On a remote section of highway in a sparsely populated part of South Dakota, the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official struck and killed a man while returning from a Republican Party dinner one night in late summer.
In the months since, Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg hasn’t missed a day of work—and has not faced any charge in connection with the death of Joe Boever.
Many South Dakotans are growing restless, including Boever’s family. Markers indicating a death went up at the crash site on Highway 14 in Hyde County last week, a grim reminder of the tragedy that had cousin Nick Nemec in tears.
“I’m very disappointed,” he told The Daily Beast during a video call. “Next week will mark five months since the crash. I’ve prepared myself mentally for some sort of guilty plea to a minor traffic violation on the order of ‘crossing the white line.’”
Gov. Kristi Noem, like Ravnsvorg a Republican elected in 2018, has also questioned why it is taking so long for the investigation to conclude.
“We continue to call it a great disservice to the victim’s family,” Noem said at a Jan. 21 press conference. “I am disappointed that we haven’t seen some action taken by the states attorney involved and hope certainly that they soon will.”
Noem cannot remove or even suspend Ravnsborg, according to the governor’s communications director, Ian Fury.
“Since the attorney general is a separately elected constitutional official, she has no such authority,” Fury said.
The person who will decide what if any charges will be filed is Emily Sovell, the Sully County state’s attorney and the Hyde County deputy state’s attorney. Sovell is handling the case for her father, Hyde County State’s Attorney Merlin Voorhees, who is not involved in the investigation or the charging decision. No reason for that has been provided. (Voorhees, who was disbarred in 1980 for his role in a cattle feedlot scheme, was reinstated to the bar in 1987. He has served as state’s attorney in both Sully and Hyde counties.)
Sovell has not responded to requests for comment left with both county attorneys’ offices and has not spoken a word on the case publicly, even as questions about the investigation have piled up.
Mike Deaver, a veteran public relations consultant and strategist from Salt Lake City, has been serving as Ravnsborg’s personal spokesman. He said the attorney general wants the investigation to end and would prefer more transparency.
“I would say, the attorney general shares the governor’s sentiment and would like to see this come to a conclusion, or at least remarks from the investigators on the time forecast on when this might be wrapped up,” he said last month.
In the course of her probe, Sovell has sought the counsel of Beadle County State’s Attorney Michael Moore and Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo, as well as the Minnehaha County State’s Attorney’s Office.
Moore said the prosecutor has four options in this case.
“When dealing with an automobile accident that results in a death of another person, the law provides four different actions of an operator of the motor vehicle,” he said. “Negligent, careless, reckless, and intentional. Vehicle homicide and vehicle battery require the operator to be under the influence and also operating the vehicle in a negligent manner.
“In order for the operator to be criminally responsible for the death (if they are not under the influence) their actions must be reckless or intentional,” Moore said. “The South Dakota Legislature, I believe in 2019, rejected a negligent homicide law, thus leaving reckless or intentional actions as the only means of an operator to have criminal liability.”
‘I hit something’
The 911 call Ravnsborg made after the crash was released a month later. He mentioned his title right away when the dispatcher answered.
“This… well… Ally, I’m the attorney general. And I am… I don’t know… I hit something.”
Dispatcher: “You hit something?”
Caller: “By Highmore. Highmore. And it was in the middle of the road.”
The location remains under dispute. A South Dakota Highway Patrol report states that Ravnsborg’s car was actually on the north shoulder when he struck Boever.
The crash site is on the west edge of town. A convenience store is nearby, as are a gas station, a machinery business, and a state Department of Transportation shop. All have lights that are on all night, so the fatal crash didn’t happen in the darkness of a prairie night.
“I’ve driven the highway in the middle of the night many times since Joe's death,” Nemec told The Daily Beast. “The area between two reflector posts is lit up from your headlights bright enough to see a mouse running across the road.”
The speed limit increases to 65 mph a few feet from where Ravnsborg struck Boever, who was apparently walking back to town. He had driven his pickup off the road earlier in the evening—the cause will never be known—and struck a large round bale in the ditch.
Boever, 55, who had worked in nursing homes and a grocery store and as a farm hand, called his cousin and friend Victor Nemec, who lives nearby and came to pick him up. They left and planned to return in the morning to repair and retrieve the truck.
