Dustin Callis, the Elmo Lake fire chief, drove his car nonstop after passing several vehicles on a rural stretch of highway in February and sending an oncoming motorist into the ditch, according to an eyewitness.
While a Minnesota State Forces report said improper traffic and speed were factors in the accident, the soldier eventually decided that his citation was not warranted and closed the case. Meanwhile, Callis said he hadn’t seen a car veering off the side of the road and there was nothing unsafe about his way of passing that day.
However, a witness who was following behind Calis said it was a clear case of reckless driving.
“It was one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen there,” said Kenneth Hendrickson. “I was kind of surprised when I found out he was a fire chief.”
Hendrickson was very upset about the nearby collision on February 6 on the highway. 64 North Motley that he shot his engine to chase a Hyundai Santa Fe Calis to score its license plate. Then he came back to check on the Subaru Outback passengers in the trench, Eric and Shannon Lee.
It took more than four months before Eric Lee got assurances last week from Calis’ insurance company that it would cover more than $3,000 in damages to his car. He said he was still waiting for a satisfactory apology from Callis.
The accident occurred between 2:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. on Sunday, a time when roads heading south are often clogged with people returning to the Twin Cities after a weekend in the Up North.
On a straight section of road with good visibility, Calis tried to cross several cars simultaneously on the two-lane highway, putting him on a collision course with an oncoming car being driven by Lee, who was living in Bemidji at the time.
THE PRESIDENT: Unaware car in a ditch
In an interview on June 15, Callis said he didn’t learn a car had veered off the road until days later, when a policeman called him. The report of the forces stated that this happened 12 days later.
Callis said he told the soldier he remembered the accident, and he remembered seeing a car coming in the northbound lane driving over Callis’ shoulder, heading south, to complete his passage. He said he got back on his lane as the two cars passed each other.
“When I did the maneuver I didn’t think it was an unsafe maneuver,” he said, adding that he was returning from a hockey tournament with his family in his SUV. “I wouldn’t have put my family in such harm’s way.”
Callis said he can’t remember if he was over the 60 mph speed limit when he pulled over to pass it. He also doubted that he was passing three cars at once, saying he couldn’t remember whether it was one or two. He told me it was at least two and maybe three cars, but he couldn’t be sure. Witness Hendrickson said it was three cars.
The next driver honks
“There’s no way he would have made it,” said Hendrickson, who was watching from behind. “I can tell it when it first took off.”
Lee saw Santa Fe approaching as well, and sounded his horn. “I shrieked at him as soon as I saw him pull off because I saw it wasn’t going to work,” Lee, who was also hitting his brakes, told me. He told me that Calis kept coming, so Lee sped off the highway and crashed into a snowbank.
The collision was enough to launch one of his dogs from the back seat forward. He told me that he and his wife, who was in the passenger seat, panicked but were not injured. Sections of the Subaru bumper, fog lights, and quarter panel are damaged or broken. The estimated repair cost is $3261.62.
He told me he couldn’t have been on his shoulder when the two cars passed, Callis said, because Hwy. 64 North Motley doesn’t have much of a shoulder. “By the time we passed, I was trying to control my car as it entered the ditch.”
State Sgt. Darcy Weinrich noted in the accident report that the road had a shoulder that ranged from one to two feet.
No citation was issued. A State Patrol spokesman said it was up to the discretion of the troops after speaking with Lee, Hendrickson and Callis.
The soldiers’ report shows a schematic diagram of Calis’ chariot forcing Lee off the road. The report says the Calis “ran another off-road vehicle” and cited “improper traffic” as a contributing factor. The report also says that Kalis exceeded the speed limit. Leaving the scene of a collision that resulted in injuries or property damage is a violation of state law.
The State Patrol declined a request to speak to troop supervisors about the decision not to issue a martyrdom.
He spoke to me with the officer in February. He told me, “I was under the impression that I would need to appear to testify…With this reason given to me, I said I was OK not to write a citation because I would not be able to travel.” “The decision to get the citation seemed to be given to me, not something the policeman was going to decide.”
State Police spokesman Lt. Gordon Shank said Lee’s location was not important. “Soldiers do not base their investigations on the positions of the parties involved. Soldiers issue citations or recommend charges based on their investigations as they develop along the course of their investigations.”
The controversy over insurance
Callis said last week he hadn’t seen Lee crash. “Safety is the one thing I’ve focused on for the past 18 years in the fire service,” he said. “Having my family matter to me more than ever, I wouldn’t have put them in harm’s way,” he added. Callis said that when Weinrich called him, he said he wouldn’t issue a citation. Callis said he apologized to me when they finally spoke on the phone, but Lee disagrees.
“He was sorry for how I felt,” he told me, saying he was not an apology for his actions. “The entirety of the phone conversation I had with him was reviewing him and he said he was confident in his leadership abilities.”
That was uncomfortable for Lee, who spent months arguing with Kalis’ insurance company to get her to cover damage to his Subaru. Kalis’ agent told him that the fire chief did not want to allow the claim to proceed. The insurer agreed to pay half of the damage earlier this month.
On June 14, after he made an appointment for Callis’ insurance company to speak to Hendrickson, I was told that Callis’ insurance company would cover all of his costs.