Lutheran Bishop Bruce Burnside charged in fatal crash

2013-04-10T12:34:00Z Lutheran Bishop Bruce Burnside charged in fatal crashDOUG ERICKSON | Wisconsin State Journal | derickson@madison.com | 608-252-6149 madison.com

Lutheran Bishop Bruce Burnside was driving drunk Sunday when he struck and killed a runner in Sun Prairie, then fled the scene and was corralled by citizens at a nearby gas station until police arrived, prosecutors alleged Wednesday in Dane County Circuit Court.

He had a preliminary breath test reading of 0.128 percent, according to a criminal complaint. The legal limit for driving in Wisconsin is 0.08 percent.

Burnside, 59, who oversees 145 area congregations as bishop of the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), was formally charged Wednesday with three felonies and one misdemeanor.

The felonies are homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle and hit-and-run causing death.

Burnside initially denied to a police officer that he had been drinking, the complaint states. His attorney, John Hyland, declined to comment on Burnside's whereabouts leading up to the crash.

Burnside allegedly drove over a median with his sport-utility vehicle and struck a lamppost before hitting Maureen Mengelt, 52, of Sun Prairie, according to the criminal complaint. The married mother of three was jogging along Windsor Street in Sun Prairie where it crosses the bottom of the northbound off-ramp of Highway 151 when she was struck.

A witness told police Burnside’s vehicle never braked after hitting Mengelt, according to the complaint. Burnside also faces a misdemeanor hit-and-run charge for allegedly striking another vehicle after hitting Mengelt.

At his initial court appearance Wednesday, Burnside conveyed little emotion, appearing somewhat placid and glassy-eyed. He occasionally glanced at three of his six children who were at the hearing.

Speaking in court, Hyland said it was "appropriate to note sympathy and condolences publicly on my behalf and my client's behalf." Hyland said his client had been segregated while in jail because of the level of publicity in the case and concerns for Burnside's safety "with the rest of the (jail) population."

At the time of the crash, Burnside was headed from Madison to Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Sun Prairie, where he was to preside over a 3 p.m. church ceremony. Police were called to the crash site at 2:48 p.m.

According to witness accounts, Burnside came down the Highway 151 off ramp, ran onto gravel on the ramp's right side, and then drove over a median at the end of the ramp as he tried to recover. After hitting a lamp post and Mengelt, witnesses said he traveled through the intersection with Windsor Street (Highway 19), struck another vehicle, and then drove east in the westbound lane of Windsor Street.

He took the first right, then drove into Kelley's Market, a Mobil gas station at 1010 Davidson Drive. Emily Thompson, an assistant Dane County district attorney, said in court Wednesday that Burnside drove behind the gas station to where the car wash is located. An oil trail from his SUV shows he backed up, went over a curb, and ended up back in the gas station parking lot, she said.

"I don't know where he was going when he left the scene of that crash," Thompson said. "Clearly, there was no effort to stay there. There was no effort to go back."

Thompson said it is her understanding that Burnside "was stopped at that gas station by citizens who would not let him leave, though I am not sure if he was attempting to leave."

When an officer approached him at the gas station, Burnside told her he had been running late for a church ceremony and was fiddling with his radio and GPS unit at the time of the crash.

“I was looking at my radio and adjusting,” Burnside is quoted in the complaint as telling the officer. “I just want to know if the woman is OK.”

The complaint says Burnside's SUV "sustained heavy front-end damage." Its back window was smashed out, the roof was partially collapsed, and the front bumper was missing.

A witness who was driving behind Burnside on Highway 151 told police Burnside’s SUV was traveling erratically prior to the crash. The vehicle would "cross over the rumble strip several times on the side of the road and then would quickly and carelessly swerve back onto the highway," the witness told police, according to the complaint.

Court Commissioner Todd Meurer set a cash bail Wednesday of $150,000. However, it changes to a signature bond with no cash component as of Thursday morning, as long as Burnside reports to the Dane County Bail Monitoring Program and enters an in-patient alcohol-treatment program.

Burnside's office in Madison said Wednesday Burnside remains bishop of the 13-county synod. It had no comment on the charges.

Megan Mengelt, 19, a UW-Madison student and the oldest of Maureen Mengelt's three children, said the family is encouraging people to wear tennis shoes to her mother's visitation Friday, in honor of her mother's passion for running. The visitation is from 4 to 8 p.m. at Cress Funeral Home, 1310 Emerald Terrace, in Sun Prairie.

The family has set up the Maureen Mengelt Memorial Fund, with donations to benefit band and orchestra programs in the Sun Prairie School District. Donations can be sent to 910 Eddington Drive, Sun Prairie, Wis. 53590.

 

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