Almost five years after a fatal car crash in Unalaska, families still await a trial
Diana Rentaria has been attending hearings, arraignments and trial calls for nearly five years, in hopes of eventually finding justice in a criminal case involving the death of her 18-year-old daughter Kiara R. Haist and another Unalaska teen.
In May 2019, Dustin Ruckman, a high schooler at the time, drove his truck off of Unalaska’s Ulakta Head Cliff. Haist and 16-year-old Karly McDonald were ejected from the vehicle and killed as the pickup descended nearly 1,000 feet down the mountain. From that time on, Rentaria says she has been in limbo, trying to adapt to her new life without the child she used to call “Kiwi.”
“You just try to live in the world as that other person you're supposed to be,” Rentaria said. “But at the end of the day, you go home and you wonder, ‘Are you okay? Are you hungry? Are you cold? Can I see you in the moon if I stare at the moon long enough?’”
Jan. 17 would have been Haist’s 23rd birthday.
“I get to walk up a mountain when she turns 23 to go yell out ‘Happy Birthday Kiara,’ hoping she hears me,” Rentaria said. “[I] sing ‘Happy Birthday,’ take her favorite food, take her flowers and balloons because that's all we got to celebrate for Kiara. I can’t hug her. I can’t make her a cake. I can’t tell her, ‘Here, go on a trip.’ I'll never see her get married or see her have a baby.”
About a year after the crash, prosecutors filed felony charges against Ruckman. He pleaded not guilty to counts of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless driving.
Since then, the legal process has moved slowly. Hearings have been vacated or reset due to the COVID-19 pandemic and to allow parties to prepare trial materials. Ruckman’s lawyer has also undergone cancer treatment since the case began. Eventually, a trial date was set for August 2023, which gave hope to the teenagers’ family and friends.
But, just weeks before jury members were to be selected, the defense was granted a continuance, and the trial date was pushed back to the end of the year.
Then, as that trial date drew closer, another complication emerged.
At a status hearing in November, Superior Court Judge Herman Walker Jr. — the judge overseeing the case against Ruckman — recused himself, after the defense announced they would take on a new lead counsel. Ruckman’s former lawyer David Mallet has been replaced by Julia Moudy who is a longtime friend of the judge. Mallet will still stay on the case but is stepping back as lead counsel.
Judge Walker told the court it would be inappropriate for him to oversee the legal process with Moudy involved. The defense did not say why they’ve switched counsel. Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews will take Walker’s place. Matthews will have to set a new trial date at the next hearing, scheduled for Feb. 8.
The latest delay leaves the girls’ families, once again, waiting without a trial date in sight.
“It felt as if it was intentional, like it was a very calculated move,” said Alyssa McDonald, the mother of Karly McDonald. “Only someone on the very bottom of society and with a criminal mind would think like this, to possibly put this off even further.”
Ruckman’s new lead counsel, Moudy, will need to review court documents before she is prepared for trial. She told the court that may take some time.
McDonald said she has compassion for Judge Walker and thinks he did the right thing by recusing himself. But she said she’s still frustrated and disappointed with the legal process.
“We won't have closure until this is complete,” she said. “And an unbiased jury can make the judgment of what we see to be a serious breach of law and ethic, personal responsibility and trust on many, many levels.”
It’s not clear yet when a trial will happen, but McDonald said she fears it may not take place until the fall.
“It does take time to get up to speed,” McDonald said. “And we do want to do it the right way. We want everybody to have due, fair process. But we need fair process too — it goes both ways. It's not just to protect the perpetrator, but also the victims.”
Rentaria, Kiara’s mother, said she wants answers about what happened that afternoon on Mount Ballyhoo. She said for her, there’s no closure for what happened, but she’s going to keep showing up to hearings and pushing the court to move forward.
“So that I can go up that damn mountain and tell Kiwi, ‘Hey, we did it. This is all I could get, but I got something,’” Rentaria said. “Instead of me just sitting and saying, ‘What the hell? I can't even get a court date. I'm sorry babe, you turned 23, but I'm still fighting for you. Even though the only thing I wish is I could hug you and I could kiss you and say good night or good morning.’”
She said she’s still angry and hurt after five years of waiting.
“Time doesn't heal, time doesn't take the pain away, time just validates that you love somebody so precious to you that you don't know how to breathe at times,” Rentaria said.