A split-second decision forever changed the lives of three young people in eastern South Dakota.
A high-speed chase over country roads on a summer evening of 2017 resulted in a horrific crash.
Three young people in the vehicle running from law enforcement all suffered broken necks.
The question about why the 23-year-old driver chose to take off rather than stop may never be fully answered. But the bigger question remains on why law enforcement chose to pursue the pickup truck with two passengers inside.
In tonight’s KELOLAND News investigation, Angela Kennecke has been investigating this police pursuit and has uncovered things that simply don’t add up. And in a KELOLAND News exclusive, families of those injured are speaking out and asking how the chase was justified.
“She wanted to either work with children or the elderly,” Michelle Ten Eyck said.
19-year-old Morgan Ten Eyck was a nursing student who worked three jobs.
“He was very social, very active,” Verna Bourassa said.
23-year-old Tahlen Bourassa worked construction and loved to tinker with motor bikes.
On June 17, 2017, Tahlen, Morgan and another friend went out for the evening.
“She’s like,’Okay mom I’ve got to go. I’m going out for dinner, going to the races and I’m going to try to be home early.’ So we said,’ okay, baby have fun–love you!’ Hugs, kisses and out the door she went,” Michelle Ten Eyck said.
The three friends were in Tahlen’s Dodge pickup when they drove up this gravel road to where law enforcement had just broken up an underage drinking party at a vacant farmhouse.
The Moody County Sheriffs office, Highway Patrol, Flandreau City Police and Tribal Police had all responded to the call.
According to the Moody County Sheriff’s report obtained by KELOLAND Investigates, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribal Police Chief Rob Neuenfeldt and a Moody County Deputy in training, Logan Baldini, stepped out into the road in an attempt to stop Tahlen’s pickup.
Baldini says in the report that Tahlen did “stop for a brief second.” Chief Neuenfeldt began to give verbal commands but Tahlen hit the gas and struck Neuenfeldt with his bumper in the thigh, and knocked him down, before taking off.
At that point, the Highway Patrol began chasing the pickup, over several country roads, but lost site of the vehicle on 484th Avenue.
Tribal Police Chief Neuenfeldt got in his patrol car and Baldini, the deputy in training, jumped in the passenger seat and the two picked up the pursuit.
Neuenfeldt and Baldini continued to chase the pickup over a dozen more roads, coming to a stop at the intersection of Highway 13 and a gravel road, 229A.
As they pulled up to the vehicle, Baldini got out and ordered Tahlen to get out of his truck.
Instead he put the pickup in reverse and headed down 229A.
This is the dead end gravel road that Bourassa’s pickup came careening down during those early morning hours, eventually slamming into this fence post right over here.
When officers arrived on the scene they found that all three passengers were thrown from the vehicle and were unconscious. Morgan was lying near a tree, her shirt and shoes ripped off from the impact of the crash.
It’s blur, its’ a blur,” Michelle Ten Eyck said.
At 3:15 a.m. the Ten Eyck’s doorbell rang.
“She was involved in a car accident; that she got hurt really bad and they were life-flighting her to Sioux Falls,” MIchelle Ten Eyck said.
The Ten Eycks arrived at the emergency room to discover Morgan had swelling of her brain stem.
“It was horrible, it was horrible. She had blood and dirt all over her and a collar around her neck,” Michelle Ten Eyck said.
At the same time, an officer was knocking on the Bourassa’s door.
“And he told me there had been an accident and Tahlen was flown to Avera; by the time we got there he was being wheeled into ICU. He wasn’t expected to live,” Verna Bourassa said.
Tahlen also suffered a broken neck and brain injury.
The Ten Eycks were told their daughter should be placed in a coma center.
But the Ten Eycks were not about to give up on Morgan.
“But we could feel her. I could feel her. I could feel her soul. I know she’s coming back,” Michelle Ten Eyck said.
“Tahlen is a walking, talking miracle,” Verna Bourassa said.
Tahlen Bourassa: I remember waking up in the hospital months and months later.
