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Ronald Hammersmith

Fargo assault victim escaped drowning at age 3

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Fargo assault victim escaped drowning at age 3
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

FARGO - Ronald Hammersmith barely escaped death as a toddler almost 45 years ago.

But on Sunday, emergency medical attention couldn't save the 47-year-old Fargo man after he was assaulted while walking home early that morning.

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While police on Tuesday released new details of their investigation into Hammersmith's death, the man's family remembered him as a giving man and old news stories tell of his harrowing escape from death at a young age.

In July 1965, a 3-year-old Hammersmith was found floating facedown in Lake Ashtabula, near Valley City, N.D., when Bayshore Resort owner George Freadhoff spotted him.

"He had on a little plaid jacket that kind of tended to float, otherwise we would have never found him," Freadhoff said Tuesday.

Freadhoff had been walking along a trail when he heard Hammersmith's mother ask where "Ronnie" was.

"He ran down there and leapt in," Freadoff's wife, Darlene, said of her husband, adding that her husband pulled an unconscious Hammersmith from the water and began performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the boy.

Hammersmith was cold and blue, but began to exhale within about five minutes.

In another five minutes, he "was beginning to draw breaths on his own," according to a July 12, 1965, article in the Valley City Times-Record.

Hammersmith was hospitalized for some time after the 1965 incident, which caused brain damage, said Neil Swenson, Hammersmith's cousin.

"If you talked to him you couldn't really tell that he had brain damage or anything," Swenson said, adding Hammersmith had to learn how to walk and talk all over again after the accident. "He was just so trusting, too trusting, trusting to a fault where someone could easily take advantage of his good nature."

Only a year apart, Swenson and Hammersmith often horsed around while visiting their grandmother in Dazey, N.D. But Swenson said he knew he had to be careful around Hammersmith, who suffered from a bleeding disorder known as von Willebrand disease.

"We could never really play very rough," Swenson said, recalling an incident when Hammersmith bit the inside of his cheek and had to be rushed to a hospital. "If he got cut, he had to go to the doctor."

Hammersmith was walking home from downtown Fargo about 2:30 a.m. Sunday when he was attacked between the 200 and 400 blocks of 10th Street South in what Fargo Police Lt. Pat Claus said "appears to have been a random, chance encounter."

Authorities initially responding to the Sunday morning assault involving Hammersmith found him conscious and alert with what appeared to be non-life-threatening injuries, Claus said Tuesday.

Hammersmith suffered injuries to his head by being struck, falling to the ground or a combination of the two, Claus said, declining to further discuss the man's injuries.

Authorities were notified around 3:20 p.m. Sunday afternoon that Hammersmith's condition had deteriorated and he was not expected to live. Claus would not say whether a medical condition was related to the change.

An autopsy is scheduled today in Bismarck.

Hammersmith's family took him off life support at 10:30 p.m. Monday, according to a family statement. Police were notified of Hammersmith's death about 6 a.m. Tuesday, Sgt. Mark Lykken said.

"Hammersmith was an organ donor whose heart, liver, pancreas and kidneys were donated to waiting recipients," according to a family statement released Tuesday. "Ron always gave to others. By giving the gift of organ donation, his legacy lives on."

Authorities are still investigating and have not yet determined a motive, Claus said.

Claus said it does not appear a weapon was used in the assault and authorities are investigating whether Hammersmith's wallet, cash inside the wallet and cell phone were stolen.

Police have interviewed a 20-year-old Fargo man who is a suspect in the case, but he has not been arrested, Claus said, adding the suspect has been cooperative.

"At the present time, there is no risk to public safety," said Fargo Police Chief Keith Ternes.

Claus, head of the department's Investigative Division, added that police have a large crime scene to go through, additional interviews to conduct and a lot of evidence to process.

Hammersmith had a hard life, but Swenson said he never let anything get him down and he could not recall ever hearing him say anything bad about anybody else.

"He'd go out of his way for a total stranger," Swenson said. "It's pretty sickening that somebody would victimize someone like Ron."

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