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North Dakota man charged in DUI crash that killed sugar beet leader recently won county commission seat

Questions have arisen about whether Christopher Thompson, who is charged with vehicular homicide, will take his seat on the Walsh County Commission in northeast North Dakota.

A man in a white Titleist cap and a maroon sweatshirt looks at the camera. He has strawberry blonde hair.
Christopher Thompson.
Photo courtesy of Sugarbeet Research and Education Board
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GRAFTON, N.D. — A Grafton man accused of driving drunk and killing an executive of a Red River Valley sugar beet group was recently elected to the Walsh County Commission in northeast North Dakota.

Christopher Ryan Thompson, 46, was one of three candidates elected Nov. 8 to the county board, according to unofficial results.

Just days after the election, he was the driver of a 2022 GMC Yukon when it hit a tree Saturday night, Nov. 12, about 4 miles east of Edinburg, North Dakota, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

The crash killed 48-year-old Jason Schatzke of Wheatland, North Dakota. Schatzke was treasurer of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association.

Six people, including Schatzke and Thompson, were in the vehicle at the time of the crash. Schatzke was the only person in the vehicle who did not have a seat belt on, the Highway Patrol said. Passenger Rodney Olson, 57, of Halstad, Minnesota, suffered minor injuries.

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Schatzkeagweek.jpg
Jason Schatzke died in a vehicle crash. He was treasurer of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association. Photo taken May 10, 2022, in Wheatland, North Dakota.
Emily Beal / Agweek

Thompson was arrested and booked into the Walsh County Jail. He was charged Monday in Walsh County District Court with driving under the influence vehicular homicide and causing an injury while driving under the influence, both felonies.

He faces a maximum of 25 years in prison if convicted of both charges.

Thompson was released from jail Monday after posting a $5,000 cash bond. He declined to comment for this story.

Walsh County District Judge Barbara Whelan has recused herself from the case. Judge Kari Agotness, who is based in Pembina County, will take over.

Walsh County State’s Attorney Kelley Riley Cole declined comment on the case, but she told The Forum she plans to ask another attorney to prosecute the case since she knows Thompson.

Harrison Weber, executive director of the Red River Valley Sugarbeet Growers Association, also declined to comment out of respect for Schatzke and others involved in the crash. His organization represents roughly 2,700 sugar beet growers in North Dakota and Minnesota who cooperatively own American Crystal Sugar Co.

With 17.65% of the vote, Thompson took third in a field of six candidates in the race for three Walsh County Commission seats. He was a newcomer in the race.

Commissioner Dennis Skorheim grabbed the most votes with 20.85%, followed in second by challenger Amy Suda with 18.17%.

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The three beat out incumbents Ernie Barta (16.98%) and Lawrence Burianek (16.58%). Challenger Bart Swanson took last with 9.48%.

The results haven’t been finalized. Thompson has 58 more votes than Barta and 93 more than Burianek.

Barta declined to comment on this story since the election hasn’t been canvassed. A message left for Burianek, who also serves as the commission chair, was not returned Tuesday.

If the results stand, Thompson, Skorheim and Suda would join Commissioners Karen Anderson and Kristi Brintnell on the Walsh County Commission for its first meeting on Dec. 6. North Dakota law doesn’t prevent a resident from serving on a county commission if they are convicted of a felony, North Dakota Association of Counties Executive Director Aaron Birst said.

If Thompson doesn’t resign, the commission or residents of Walsh County could ask for a recall election to remove him from office, Birst said. Gov. Doug Burgum also could remove Thompson from his seat if the governor finds he was “guilty of misconduct, malfeasance, crime in office, neglect of duty in office, or of habitual substance abuse or gross incompetency,” according to North Dakota law.

If Thompson resigns or is removed from office, the Walsh County Commission would then appoint his replacement. That successor would hold the office until the next general election in 2024.

Riley Cole said it is too early to comment on whether a recall election would be necessary since the general election results haven’t been finalized.

Thompson’s attorney, Todd Burianek, said he and his client haven’t discussed Thompson’s decision on whether he’ll keep his commission seat.

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“It’s a horrible situation for everybody,” Todd Burianek said of the crash. “One of Chris’ best friends died, and he feels awful about it.”

Thompson also is the vice president for the Minnesota and North Dakota Sugarbeet and Education Board, a group of sugar beet farmers who promote research, education and sugar beet production.

Eric Erdman, who serves as the president of the Sugarbeet Research and Education Board, did not return a message left by The Forum.

April Baumgarten joined The Forum in February 2019 as an investigative reporter. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, N.D., where her family raises Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at the University of Jamestown, N.D.
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