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Charges refiled in fatal crash -- Family members of man killed say they are 'just looking for some closure'

Dan Horn

ADA, Minn. - For three years, Jennifer Horn has lived with the fact that her husband died in a crash his best friend survived.

Now, a jury will decide which of the two men was driving the night of Dec. 9, 2008.

Charges of criminal vehicular homicide were refiled this week in Norman County District Court against 32-year-old Bryan Paul Ness of Moorhead.

Ness faced similar charges in early 2010, filed by then-County Attorney Tom Opheim. However, just days before the trial was to begin last summer, County Attorney Susan Rantala Nelson, who took over the office in January, dismissed the case.

Her reason, as The Forum reported last month, was a "surprise" accident-reconstruction expert added to the defense witness list. Nelson said she had to evaluate how that testimony may affect the case.

On Wednesday, Ness was charged with two counts of criminal vehicular homicide and one count of criminal vehicular operation, each carrying up to 10 years in prison. He also faces a felony DWI charge and gross misdemeanor charges of DWI and driving with a canceled license.

His first court appearance is set for Dec. 28.

Horn said she's pleased and relieved Nelson decided to refile charges. Family members had been critical of Nelson for what they claimed was a lack of communication about the case, going so far as to demonstrate outside Nelson's office in protest.

"I guess we're just looking for some closure," Horn said Friday. "We want to know what happened that night."

Nelson believes the case can be proved, and she said it will be up to a jury to determine who was behind the wheel that night.

"Justice is not being denied the victim," she said.

Ness' attorney, Steven Light, previously told The Forum that he feels Ness was charged simply because his vehicle was involved and that new charges would be contested if filed. Light did not return a phone message Friday. Ness does not have a listed number.

"The evidence shows both of the people were ejected from the vehicle, and there's no way to prove who was driving at the time of the accident," Light was quoted as saying in a Nov. 6 Forum story.

According to Forum archives and the complaint:

Ness and Dan Horn had attended a concert by the rock band Disturbed that night in Grand Forks.

They were driving home in Ness' 2004 Honda Pilot when the SUV went off the road near Borup, landed in a field and rolled.

Both men were ejected from the vehicle. A passerby came upon the crash and called authorities at about 1:30 a.m.

Horn suffered a skull fracture that caused his death, the Ramsey County medical examiner found.

Ness was taken to a Fargo hospital, where a sheriff's deputy took a blood sample at about 3:50 a.m. Ness' blood alcohol concentration was 0.16 percent, twice the legal limit for driving, the complaint states.

Ness told the deputy he was driving the SUV back from Grand Forks, but in June 2009 he told the Norman County sheriff it was possible he was driving, the complaint states.

Ness also claims he was unconscious before the accident, but the first witness on the scene said Ness was walking and talking, though he appeared drunk, the complaint states.

Light said an accident reconstructionist would testify that Horn's injuries were consistent with him having been the driver. The complaint states that blood samples from the steering wheel and the driver's seat contain DNA from Ness and none from Horn.

Ness' driver's license was revoked in February 2008 because he had three under-the-influence offenses within 10 years, the complaint states.

Jennifer Horn said she cut off contact with Ness, who was a family friend and the godfather of her two oldest children, about two years ago because he was "switching his story back and forth, and I ­couldn't take hanging out with him anymore."

"We don't want anything bad to happen to Bryan," she said. "We just basically want him to get help and we want him to recognize that he did hurt the family."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528