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One year later: Crash victim’s family still waiting for answers

Posted: Monday, Oct 1st, 2012

Clockwise from top right, members of the Schroeder family in this 1996 photo are daughters Staci, Nicki and Jaime, Jim Schroeder, and his wife, Sherry. / Jim cuddles with his grandchild. Schroeder’s daughters say the family still has unanswered questions about their father’s death, and they’re working to tell his story and to change a law that let the man charged in Jim’s death go free. Courtesy photos

• Daughters seek to honor their dad, amend law that kept his case from going to trial

BROOKINGS – When Jim Schroeder’s family heard from Clyde Calhoon, Brookings County state’s attorney, that the man who they believe killed their father would go free, they feared they’d never see him or his family again – and that they’d never know why their father had died.

So Staci Amundson, Schroeder’s oldest daughter, asked if they could yell things at defendant Jon Auer as he left the Brookings courthouse on June 5 of this year. Calhoon said the family had a right to do so while on public property.

They did, but they didn’t get the response they wanted, one of acknowledgement from Auer or his family of what he had done. They got no response at all.

Now, a little more than a year after Schroeder’s death, his family is still craving answers.

What happened to Jim Schroeder

The family is not sure where Schroeder was going on the morning of Sept. 9, 2011, when his pickup met Auer’s near the intersection of Sixth Street and Wilson Avenue in Brookings. Witnesses said Auer was traveling very fast when his truck struck Schroeder’s, nearly head-on.

Schroeder, 67, was ejected from the vehicle. Witnesses said Auer, 39 at the time, then took Schroeder’s own belt and began hitting him in the head with its buckle while saying “Kill. Die.” A female witness said Auer chased her away when she tried to help Schroeder. When police came, Auer attempted to attack them and had to be subdued with a stun gun, officers reported.

Schroeder was alert after the accident and, according to what Staci has read in police reports, was asking someone to keep Auer from hitting him and crying out that he couldn’t breathe. An ambulance transported Schroeder to the hospital, where he was later pronounced dead from a torn aorta.

A dry wit and sacrificial love

Jim Schroeder’s family includes his widow, Sherry; oldest daughter Staci and her husband, Jeremy Amundson; second daughter Nicki Bell and husband Ryan; youngest daughter Jaime Duba and husband Daniel; eight grandchildren and a baby great-granddaughter. His daughters describe Jim as having a sarcastic sense of humor and a love for his family and the people around him.

“He was old-school, you know – you work hard and take care of your family. He was a Vietnam vet,” Staci said.

“A straight-shooter,” Jeremy added. “If you were making a mistake he’d ask ya, ‘Why are you being such a – what was the keyword? – a doofus.’ If he liked you, he’d call you a doofus.”

Staci added, “I’m sure some of the things we did, Dad was horrified, but he would just smile and say, ‘Those are my girls!’”

Jim was thoughtful and giving, they said. If he was sick and in the hospital, he’d be making the nurses laugh. Once, Jim was hospitalized in North Dakota. When he recovered he sent the nurses there gift baskets for taking such good care of him.

“He just did nice stuff like that all the time,” Jaime said. “He was just always doing little stuff like that. In high school he made it to every single one of my sports activities; I don’t remember him ever missing.”

“The best dad you could ever have,” Nicki added. “Since I was little, he’d always been there. And a very giving man – he would always want to give to somebody else and he would suffer before anybody else would.”

Schroeder was also a faithful employee, putting in about 40 years as a mechanical specialist for the company that is now Northern Border Pipeline Co. As a younger man, he served four years in the U.S. Navy, including a tour in Vietnam.

Life, one year later

“Every single one of our lives is completely different since he died,” Jaime said.

She and Daniel had become engaged a few months before Jim died; they were planning a wedding for this June. Instead, they essentially eloped because her dad wouldn’t be there to walk her down the aisle. They now live in Ethan, and Nicki continues to live in Montana. Sherry left Brookings this past year to live a block from Staci’s family in Sioux Falls.

Nicki sought help from a psychologist after her father’s death, but she said he couldn’t help.

“They just don’t know what to say,” Nicki said. “So, it’s just really hard, and I try to live my life as best I can to honor my dad.”

Staci said her youngest daughter has autism, and she and her grandpa were buddies. She, especially, is missing him.

“She cries all the time still. She says she wants to run out into the street and get hit by a car so she can be in Heaven with Grandpa,” Staci said. “It’s just been really, really hard on everybody, because I think Dad was kind of our glue.”

And after 40 years of marriage, adjusting to life without Jim isn’t happening quickly for Sherry.

“I think all of us kind of put on a brave front, but she has her moments,” Staci said. “She says the hardest part is coming home to the quiet emptiness. She says once she gets the lights on and the TV going … But she’ll be like, ‘Oh, I made it a year without him,’ and she’s like, ‘Now how many more years do I have to go without him?’

Still questions

For his family, Jim Schroeder’s death remains cloaked in mystery. His daughters say they don’t know how to move on without first getting some answers.

Until after Jim’s funeral, the family believed he was killed in a simple car accident. It was by reading the newspaper and receiving hesitant questions from friends that they came to understand what had really happened.

They called Brookings police and were given more information via a teleconference. They’ve scoured the police and hospital reports from that day and have seen photos from the scene.

But they have never been able to talk with Auer or his family. The Schroeders believe Jon is living with his parents in Spearfish. They only know that two psychiatrists and a psychologist agree he did not know right from wrong at the time of the crash.

“We just want to know why,” Staci said. “He sped through town that day – why my dad’s truck?

“People’s minds can be dangerous things, and we just imagine all this stuff. And, until we hear out of his mouth what he did – we want him to acknowledge what he did. We would like for him to apologize or at least show some kind of remorse,” she said of Auer. “He needs to be accountable for what he did. I don’t know if he’s trying to live in denial or think it’s just all going to go away, but he’s continuing to hurt our family.”

“They don’t want to talk to us,” Jaime said of the Auer family. “If he was really sick, he was really sick. That doesn’t excuse him killing my dad, but at least we would understand.”

The Dr. Phil Show has agreed to take up the Shroeder’s story, if Auer or someone speaking on his behalf will appear on the show with them. Just Thursday, the family said someone involved with the case has agreed to go on the show.

Changing the law

All charges against Auer were dropped this June, when doctors agreed he was unable able to tell right from wrong at the time of the crash. Calhoon said then that a person who’s found to be insane at the time of an offense cannot be held criminally responsible.

They don’t want to trample on the rights of people with mental illness, the Amundsons said, noting that their own daughter has been diagnosed with mental illness. But, they want the law to dictate that the person who killed someone else while insane must receive psychiatric treatment, be held accountable for taking his medication and possibly lose his driver’s license.

The law is a well-established one, and they’re not sure where to begin but are looking into it. And, Nicki added, they hope to name the new law after Jim.

“We’re trying to get our story out there to change the law and just so other people don’t have to go through this,” Jaime said. “It was the most horrifying thing my family has ever gone through, and it felt like we got slapped in the face again when he (Auer) went free.”

Contact Charis Prunty at cprunty-@brookingsregister.com.

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