SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — For South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg spending Saturday driving hundreds of miles on the state’s roads was not unusual. But by this past Sunday, it was clear that his latest trip was anything but routine: An investigation was underway that would reveal he struck and killed a man walking along a rural stretch of highway.
Ravnsborg has said that he thought he had hit a large animal while driving home to Pierre from a Republican fundraiser some 110 miles (180 kilometers) away in Redfield. He said he realized he killed a man only after returning to the site the next morning.
Until then, Ravnsborg had made few waves as the state’s top law enforcement officer, garnering a reputation as a quiet prosecutor, but a relentless campaigner who developed personal connections in the state’s Republican Party.
Ravnsborg crisscrossed South Dakota in his Ford Taurus, attending what are often small events known as Lincoln Day Dinners. He made the drive Saturday even though he does not face reelection for two years. Photos posted on the Spink County Republican Party’s Facebook page show no more than two dozen people at Rooster’s Bar & Grill.
It was Ravnsborg’s dutiful attendance of these events that propelled him from being a GOP outsider to winning the party’s nomination for attorney general, said Republican state Sen. Lance Russell, who ran against him in 2018. Ravnsborg had mounted an unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 2014, garnering just over 2,000 votes in the primary. But South Dakota political parties decide their candidates for attorney general at conventions, meaning they gather support from party stalwarts.
Ravnsborg shaped his tough-on-crime pitch around repealing a program called presumptive probation, which gives nearly automatic probation to certain nonviolent, lower-level felonies, including drug possession.
Since 2014, he also accumulated eight traffic tickets, including six speeding tickets in different counties. But he was not in danger of losing his driver’s license, and he has had no tickets since taking office in 2019.
Ravnsborg has been unsuccessful in his attack on presumptive probation, failing to get legislators to buy in and clashing with the governor on how much it would increase costs in the prison system.
The attorney general’s office has often served as a springboard for gubernatorial hopefuls. But Ravnsborg has so far taken a quieter approach than his predecessor, Marty Jackley, who made headlines by taking on a Native American tribe’s plan for a marijuana resort and arguing another case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“He’s pretty vanilla,” Michael Card, a political science professor at the University of South Dakota, said of Ravnsborg.
Card said that instead of bringing flash to the office, Ravnsborg seems to have brought the order of an administrator — something Card attributed to Ravnsborg’s military experience. Ravnsborg is an Army veteran who currently serves in the Army Reserves.
As attorney general, he overhauled the state’s missing persons database and worked to develop rapport with Native American tribes.
Details were slow to emerge about what happened Saturday night. Ravnsborg finally released a statement late Monday,giving his account of what happened along a stretch of U.S. Highway 14 with no lighting.
Running into a deer on a two-lane highway in the state is not unusual. State Farm Insurance ranked South Dakota as one of the most dangerous states for animal collisions.
But Card said it was that familiarity with the experience of colliding with a deer that has left many asking how the attorney general could hit a person and not realize it.
“If this is people’s lived experience, then he may be convicted in the court of public opinion,” Card said. “If they form a negative opinion collectively, he may not be able to get past this.”
Republican Gov. Kristi Noem promised a transparent investigation Tuesday, saying she was bringing in outside investigators. A crash reconstruction expert from Wyoming and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation are helping the state Highway Patrol with the investigation. Noem gave no timeline on when details would be released.
For the family of the man killed, 55-year-old Joseph Boever, it has already been too long. Boever’s cousin Nick Nemec said relatives believe Boever was walking on the highway shoulder, toward his truck that had crashed earlier that same night.
“Cousin was just a quiet, meek, mild guy who minded his own business,” Nemec said. “He grew jade plants and would give jade plants for gifts.”
Boever had struggled with a bipolar disorder and worked irregularly as a nurse’s assistant, said Victor Nemec, another cousin. Though in recent days, when the two cousins worked together on Victor Nemec’s farm, Boever had been doing well.
Nemec believed Boever had never met or interacted with the attorney general.