A few hours later, for some reason, Boever decided to walk to his pickup, carrying a light. As he returned, and just a minute or two before he would have turned off Highway 14 to walk down Iowa Avenue, Highmore’s wide main thoroughfare, he was struck and killed.
That’s when things got weird.
After Ravnsborg called 911, Hyde County Sheriff Mike Volek, who lives at a nearby rural address, responded. Ravnsborg claims he didn’t know what he struck, but the dispatcher suggested it could have been a deer. They are common sights in the countryside, and vehicle-on-deer crashes are regular events.
Ravnsborg, 44, said he used the flashlight app on his cellphone but could not find the object he had struck. His car was not drivable, with the passenger side front and the windshield extensively damaged.
At the crash scene, tire marks clearly showed Ravnsborg’s car had moved sharply to the north and come to a stop 100 feet or less from where Boever’s body, later identified by his cousins, was discovered.
It’s unclear how hard Volek, who has refused to speak to the media, looked for the deer or whatever the attorney general had struck. A tow truck was called, and the driver removed the 2011 Ford Taurus, which was Ravnsborg’s personal car.
While all this activity was underway, Boever’s body was on the side of the road on the north shoulder, inches from the westbound lane. There it would remain for approximately 10 hours.
Was he killed immediately? Could help have been summoned? Those are just two of the unanswered questions surrounding this case.
Ravsnborg had been in Redfield, a small town 70 miles away, where he had appeared at a GOP gathering. He was returning home to Pierre, the state capital, when he hit Boever.
Ravnsborg said he had not consumed any alcohol that day. The manager of Rooster’s Bar & Grill in Redfield, where the event had been held, declined to answer this reporter in September when asked if Ravnsborg had been served a drink, saying it was “an open investigation.”
Volek did not give Ravnsborg a blood-alcohol test. In fact, he loaned the attorney general, whom he knew, his private car so he could drive home to Pierre.
Then another truly bizarre twist unfolded.
Early Sept. 13, Ravnsborg was returning the sheriff’s car, accompanied by Tim Bormann, his chief of staff and a former Faulk County state’s attorney, in another vehicle. Ravnsborg said he spotted a body on the side of the road and alerted the sheriff.
“I discovered the body of Mr. Boever in the grass just off the roadway,” Ravnsborg said in a statement released Sept. 14. “It was apparent that he was dead,” he added.
At this point, around 15 hours after the accident, Ravnsborg did have a blood test, which showed no sign of alcohol.
The crash was investigated by the South Dakota Highway Patrol, which is under state Secretary of Public Safety Craig Price’s supervision, with assistance from other law enforcement agencies.
‘A minute either way’
Price said evidence indicates Ravnsborg was distracted, but he has not provided details. Was he on the phone? Was he adjusting his radio? Why did he not see Boever, who was dressed in dark clothing?
The attorney general has a history of driving offenses, including six speeding tickets in South Dakota and two in Iowa between 2014 and 2018. He also was cited for a seat belt violation and driving without a proper muffler and exhaust system. In all cases, he pleaded guilty and paid small fines.
Ravnsborg—a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves who has served 24 years in uniform—sought the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in 2014. He lost to former Gov. Mike Rounds, who was elected to his second term in the Senate in November.
Deaver said while Ravnsborg has been through difficult situations before, he has been deeply impacted by this.
“Absolutely, I talk to him on a very regular basis,” he said in January. “This is tough on him personally, and he certainly feels for the family and for the public and wants it to be concluded.”
Nick Nemec said he fears Boever has been forgotten in all the discussion about Ravnsborg.
“I’m afraid so. He was a mild-mannered guy and often overlooked in life,” he said last month. “Although I was pleased to have many people come forward to me who said he was kind to them at his grocery store job, and always remembered their name and details.”
To Nemec’s mind, the fatal crash could have so easily been avoided.
“Yeah, a minute either way would have made the difference,” he said, wondering what Boever might have done differently. “Had he stopped to take a leak by a ditch bale, the AG would have missed him. He might have driven in the ditch 100 yards before Joe got there—and Joe would have helped him get out of the ditch.”
The Nemecs, both area farmers, said they just want the truth to emerge. Nick, a former Democratic state legislator and Public Utility Commission candidate, has another wish.
“I will do all I can to try to ensure Jason Ravnsborg is never elected to another public office,” he said.