GRAND FORKS — A minor hit-and-run incident in East Grand Forks, Minn., occurred just moments before a multi-vehicle collision in Grand Forks and involved the woman who Grand Forks police say caused the deadly crash.
Police believe Jenessa Kelley, 21, was the driver of the Buick Regal that caused both accidents, though the vehicle is registered to her passenger, Shelby Kotrba, 21, according to East Grand Forks Police Sgt. Dennis Robertson.
According to Police Chief Mike Hedlund, East Grand Forks Police officers were dispatched to DeMers Avenue at 12:24 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, for a report of a hit-and-run incident. Hedlund said that both vehicles were going west on DeMers when Kelley rear-ended another vehicle. Within minutes, Kelley was involved in the crash in downtown Grand Forks that resulted in her death as well as the death of two women from Fertile, Minn.
"This is a, relatively speaking, somewhat typical hit-and-run on this side (of the state line), that turned, obviously, dramatically different once it got to Grand Forks," Hedlund said.
In the East Grand Forks hit-and-run incident, Kelley appears to have struck one other vehicle multiple times, Hedlund said. There were no injuries reported.
The damaged vehicle pulled off to the side of the road, and Kelley continued into Grand Forks on DeMers. The scene of the Grand Forks accident is just a few blocks from the hit-and-run incident in East Grand Forks.
The five-car crash in downtown Grand Forks occurred shortly after 12:20 p.m. at the corner of DeMers Avenue and Fifth Street. According to Grand Forks police, Kelley, 21, of Crookston, Minn., was driving at a high rate of speed and in the center lane of DeMers when she struck a Chevrolet Impala in the center lane, then struck a Ford Explorer that was attempting to turn south onto Fifth Street, according to Grand Forks police.
Police say she then struck a Dodge Caravan; in the Caravan were Laura Van Erem, 52, and Nancy Sand, 72, of Fertile, Minn., both of whom died.
A juvenile passenger in the Caravan remains in Altru Hospital, as does the passenger of the Regal, identified by family members as Shelby Kotrba, of Thief River Falls, Minn. Kotrba is awake and lucid, according to her family. The condition of the juvenile in the Caravan is unknown.
The speed limit on that portion of DeMers is 30 mph.
Investigation could take weeks
The investigation into the East Grand Forks hit-and-run remains active, with information remaining limited. Hedlund is unsure how fast Kelley was going, but damage to the other vehicle appeared to be minor.
East Grand Forks police have not yet had a chance to speak with Kotrba, Hedlund said.
Grand Forks Police Lt. Travis Benson told Forum News Service Monday, Jan. 11, that physical evidence was discovered at the scene that “opened up” the possibility that the crash was alcohol-related, but the cause of the collision is still under investigation.
“It is entirely possible. There is evidence to suggest that's a possibility,” he said.
Social media conversations throughout the community also suggest that Kelley suffered some sort of medical emergency in the moments leading to the crash. Benson, however, said it’s too early to know for sure.
“So again, we can't say definitively whether this was alcohol, whether this was medical. ... We're worried that we might never know,” Benson said.
Grand Forks Police are still waiting for Kelley’s toxicology results. Autopsy results are not expected to be completed and made public for several weeks.
Benson said with so many factors, the investigation, which will include a full reconstruction of the crash, will likely take weeks. Details, such as how fast Kelley was going and why she was in the center lane, remain under investigation.
Since the crash, Kotrba, a teller at Border Bank in Thief River Falls, has undergone life-saving surgeries. Her grandmother, Marie Thorson Wiseth, told Forum News Service that doctors initially weren't sure Kotrba would pull through, and gave her about a 50/50 chance of making it out of surgery.
But on Monday, Wiseth said her family is hopeful. After being transferred to Sanford to undergo surgeries to repair injuries to her spine, arteries and brain, Kotrba on Monday morning was lucid and talking.
"As of this morning, she's holding her own," Wiseth said. "The doctors have been impressed. They had to do basically emergency surgery on her to save her life, which they weren't even sure she'd survive surgery, and everything seems to be coming along."
Wiseth said Kotrba was friends with Kelley. After Kelley picked up Kotrba, Wiseth said she thought they planned to meet with a third friend for a birthday celebration.
"She's the sweetest, most wonderful young gal you'd ever want to meet," Wiseth said of her granddaughter, through tears. "The community outpouring of love and concern and care is just truly amazing."
The outpouring for support for the victims has included a GoFundMe fundraiser for Kotrba, which, as of Monday afternoon, had raised $14,100 from 190 donors out of a $15,000 goal. All proceeds from the GoFundMe will go to the Shelby Kotrba Benefit Fund registered through Dakota Heritage Bank in Red Lake Falls.
As details of the investigation continued to unfold, Wiseth implored social media users not to share unverified claims.
"We are dealing with this, and we're just devastated," she said. "That's all I can say."