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Guilty plea from Willmar woman charged with running over 3-month-old cousin

Nicolle Prechel of Redwood County has been arrested in the Renville County pending charges of driving while intoxicated and criminal vehicular homicide. Prechel allegedly backed over and through a tent fatally injuring an infant and injuring the infant's mother.

OLIVIA -- Nicolle Marie Mercedes Prechel, 31, of Willmar, pleaded guilty Monday to causing the death of a child and injuring the child's mother.

Prechel backed a van over their tent July 5 in Renville County's Beaver Falls Park, causing the death of 3-month-old Whyatt James Sander and injuring his mother, Sheena Hinshaw, 21.

During a court appearance Monday in Olivia, Prechel entered guilty pleas to criminal vehicular homicide for Sander's death and to criminal vehicular homicide - causing bodily harm while under the influence for the injuries to his mother.

Her guilty pleas were part of a plea agreement in which she pleaded to the most serious of the two sets of charges she faced for the infant's death and the mother's injuries.

District Judge Steve Drange accepted the guilty pleas and dismissed four other related charges. He ordered a pre-sentence investigation and set sentencing for Nov. 12.

Minnesota sentencing guidelines for the homicide charge call for a 58-month prison sentence, although the maximum possible sentence under state statute is 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine.

The 3-month-old victim was the son of Prechel's cousin, Jacob Sander. He and the boy's mother and a dozen other family members were in the courtroom to hear a tearful Prechel enter her pleas.

Clad in an orange jail suit, Prechel testified that she had been intending to back the van into the spot where it had been parked overnight when she hit the gas pedal instead of the brake.

Prechel admitted that she had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.13 percent and traces of marijuana when tested more than three hours after the incident. Prechel said she had consumed an unknown quantity of Southern Comfort during the night and slept in her sister's van in the campground.

She drove her sister's Town and Country minivan to bring her and her daughter to the park's restroom, although her driver's license had been suspended. Since she had slept in the van, she had the seat slid back. "When I looked back, my daughter was talking and I hit the gas because ... I didn't move the seat back up," she testified between sobs.

The criminal complaint charges that she dragged the tent for 14 feet before the van struck a pole and stopped. Jacob Sander had been outside the tent and saw his child roll out of the tent. He grabbed the infant and drove him and the boy's mother to the Redwood Falls Hospital, where Whyatt Sander was pronounced dead. Hinshaw suffered bruises.

Prechel was stopped by a Renville County sheriff's deputy as she drove to the hospital shortly after the incident.

Renville County Assistant Attorney Glen Jacobsen said the guilty pleas to the most serious of the charges provide the court with the full range of options in sentencing, while also sparing family members the emotional turmoil of a trial. He said investigators found no evidence that the incident was anything other than what he described as a "very, very tragic accident."

Jacobsen conferred with the family before the plea agreement was reached. He said it has been a "very difficult, very conflicting and very difficult time" for them.

The defense is expected to ask the judge to use the discretion available to the court to "depart" from sentencing guidelines and allow probation and possibly time in the county jail in place of prison.