Man sentenced to 45 years in SD trooper attack

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RAPID CITY, S.D. -

The latest on court proceedings for the four people charged with assaulting South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Zachary Bader in October 2015. DETAILS OF THE ASSAULT


Photo Courtesy: GoFundMe page for Zac Bader


March 12, 2018

Donald Willingham, 36, has been sentenced to 45 years and ordered to pay a $60,000 fine.

Willingham's sentence and fine reflects several charges for the October 2015 attack on South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Zachary Bader.

Those charges include: attempted murder, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, possession of a controlled substance, and commission of a felony with a firearm.

The controlled substance was marijuana.

Willingham has already served a little over 2 years of his sentence, which will be credit toward his 45-year sentence. His sentencing is broken down below:

  • Possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute = 15 years (concurrent)
  • Possession of a controlled substance = 15 years (concurrent)
  • Commission of a felony with a firearm = 5 years (consecutive)
  • Aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer = 25 years (concurrent)
  • Attempted murder = 25 years (concurrent) 

After Willingham was sentenced, Bader and his family reflected upon the trial and its impact on Rapid City. Bader said the case gathered community support for law enforcement. 

"There wasn’t a whole lot of support for law enforcement back in 2015," said Bader. "Since this event, the community has really opened up toward law enforcement. Not only myself, but law enforcement in the community here."

Bader's mother, Linda Mohr said Willimgham should have received a longer sentence, but she was still pleased with the outcome. 

"He’ll waste away screwed up in the pen so I'm not worried," Mohr said.

Willingham will be eligible for parole in about 20 years. 

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Dec. 21, 2017, 5:40 p.m.

Donald Willingham has been found guilty of attempted murder, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, possession of a controlled substance, and commission of a felony with a firearm.

The day began with Willingham's attorney calling one more witness - a woman who called 911 to say she saw three men kicking a state trooper on Oct. 24, 2015.

Pennington County State's Attorney Mark Vargo called the case a simple one in his closing argument, in which the defendant decided to cause bodily harm to a police officer.

The defense said Willingham was defending his girlfriend, her brother, and his unborn child. There was an attempt to shift some of the blame to co-defendant Jonathan Melendez.

Willingham's sentencing is expected in the coming weeks.

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1:50 p.m.

Three people involved in the 2015 assault of Trooper Zachary Bader were sentenced Thursday.

Jonathan Melendez was sentenced to 10 years with 8.5 years suspended for possession with intent to distribute. He will also serve 5 years with 5 years suspended for being an accessory in the case. That comes down to 18 months to be served.

Desiree Sukert was sentenced to 10 years with 5 years suspended for possession with intent to distribute. She will also serve 5 years concurrently for being an accessory in the case. That's a 5-year sentence overall.

Chase Sukert will serve 12 years with 6 years suspended for possession with intent to distribute. He also received a 5-year sentence for being an accessory in the case. Overall, that's an 11-year sentence.

The trial for Donald Willingham is ongoing.

All four people are residents of Washington State.

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Dec. 20, 2017

Testimony continued Wednesday in the trial of a man accused of nearly beating a South Dakota trooper to death 2 years ago.

Among those testifying were Paul Stevens of the Pennington County Sheriff's Office, who questioned alleged assailant Donald Willingham after the 2015 incident. Stevens presented video of the two-day interview with Willingham, pointing out that Willingham frequently changed his story as the questioning proceeded and new information about what investigators had learned was revealed.

Later, Trooper Zachary Bader, a 12-year veteran of the Highway Patrol and victim of the assault, took the stand to deliver an emotional testimony. Bader was asked about his career background before the assault, then conveyed what he could remember from the Oct. 24, 2015 traffic stop.

Bader recalled being on stationary patrol on Interstate 90 in Rapid City, checking speeds and looking for any obvious vehicle violations. At roughly 11:30 a.m., Bader clocked a vehicle traveling east on I-90 at about 75 mph in a 65 mph zone.

After pulling alongside the vehicle to look for seatbelt violations and to count the number of occupants, Bader pulled the vehicle over at about mile marker 70. Bader initially thought the vehicle contained one person, but found there were four. He also detected a strong odor of marijuana.

After initiating a search of the vehicle, he recalled that a woman, Desiree Sukert, seemed to be trying to distract him during his search. The search turned up a large stash of marijuana in sealed bags. Bader began to place the vehicle's occupants under arrest, starting with Willingham.

