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Testimony begins in vehicular homicide trial

JACKSON -- With the burden of proof all on the state, it will be up to Jackson County Attorney Bob O'Connor to prove whether or not Lacey Marie White was driving the pickup truck that rolled in Heron Lake in October 2007, throwing Michael Unger from the vehicle and to his death.

Opening statements were delivered Thursday afternoon in the trial of White, who is charged in Jackson County District Court with three counts of criminal vehicular homicide. According to O'Connor, 23-year-old Unger was a gentleman, a good friend and a "helpful kind of guy." His white Chevrolet pickup truck was his pride and joy, O'Connor said. On the night of Oct. 6, White was at the Hotel Whiskey in Heron Lake. Unger was there also, but wasn't drinking much. White, he said, was drinking and being loud.

"She liked to be the center of attention," O'Connor stated.

She got angry when her keys were taken from her car, he added, and blamed Unger. She told someone she was either driving home or walking the 10 miles from Heron Lake to Brewster.

When she left on foot, O'Connor said, Unger didn't wait long before going after her.

At 1:13 a.m., Jackson County Dispatch received a 911 call about a rollover crash on Second Avenue near the fertilizer plant.

White was found behind the wheel of the pickup. Rescue crews had to use the Jaws of Life to remove her from the vehicle.

"It is the state's position that she was driving the vehicle," O'Connor stated.

Incoherent and hysterical at first, White finally communicated with authorities that Unger had been in the vehicle. His body was found approximately 90 feet away from the pickup.

More than two hours after the crash, White's blood alcohol content was .14 percent, O'Connor stated.

During the next two days of trial, he said, he would bring forth testimony of EMTs, law enforcement, witnesses from the bar, medical personnel and an accident reconstruction expert.

During his opening statement, defense attorney Louis Kuchera reminded the jury that his client was presumed to be innocent -- that the burden of proof was on the state.

"Our defense is pretty straight-forward," he said. "Lacey White was not the driver of the vehicle at the time of the accident."

Kuchera admitted his client was having a night out, but said her boyfriend was supposed to come get her later.

When she stayed longer than anticipated, he didn't want to come get her, so Unger called her boyfriend and said she could just stay the night at his place.

White was upset and decided to walk home, Kuchera said, but Unger drove out to get her.

Kuchera told the jury White claimed Unger had a drink with him in the truck and insisted he drive back to town, but he drove too fast around the curve and rolled violently.

White was tossed around inside the vehicle, he continued, and when it came to rest, she was behind the steering wheel.

"We ask that you not form an opinion until the evidence is all in," Kuchera asked the jury.

First to testify for the state was former Heron Lake Chief of Police Dennis Waldron, who was the first law enforcement official on the scene.

He said he arrived within minutes of the dispatcher's call and found three men, who had called 911, at the scene. The female in the truck was sitting sideways in the driver's seat of the truck, he said, and smelled strongly of alcohol.

He didn't notice where her legs were or if she was pinned in the truck.

The three men who were first on the scene said they did not see the accident, but heard it from a few blocks away and were there within a minute or two.

All three testified that White was pretty frantic, and kept hollering for someone. None could say for sure whether or not she was wearing a seatbelt when they arrived, but each man said she was sitting in the driver's seat.

Two of the men said she was facing the passenger door, with her back up against the driver door.

Jackson County Deputy Doug Eicholz testified he was asked to follow the ambulance to Worthington and obtain a blood sample from White after she was removed from the vehicle.

"What was the situation at the hospital?" O'Connor asked.

"Very loud, a lot of hollering and screaming," Eicholz replied. "She was very distraught. It was a very chaotic situation."

White was incoherent at times, he said, and it wasn't until 3:43 a.m. that the lab tech was able to draw her blood.

The sample was then sealed properly and brought back to Waldron, Eicholz stated.