmore.

Barnabas told me his intention was not to undermine his family, and he is grateful that Nick and Victor commandeered the narrative from Noem, whom he believes “was greasing up the situation for political gain.” But his claims have left Nick and Victor frustrated. At a hearing in Pierre last month, Judge John Brown, who is presiding over the case, granted the defense’s motion for an in-camera review of Boever’s psychiatric and medical records. Emily Sovell, a state’s attorney and the lead prosecutor in the case, argued at the hearing that Boever’s “state of mind is not part of our case,” stressing that Ravnsborg is only charged with traffic violations. (Brown ruled this week that Ravnsborg cannot use Boever’s mental health records at trial.)

Sovell, a law school classmate of Ravnsborg, announced the three second-class misdemeanor charges in February: operating a vehicle while using a mobile device; improper lane driving; and careless driving. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of $500 and 30 days in jail. Sovell and Michael Moore, a state’s attorney who is assisting with the prosecution, defended the relatively light charges, explaining that vehicular homicide in South Dakota requires the presence of drugs or alcohol. Despite the delay in the blood draw, Sovell said “a very, very thorough investigation” concluded that Ravnsborg was not under the influence, and that he did not meet the recklessness standard required for a manslaughter charge. With a felony charge off the table, Moore said the “victim’s remedy is in civil court, not criminal court.” Jenny Boever has planned to file a civil lawsuit, originally hiring Rapid City attorney Greg Eiesland until a potential conflict of interest caused him to recuse himself. “You might find that the investigation and criminal prosecution may have been handled much differently had the driver been a Native American rather than the attorney general,” Eiesland said. “Just saying.”

The Iowa-born Ravnsborg built his career on the South Dakota roads, traversing the state and making appearances at the type of events that filled his pre-crash itinerary. For someone aiming to achieve political success in those parts, he checked pretty much all of the boxes: graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Law, a factory of governors, judges, and attorneys general; a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and a Bronze Star recipient; unflinchingly conservative. But all of those credentials played a secondary role in his rise to simply outhustling would-be rivals. In a state with fewer than a million people, status can be attained simply by showing up. “He went to every Republican women’s luncheon in this state,” said a senior South Dakota Republican. “Anybody that got three Republicans together, he showed up.”

Ravnsborg employed that strategy in 2014, when he launched a quixotic U.S. Senate bid. It was his first time running for political office, and he was more than a little green. “He was clearly in over his head, just in political terms,” the senior Republican said. “He didn’t know how to campaign, couldn’t raise any money, didn’t know anybody, but he went to every function for a year.” Ravnsborg finished fifth in a five-person field for the Republican nomination, garnering less than 3% of the vote. Far from puncturing his political aspirations, the last-place finish served as a springboard.

When he ran for attorney general in 2018, Ravnsborg was a partner at a law firm in Yankton, South Dakota, and a volunteer deputy state’s attorney for nearby Union County. “Jason worked harder than any other candidate by far,” said Jerry Miller, the state’s attorney for Union County. “He understood the system better, he developed the best and most prepared grassroot support system. Jason builds networks better than anyone I’ve ever met.” On Election Day, Ravnsborg claimed victory with 55% of the vote, while Noem, with just over 50%, headed to the governor’s mansion.

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