- Associated Press - Thursday, February 5, 2015

A man accused of driving drunk and killing two federal wildlife researchers while they talked in a South Dakota motel parking lot was convicted Thursday of vehicular homicide, but not the more serious charge of manslaughter.

Ronald Fischer Jr., 30, of Lake Andes, could face more than 30 years in prison when sentenced March 23. He might have faced life behind bars had he been convicted of manslaughter.

Defense attorney Tim Whalen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Fischer was accused of driving under the influence of alcohol and marijuana on July 8, 2013, in the Pickstown area and failing to stop at a stop sign at a highway intersection. Authorities said his vehicle went into a parking lot at more than 50 mph, striking and killing Maegan Spindler, 25, of Cazenovia, New York, and Robert Klumb, 46, of Pierre. The two U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employees were in the area conducting tests on the Missouri River.

Judge Bruce Anderson oversaw a trial last fall released his verdict Thursday. He found Fischer guilty of two counts of vehicular homicide, one count of driving under the influence and two drug-related counts.

Anderson indicated in his ruling that he struggled when deciding whether Fischer’s conduct rose to the level of manslaughter. The judge ultimately concluded a vehicular homicide charge was a better fit for the offense.

“This court does not believe that the state has proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, a sufficient standard of conduct on behalf of the defendant, to show that he used his automobile in a manner that is likely or probable to inflict death or serious bodily harm,” Anderson wrote.

Attorney General Marty Jackley said in a statement that he was pleased with the ruling.

“Ronald Fischer’s decision to drive while under the influence of alcohol was a senseless act that has caused a tremendous loss for two families,” he said.

Jackley’s statement did not address Fischer’s acquittal on the manslaughter counts, and a spokeswoman said he would have no further comment.

Gregg and Susan Spindler, Maegan’s parents, issued a statement saying they welcomed Fischer’s conviction but that “we are very disappointed that he was not convicted of the most serious charge of first-degree manslaughter.”

“These two talented scientists would have worked another combined 60 years in their careers, helping to make the world a better place for all,” the statement said. “Fischer took that away from all of us.”

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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