State Patrol: Investigation of crash involving two DFL leaders was by the book

Photos from Minnesota State Patrol show the damage after the crash last year involving Auditor Julie Blaha and state Sen. Melisa Lopez Franzen (Supplied)

This story, which was originally published April 18, has been updated to reflect new comments from the Redwood County attorney.

The Minnesota State Patrol thoroughly investigated a crash involving two DFL leaders after a first responder found an open alcohol container in their car, the agency's top official said.

Troopers ticketed Auditor Julie Blaha for failure to yield after she and state Sen. Melisa Lopez Franzen collided with a semi truck in Morgan in August 2021. But the night of the crash, a high-ranking State Patrol official made the conclusion that Blaha and Lopez Franzen had not violated Minnesota's open container law. Minnesota Republicans have questioned the investigation, and the Redwood County attorney says the State Patrol mischaracterized her involvement in the case.

The seeds of the controversy were planted minutes after the crash, after first responders carried Blaha and Lopez Franzen into ambulances from a ditch alongside Highway 67 near Redwood Falls. Morgan Assistant Fire Chief Justin Blomeke, sent to retrieve Lopez Franzen's backpack from the crashed Jeep, said an open can of White Claw Black Cherry Hard Seltzer spilled out.

"It spilled all over me, and it was cold, so I was like, 'Oh s---,'" Blomeke told a state trooper during a follow-up phone interview. The audio was part of the case file released Friday by the State Patrol and reported by conservative news outlet Alpha News.

Blaha said troopers asked her to take a breath test and she responded, "Hell yes." Blaha registered a 0.00, State Patrol records indicate.

Lopez Franzen told troopers that she drank the White Claw earlier in the day at Farmfest, the annual agriculture event attended by numerous politicians. The can was empty, and she put it in her backpack, according to a state trooper's account of an interview with Lopez Franzen.

The White Claw can found in the wreckage

The open can that spilled was a nonalcohol fruit drink called Cocktail de Fruits, Blaha said through a spokesman, Donald McFarland. Lopez Franzen, through her own spokesman, also said the spilled beverage was the fruit drink.

Hours after the crash, State Patrol Lt. Matthew Sorenson agreed with Lopez Franzen about the contents of the White Claw container.

"At this time it appeared to be empty and sounds like it was supposed to be thrown away but forgotten in a backpack pocket," Sorenson wrote in an email to State Patrol colleagues.

On Oct. 11, State Patrol Capt. Casey Meagher instructed troopers to close the case by issuing a failure to yield citation to Blaha. In his instructions, Meagher said he spoke with Redwood County Attorney Jenna Peterson who "agreed that we should handle this specific case by issuing a citation to the at-fault driver."

The agency's investigation was by the book, State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said.

"This crash was thoroughly and objectively investigated by the State Patrol, including the driving conduct, commercial vehicle inspection, and the details surrounding the White Claw container," Langer said in an emailed statement. "The file was submitted for review by the local prosecutor, consistent with other high profile cases."

Peterson is disputing the State Patrol's characterization of her involvement. In an email to FOX 9, she said the State Patrol initially asked her office to review the case for charges and provided an "incomplete" set of reports.

Peterson said she asked for additional reports on Sept. 16. The State Patrol told her that it no longer wished for her office to review the case for charges and that troopers would be issuing a citation, she said.

"I did not personally, nor did anyone in my office, provide any guidance or instruction on the issuance of a citation, what specific charges should or should not be included, or the individuals who should or should not be charged as a result of the incident," Peterson said. She said she didn't know the outcome of the case until the publication of recent news reports.

Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin, who was attending Farmfest, arrived at the crash scene with several other party staffers about 20 minutes after troopers got there. Martin was in a well-marked DFL van.

At the scene, Martin asks a trooper what happened and whether the people involved were hurt.

"I know you know this, but these are two elected officials. One is a statewide elected official," Martin said. The DFL staffers left after about 30 minutes and minimal interaction with the one trooper, according to State Patrol video and audio.

Republicans questioned the thoroughness of the State Patrol's investigation.

"The public deserves better from their leaders and we have many questions left unaddressed from August that are only now coming to light," state Sen. Karin Housley, R-Stillwater, said in an email on Friday.

Blaha and Lopez Franzen have each released statements expressing thanks for the investigation that closed the case.

"Reading the full report, reviewing photos, recordings, and dash cam videos, makes it clear law enforcement did their job with professionalism and came to the commonsense conclusion that alcohol played no role in the accident," Blaha said in a statement.

"There was absolutely no drinking and driving on August 4, nor was alcohol a factor in the accident," Lopez Franzen said in her own statement.