Cloquet woman charged with two counts of criminal vehicular homicideAccident victims remembered for positive attitudes, dedication
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
A 26-year-old Cloquet woman was charged Wednesday in connection with a crash that killed two Carlton County Highway Department workers early Monday morning near Wright when she and a passenger were on their way back from a regular visit to a methadone clinic in Brainerd, Minn.
Vanessa Rae Brigan was charged Wednesday in Carlton County Court with two counts of criminal vehicular homicide. County Attorney Thom Pertler pointed out that Brigan has had “a horrendous driving record” in the past, and that these most recent charges represent Level 8 offenses punishable by time in prison rather than in a local facility or treatment center.
“This is as bad as it gets,” stated Pertler, and requested that Brigan’s bail be set at $100,000.
Attorney Nichole Eickoff, who represented Brigan at Wednesday’s arraignment, pointed out that Brigan has three young children, ages 8, 9 and 11, who are living with her sister while Brigan is in jail and requested that a more reasonable bail be set.
Judge Dale Wolf set bail at $80,000 bond or $8,000 cash.
Brigan works part time as a waitress in Superior and requested that she be assigned a public defender by the court. Judge Wolf determined she met the guidelines and indicated a defender will be assigned to her before her next court appearance at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10.
According to the criminal complaint against Brigan, she and her passenger, Jesse David McMillen, 25, each had received a bottle of methadone at the Brainerd clinic early that morning and were returning to Cloquet.
Law enforcement officers investigating the scene found a syringe, a used needle with a small amount of liquid – believed to be methadone – in Brigan’s car and found a bottle of methadone prescribed to Brigan that day and another syringe in a ditch about 10 feet from Brigan’s car, the complaint said. The items were taken as evidence and sent to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension for analysis.
Methadone prescribed through treatment clinics is meant to be drunk, not injected, methadone professionals say.
The two county workers killed were Zachary M. Gamache, 25, of Esko and Mitchell D. Lingren, 29, of Duluth. According to Wayne Olson, director of the Carlton County Transportation Department, they were on their way to Wright to lay out the directional lines for a scheduled culvert replacement there.
The State Patrol report indicated the crash happened at approximately 8:45 a.m. when the eastbound 1996 Oldsmobile Aurora driven by Brigan crossed the centerline. According to a witness’s report, while he was following Brigan’s vehicle he observed it weave from the fog line back over the centerline and into the path of a Carlton County Highway Department truck. He said the truck, bearing Gamache and Lingren, attempted to avoid a collision by squeezing to the right hand side of the roadway as far as possible, but their truck could not escape to the ditch because the guardrail prevented it.
Brigan’s vehicle then hit the westbound 2004 Ford pickup belonging to the Carlton County Highway Department in its left rear tire. The axle on the Highway Department’s truck broke and the vehicle veered into oncoming traffic. It sideswiped a 2006 Ford 350 pickup and then hit the gooseneck trailer it was pulling.
Gamache and Lingren were ejected from their truck. State Patrol records show their vehicle’s airbags deployed but neither of them was wearing a seatbelt.
“We do have a policy in place requiring our employees to abide by seatbelt laws and we go over safety issues a lot,” confirmed Olson following the incident. “We expect that all of our drivers abide by the guidelines.”
When officers arrived at the scene, the two men were lying motionless in the road; officers and first responders confirmed that they were dead.
The driver of the second Ford pickup, Christopher G. Hecker, 42, of Nisswa, Minn., escaped with no apparent injury.
Authorities said McMillen fled the scene and was later caught and arrested on an outstanding warrant. A state trooper said McMillen told him that after the crash he got out of the car, saw the two motionless men in the road, immediately ingested his bottle of methadone and left the scene.
After he was apprehended, McMillen told a trooper that he and Brigan regularly traveled to the Brainerd methadone clinic on Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays for liquid methadone, according to the complaint. He said he and Brigan knew they were not supposed to drive when using methadone.
When Brigan was booked into the Carlton County jail, officers observed “fresh needle track marks” on her arms.
A search of Minnesota court records found more than 30 charges – many of them traffic-related, including more than one driving after revocation – in 22 cases on file against Brigan. She was convicted of driving after revocation on July 5 and pleaded guilty to having no proof of insurance on July 26. Judge Wolf confirmed that Brigan has 11 no proof of insurance charges on her record and confirmed that she is not eligible for pre-trial release.
McMillen also has more than 30 criminal counts in 22 cases on his record. The charges include theft, assault, drug use, underage consumption, driving after revocation and fleeing a peace officer. He was wanted on a warrant out of St. Louis County at the time of his arrest on Monday.
Pertler said all discovery in the incident has not yet been received by his office and he is processing it as it comes in to determine how and when McMillen will be charged.
Several members of Brigan’s family were in the courtroom on Wednesday for her arraignment. Following the hearing, her sister – who is caring for Brigan’s children – commented, “We sincerely regret what happened and fully understand the severity of it. Our hearts go out to the families of the victims. We know the impact it must have on all of them.”
Visitation will be held for Gamache from 1 p.m. until the 2 p.m. funeral service on Thursday, Oct. 4, at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church, with burial to follow. Gamache was a volunteer firefighter for the Esko Fire Department. Esko Fire Chief Jeff Juntunen stated on Wednesday he was rallying area fire departments to accompany the funeral procession between the church and the burial. He said he expected multiple units to take part in the tribute to Gamache, adding that the plan was for Gamache’s coffin to be transported by one of the fire trucks, weather permitting.
Juntunen stated Gamache had been with the department for the past seven years, adding, “He was one of our best first responders.”
“He was a real doer,” recalled Juntunen. “He gave and he gave and he gave. Though his own family home was impacted by the June floods, he was out there helping others the whole time.”
Juntunen said Gamache was also a mentor to other young firefighters and was responsible for recruiting new members to the department as well. He added that Gamache not only had a strong work ethic, but he was a positive influence on everyone around him.
“He could bring sunshine to a cloudy day,” said Juntunen.
Lingren was a 2001 graduate of Cloquet High School and served as survey crew chief for the Carlton County Transportation Department, working with the department for the past six years. He leaves behind a wife and two young children.
Visitation for Lingren is set for 5-8 p.m. Thursday, at Nelson Funeral Care in Cloquet. The visitation will resume on Friday from10 a.m. until the 11 a.m. funeral service at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church.
“He was a delightful young kid and comes from a great family,” said family friend Bruce Ahlgren. “He was fun-loving, energetic, loved hockey and his family and he always had a smile on his face. You talk about tragedies – he was just in his prime to become a real asset to the community when he was lost to us.”
Lingren’s godmother, Dana Luehr, said she recalls when Mitch was born prematurely and she and her husband Dave were called to the Cloquet hospital for his baptism because he was going to be transferred to a hospital in Duluth.
“That was the first time I got a glimpse of him,” she said.
She also recalled how much he related to his dad in his love of fishing.
“Any opportunity he got to be out on the water with a fishing pole in his hand, he was there!” she said.
As Lingren’s and Gamache’s supervisor, Olson described them as “happy-go-lucky and always with a smile on their faces.”
“They were always willing to help,” he said.
The Duluth News Tribune contributed to this story.