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Lenient sentence for semi driver charged in fatal crash

A semi truck driver who caused a fatal accident by doing a U-turn on Highway 34 was given an unusually lenient sentence Monday.

Ahmed Haji Ridhwani, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, appeared in Becker County District Court before District Judge Mark Hansen.

He was charged with a serious felony -- criminal vehicular homicide, leaving the scene of an accident -- for his role in a fatal car-semi crash on Feb. 5 that killed Ted Schaum of rural Detroit Lakes.

State sentencing guidelines call for a four-year prison term, but Ridhwani was given 10 years probation and a $1,000 fine as part of a plea agreement that had the blessing of Schaum's surviving loved ones, including a son who attended the hearing, David Schaum of Osage.

Ridhwani, with only 30 days of experience behind the wheel of a big rig, was hauling a load of frozen food and was headed to Park Rapids when he realized he was running on empty, according to a letter from him that was read in court by his attorney.

Ridhwani was in court Monday, but asked his attorney to read the letter, in which he apologized to Schaum's family.

Unfamiliar with Minnesota winters and on unfamiliar territory, he attempted to do a U-turn with his semi on Highway 34, about seven miles east of Detroit Lakes, presumably to re-fuel.

He was blocking both lanes of the highway when the passenger side of the trailer was hit by a car driven by Schaum, who lived on Island Lake. Schaum died in a Fargo hospital.

Ridhwani was not injured, but two witnesses saw him drive away from the accident scene. Authorities later located him about 10 miles away parked with his lights out near Northeast Pickerel Lake Road.

Ridhwani graduated from Franklin Heights High School in Columbus, Ohio. He has family there and in the Twin Cities, and some 15 extended family members -- women in colorful headscarves and long dresses, men in suits, sweaters and dress shirts, were in court to show their support for him on Monday.

The County Attorney's Office and judge agreed to the plea bargain because, as Hansen told Ridhwani, "you are remorseful and this was not an intentional crime." Ridhwani had not been using alcohol or illegal drugs and although "the situation involved very bad judgment on your part as far as driving a vehicle, there was no intent to harm others," the judge told him.

Ridhwani has no prior criminal history, is slated to lose his job and his commercial trucker's license, has a great deal of family support, and so poses "little risk to the community," Hansen said.

Judge Hansen stayed imposition of sentence for 10 years and placed him on supervised probation.

The judge wanted to stray from the plea agreement and stay execution of sentence, giving Ridhwani a felony conviction. But after confirming that the move would have resulted in Ridhwani being deported, Hansen opted to stay within the boundaries of the plea agreement and stay imposition of sentence.

He was ordered to be law abiding and sentenced to time served in jail -- he was released with no additional jail time imposed.

He was fined $1,000 plus court fees and ordered to pay $6,075 to the Minnesota crime victim's reparation board and another $2,612 reparations to Schaum's family.

He has 30 days to contest the $6,075 reparations payment, the imposition of which had caught his attorney unawares.