Fatal Unalaska car crash trial date set for late August, more than four years after incident
A trial is set for late summer in the criminal case involving two Unalaska teenagers who died in a car crash on Unalaska’s Mount Ballyhoo nearly four years ago.
At a hearing Jan. 28, Superior Court Judge Herman Walker Jr. scheduled the trial for late August in Unalaska.
According to police, Dustin Ruckman — an 18-year-old high schooler at the time — drove his truck off of Unalaska’s Ulakta Head Cliff in early May of 2019. Sixteen-year-old Karly McDonald and 18-year-old Kiara Renteria Haist were ejected from the vehicle and killed as the pickup descended 900 feet down the cliff.
Ruckman told police he was thrown from the vehicle, suffering minor injuries.
About a year later, prosecutors filed felony charges against Ruckman, including counts of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless driving.
The court process has moved slowly since the 2019 crash.
Some hearings have been vacated or reset due to the COVID-19 pandemic or to allow both sides to prepare trial materials and expert witnesses. Ruckman’s lawyer has also undergone cancer treatment since the case began.
Even with a trial date and location set, closure for the victims’ families won’t come for quite some time.
“I think I lost it a little bit in there,” said Diana Rentaria, Kiara’s mother, as she left the courtroom after the Jan. 28 hearing. “But I just celebrated Kiara's 22nd birthday, and I've been having a lot of meltdowns. I just want accountability and justice for both girls that didn't deserve to leave us.”
During Friday’s hearing, Rentaria told the judge she wanted the trial to take place in Unalaska so that she could accompany the lawyers, expert witnesses and jurors to see first-hand where the truck descended down the cliff.
For now, Unalaska is set to host the trial, but the court will have to find impartial jurors. In a remote island community of about 4,500 year-round residents, that might prove to be difficult. And if they can’t find a proper jury, Judge Walker said they’ll have to find a different venue.
The court will begin the jury selection process on the first day of the trial, according to Walker. He said the court can block out time in Anchorage later in case they can’t find enough impartial jurors and the trial has to be moved.
Karley’s mother, Alyssa McDonald, worries that could push this long-awaited trial back even further.
“It's just weighing heavily on the families,” McDonald said. “The longer it takes the more strain and stress and there's just this unresolved discord, that's never going to be right. But why would it take seven months for them to plan to come here to look for the jury? It's too long.”
The trial is currently set for Aug. 28. According to Walker, it should last roughly two weeks.