Bader testified that at the time he did not know he had been assaulted, and after regaining consciousness, he thought a vehicle had veered off the road and struck them.

He continues to deal with the physical injuries from that assault.

The trial will continue Thursday morning at 8:45.

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Dec. 19, 2017

Testimony began Tuesday in the trial of a man accused of nearly beating South Dakota Trooper Zachary Bader to death 2 years ago.

Donald Willingham, 34, is charged with attempted first-degree murder. The Washington State native allegedly attacked Bader during a traffic stop on Oct. 24, 2015, causing life-threatening injuries and facial fractures.

Several witnesses testified to the jury on Tuesday, and dashcam footage of the alleged assault was shown.

The footage showed Bader pulling a vehicle over for speeding near mile marker 70 on Interstate 90, heading eastbound. Bader issued a warning ticket but decided to search the car after smelling marijuana. After spotting an item of interest in the car, he stepped out of the frame to handcuff three people.

Seconds later, a struggle could be heard in the audio, in which Willingham allegedly struck Bader. All four occupants then fled the scene as Bader could be heard on the ground gasping for air.

About 90 seconds later, dashcam footage captured a two people in a passerby vehicle stopping to help Bader and radioing for help.

One of the first civilians to arrive on scene testified Tuesday, saying Bader was lying face down in a pool of blood, and his face was unrecognizable and didn’t look human.

Law enforcement and evidence teams later arrived on scene.  

Investigator Scott Sitzes with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office also testified. He says he saw large amounts of blood on the ground upon arrival.

The trial will continue Wednesday morning at 8:30. Bader is expected to testify.

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Oct. 4, 2017

Donald Willingham has received a jury trial date. He is slated to appear in Pennington County Court on Dec. 18-20. Jury selection will occur from Dec. 12-18.

Willingham has also been assigned a motion hearing date of Wednesday, Nov. 22.

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Aug. 18, 2016

A man accused in the October 2015 beating of South Dakota Highway Patrol Trooper Zachary Bader is planning to ask for a change of venue.

Washington state native Donald Willingham, 34, and three others are charged with assaulting Bader during a traffic stop on Interstate 90, east of Rapid City.

Willingham has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder and other charges, and he was in a Pennington County courtroom again on Aug. 18. His attorneys said extensive pre-trial news coverage is prejudicial. The judge granted the defense 28 days to prepare a request for change of venue. The state will then have seven days to respond, followed by seven days for the defense to rebut. Oral arguments on the request are scheduled for Oct. 5.

The three others involved are charged with being accessories in the case and have pleaded guilty. All three have agreed to testify against Willingham.

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READ MORE: Stevens students bring the community together to support Trooper Bader

Jan. 21, 2016

Bond has now been reduced for three of the four suspects in the alleged assault of Trooper Zachary Bader back in October.

Jonathan Melendez, Desiree Sukert, and Chase Sukert all have pleaded not guilty to being accessories.

Bond for Melendez and Desiree Sukert has been reduced from $1 million down to $50,000, and bond for Chase Sukert has been lowered from $750,000 to $50,000.

Donald Willingham has pleaded not guilty to attempted murder, aggravated assault, and drug and weapons charges in the case. His bond is $5 million.

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Dec. 2, 2015

All four Washington state residents charged with assaulting Trooper Zachary Bader have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

Donald Willingham pleaded not guilty Tuesday to attempted murder, aggravated assault, and drug and weapons charges.

Jonathan Melendez, Desiree Sukert, and Chase Sukert pleaded not guilty to being accessories, along with drug and weapons counts.

Authorities say they recovered more than 50 pounds of marijuana, $33,000 in cash and a handgun after the October incident.

READ MORE: Community welcomes Trooper Bader's release from hospital

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Oct. 25, 2015

The Pennington County Sheriff’s Office says Donald Willingham, 33, faces charges of attempted murder and aggravated assault on law enforcement and possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute more than one pound.

The other three passengers were charged with similar crimes.

Desiree Sukert, 25, and Jonathan Melendez, 22, have been charged with accessory to attempted murder, aggravated assault, and drug charges.     

Chase Sukert, 23, so far charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute.

All four are residents of Washington state and are being held on felony charges at the Pennington County Jail.

No bond has been set.

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