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In fatal Thief River Falls bike crash, ‘Pokemon Go’ was open on boy’s phone, reports say

THIEF RIVER FALLS—Incident reports shed light on a bicycle crash that killed a 14-year-old Thief River Falls boy, with police stating "Pokemon Go" was open on the teen's phone when officers found it at the scene of the crash.

The documents also include an investigating officer’s claim he was told to omit from his incident report the fact investigators found the open app in an effort to prevent the case from becoming "national news."

The 40 pages of reports were made public Friday after a grand jury recently decided not to indict Tammy Martha Johnson, a Thief River Falls woman who was driving a truck that struck Gannon Allen Hejlik at a Thief River Falls intersection. The jury could not find enough evidence to support charges against Johnson, the Pennington County Attorney's Office confirmed Friday.

The recent ruling comes four months after the crash.

About 5:40 p.m. July 18, Hejlik was riding his bike south in a crosswalk on the east side of Oakland Park Road when he was struck by Johnson's vehicle as it headed east on Greenwood Street, according to initial reports.

There are stop signs at the intersection for drivers on Oakland Park Road, but traffic on Greenwood Street is not required to stop.

A Thief River Falls Police Department incident report obtained by the Herald through an open records request details witness statements and evidence obtained from Johnson's and Hejlik's cellphones.

Cellphone evidence

Johnson, who was 52 at the time of the crash, told police her cellphone was in her purse next to her but that she didn't use it while driving, according to the incident report. She added she had both hands on the steering wheel, the report stated. She noted she was looking at two stopped vehicles on Greenwood Street to make sure they didn't pull out in front of her, according to the report.

After that, she said a person riding a bike "came out of nowhere," the report stated. She tried to hit the brakes but couldn't avoid hitting Hejlik, she said in the report.

In analyzing Johnson's phone, police determined she was not texting or talking on her phone while driving.

Police also analyzed Hejlik's phone, which was found at the scene of the crash. The location-augmented phone app "Pokemon Go" — which is based on the popular video game "Pokemon" and allows its players to catch creatures called Pokemon — was open on the boy's phone, police said in the report.

About 15 minutes before the accident, a text message from "dad" asked Hejlik where he was.

"Catching all the Pokemons," Hejlik replied in a text.

Other messages sent to and from Hejlik's phone earlier that day showed he told friends how much fun he thought the app was and that he played the game often, the report said.

There also were messages and notifications from the app sent to Hejlik's phone about the same time as the crash unfolded, but it doesn't appear Hejlik used the app to send messages to others near the time of the crash, police said in the report.

Police have said Hejlik was not wearing a helmet when the accident occurred. Witnesses could not say whether they saw Hejlik holding a phone while he was riding his bike in the crosswalk, according to the report.

'Pokemon Go' initially omitted from deputy report

An incident report from the Pennington County Sheriff's Office, which aided in the investigation, also was obtained by the Herald. It details how officers assisted the Police Department in investigating crash.

In a supplemental report filed Oct. 18, Sheriff's Deputy Brady Meunier wrote he spoke that day with County Attorney Alan Rogalla, who questioned the officer on why he did not include information in the report about the "Pokemon Go" app being open on Hejlik's phone.

Meunier told Rogalla he came into the Sheriff's Office, which is in the same building as the Police Department, to write the report the day after the crash.

"I was told by either Police Chief Dick Wittenberg or Sgt. Doug Williams that they did not want me to include it in my report as they did not want national news here on the case," Meunier wrote in the report. "I told Rogalla that I believe it was Chief Wittenberg but I cannot say with 100 percent certainty."

"Pokemon Go" was released in early July days before the fatal Thief River Falls crash. As the game went viral, there were reports of distracted drivers and pedestrians being involved in vehicle crashes because they were using the app and not paying attention to their surroundings.

Meunier wrote he would not lie in the report, adding it could ruin his career.

"The officer then told me it would not be lying as I would just be leaving something out and not lying about what had happened," Meunier wrote in the report.

He wrote he left the part about "Pokemon Go" out of the report because he was "very new at the time," adding he thought it would be OK to omit that part since a well-respected officer had told him to do so.

Rogalla told Meunier it was a "big deal" to leave something out of a report and if he was told to do that again, he should contact Sheriff Ray Kuznia, according to the report. After the meeting, Meunier amended the report to include information about the app.

Wittenberg, who was not at the scene of the crash, told the Herald Friday he was aware Meunier's statements were in the incident report, but the police chief said he didn't know how the deputy came to think someone told him not to include the facts about the app in his report. Wittenberg said he didn't tell Meunier to exclude anything from the report, adding he didn't believe his officers told the deputy to do that.

"What you are suggesting or what that suggests would be hindering a criminal investigation," Wittenberg said. "You don't just withhold evidence. ... I don't know what I would gain by (telling him to not include facts about the app)."

Wittenberg said he has spoken to Meunier about the statements. The police chief also said he told officers in his department to not spread rumors about the case if they didn't know the facts of the crash.

"I did my best to quell rumors that were floating around from people who weren't at the scene," he said.

Kuznia said he believes Meunier is telling the truth and he stands by his deputy.

Rogalla declined to comment on the facts of the case, citing Minnesota state law. Meunier was unavailable for comment.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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