Angela Kennecke: Do you remember anything about that night?
Tahlen Bourassa: No.
Angela Kennecke: Nothing at all?
Tahlen Bourassa: No, I don’t. It’s something I hope I’ll one day remember.
Tahlen’s brain injury has affected more than his memory. His mother told us he’s functioning at the level of an eight-year-old.
“He still makes poor decisions and requires 24-hour supervision,” Verna Bourassa said.
“I’ll pretty much never be able to do the things I used to be able to do,” Tahlen Bourassa said.
Morgan’s recovery has not been as dramatic. She is unable to speak and is confined to a wheelchair.
“I’m very angry. I’m angry any child can go out and it ends up like this. There is no rhyme or reason,” Michelle Ten Eyck said.
Because Tahlen can’t remember that day, he’s not able to explain why he ran. The toxicology report on all three people in the pickup showed no signs of drugs or alcohol.
Angela Kennecke: So what’s the need to chase him?
Verna Bourassa: I’m just going to say it–the last name Bourassa. He has been in trouble before.
Tahlen, a recovering meth addict, had served time for burglary. He was out of prison on extended release; wearing a GPS ankle bracelet at the time.
Angela Kennecke: He was afraid of going back, so he took off?
Verna Bourassa: Yes.
Angela Kennecke: Probably not a good decision?
Verna Bourassa: No it’s wasn’t. But the chase wasn’t a good thing either.The chase lasted too long. It was at dangerously high speeds. They were endangering the public. Plus they knew who he was by his ankle bracelet.
KELOLAND Investigates has learned Moody County Deputy in training Baldini was not certified law enforcement when he jumped into Tribal Police Chief Neuenfeldt’s car.
According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs law enforcement handbook, when a tribal officer is accompanied by civilian passengers, the officers may not engage in a pursuit.
The BIA also says a tribal officer is only allowed to purse a vehicle when he has probable cause those inside have committed a serious felony involving the use or threatened use of violence.
Tribal officers must end a pursuit if the safety of others outweigh the danger to the community, and there is potential for apprehending the suspect by other means. Remember Tahlen was wearing a department of corrections ankle bracelet.
The BIA says its officers should not become involved in another agency’s pursuit unless an outside agency is unable to assist. According to the law enforcement report on the incident, a Flandreau City police officer was just two miles way.
“At this point, I don’t think any chase is necessary, unless there is a 100 percent guarantee life or limb, I don’t t think a chase is necessary,” Tom Ten Ecyk said.
“They have to think, not only of the people they’re chasing, the passengers in the vehicle, the law enforcement that’s chasing them and the public that’s out there that could be hurt,” Verna Bourassa said.
In South Dakota there is no state law requiring law enforcement agencies to have pursuit polices in place. The Moody County Sheriff’s office’s pursuit policies are vague and on a case-by-case basis.
I called all law enforcement agencies involved. The tribal police chief is now a City of Flandreau officer. Our calls to Officer Rob Neuenfeldt were not returned. The Flandreau City police chief tells me his department didn’t chase anyone. The South Dakota Highway Patrol says it’s still investigating this chase from a year-and-a-half ago and refused to release its pursuit polices to us.
Law enforcement officials all refused on-camera interviews because of possible litigation by the families of those injured. The Moody County State’s Attorney told me no charges have been filed against Tahlen Bourassa for fleeing.
We’ve taken a deep dive into this issue online with a special web page, The Price of Pursuit that includes a story by KELOLAND’s Bob Mercer on South Dakota law, pursuit polices and open records, as well as lawsuits over police chases that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
Being severely injured as a passenger in the pickup was the first tragedy to hit Morgan Ten Eyck. The second was getting kicked out of a brain rehabilitation center. Friday night we bring you the next chapter of this story — Her family’s struggle to get the health care Morgan needs, despite the fact they have insurance through the military because her dad has served for more than 30 years.
Micah Roemen was the other passenger in Tahlen Bourassa’s pickup. He suffered a broken neck as well. But he declined an interview for this story.