By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A Dunn County judge has ordered a competency evaluation for a 21-year-old Cadott man accused of killing two people and injuring six others in an accident on I-94 near Elk Mound last October.
Judge Rod Smeltzer ordered the competency evaluation during a hearing in Dunn County Circuit Court March 2 for Michael Sonnentag at the request of Sonnentag’s attorney, Harry Hertel, and Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf.
Hertel told the court he had received all of Sonnentag’s Individual Education Plans (IEPs) from high school and had given them to Nodolf’s office.
Sonnentag was left out of the decision-making process during his high school education, and those decisions were made by parents, teachers and counselors, he said.
Sonnentag has a minimal understanding of court processes, the role of the prosecutor, the role of his defense attorney and the role of the jury, Hertel said.
Sonnentag understands some of the legal process, but some of the understanding “is not strong,” he said.
Hertel said he was concerned about Sonnentag’s learning disability and his ability to understand the legal process to assist in his own defense.
At a court hearing several weeks ago when Hertel was unable to attend because of a medical condition, Judge Smeltzer said that he was not aware of anything that might be a basis for a competency hearing.
At the March 2 court hearing, Judge Smeltzer noted that Sonnentag had graduated from high school and that he had participated in athletics in high school, and also noted that Sonnentag had gone to state for wrestling through his junior year.
Sonnentag is able to follow instructions and apply what he has learned and is able to comprehend the complexities of competing in athletics, Judge Smeltzer said.
Many defendants — and even some attorneys — do not have a perfect understanding of the legal system, he said.
If the defendant cannot comprehend his Miranda rights, how can he comprehend and assist in his own defense? Nodolf asked.
Given the seriousness of the situation and the seriousness of the consequences, Sonnentag should have a competency evaluation, she said.
Part of an attorney’s job is to explain the legal procedures and the legal system to help their clients understand, Judge Smeltzer said.
Judge Smeltzer also said, however, that he would “err on the side of caution” and would order a competency evaluation to determine if Sonnentag is competent to assist in his own defense.
Judge Smeltzer cancelled a March 16 motion hearing for Sonnentag and scheduled a competency hearing for April 13.
Sonnentag is charged with two felony counts of hit and run involving death, two felony counts of first degree recklessly endangering safety, along with four misdemeanor counts of causing injury while operating a vehicle while under the influence, and one count of misdemeanor bail jumping.
According to the criminal complaint, the Dunn County communications center received reports of a accident on I-94 in the Town of Elk Mound on October 11 at around 2:40 a.m.
When deputies arrived on the scene, they observed a vehicle that had rolled numerous times and was upside-down in the treeline.
Witnesses said they had tried to flag down the vehicle that caused the accident, but car drove around them.
Two women who were thrown from the van were killed, and six others in the van were injured.
Dunn County deputies continued searching for Sonnentag, and around 6:42 a.m. that day, found him walking not far from the Dunn County judicial center on Stokke Parkway in Menomonie.
When deputies asked how Sonnentag had left the scene of the accident, he said he had exited I-94 near Shooter’s just west of Elk Mound.
A cash bail of $50,000 was set October 13, but bail was modified to $20,000 cash following the preliminary hearing on October 29. As a condition of bail, Sonnentag was ordered to consume no alcohol and to maintain residence with his father in Stanley.
A jury trial in the case is scheduled in Dunn County Circuit Court May 18 through May 21.