St. Croix County judge pumps brakes on Hastings man's fatal-crash plea deal
A Hastings man was prepared to plead guilty for his role in a fatal motorcycle crash that killed his girlfriend, but a judge said he needed more convincing before accepting the man's plea to a reduced charge.
Joshua D. Sykora began proceedings to plead guilty Friday, Jan. 4, to one count of homicide by negligent use of a vehicle in the June 25, 2016, crash that left 38-year-old Brooke A. Ptacek-Baker dead.
The joint plea agreement called for Sykora to serve one year in jail and five years on probation; a four-year prison term would be stayed.
The jail term would first be served in a nine-month chunk, with the remaining three months to be served one month at a time over the course of three years — each one commencing on the date of Ptacek-Baker's death.
The plea deal called for Sykora to serve his time in Minnesota, provided it didn't come at a cost to St. Croix County. He would also have his driver's license revoked for one year.
Sykora was initially charged with homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, which prosecutor Edward Minser said comes with a heavier penalty than the charge to which Sykora was planning to plead.
But St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Michael Waterman said the state requires a vigorous prosecution on the alcohol-related offense. He demanded to know how the plea deal was in the public's interest.
"I need a very good reason," he said.
Sykora was accused of driving a motorcycle that crashed on County Road F. Ptacek-Baker's body was found in a nearby ditch. Sykora, whose blood-alcohol level was allegedly 0.07, told officers the crash happened while he was braking for a deer in the road.
Defense attorney Thomas Sieben said he had planned to call a crash reconstructionist and a forensic toxicologist. Sykora's level of intoxication at the time of the crash would be placed in doubt, while his account of braking for a deer would be substantiated, Sieben explained.
Along with an anticipated character defense, there would be "reasonable belief" that a jury would acquit him of the original charge, Sieben said.
Waterman asked Minser if the state planned to call its own expert witnesses; Minser said he was standing in for other prosecutors who weren't able to attend the hearing and didn't possess the same understanding of that case as they did.
Still, he said the plea agreement is in the public's interest and that the victim's family was satisfied with it. As to Sieben's explanation, Minser said those statements "do present some potential obstacles" to gaining a conviction.
"I want to make sure this is done right," Waterman said. "I do need to make a finding."
The plea hearing will reconvene Wednesday, Jan. 9.