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Man accused of using SUV to run down ‘Republican extremist’ teen pleads guilty to manslaughter

Shannon Joseph Brandt and Cayler Ellingson (Foster County Sheriff:GoFundMe)

Shannon Joseph Brandt and Cayler Ellingson (Foster County Sheriff: GoFundMe)

A 42-year-old man in North Dakota will likely spend several years behind bars after he admitted to running down an 18-year-old in his SUV. Shannon Joseph Brandt, who allegedly told authorities the teenager was a “Republican extremist,” pleaded guilty earlier this month to one count of manslaughter in the death of Cayler Ellingson, court documents reviewed by Law&Crime show.

Brandt was initially charged in September 2022 with one count of vehicular homicide and released on $50,000 bond. Days after he was released, Brandt was arrested again and charged with murder, with prosecutors saying that an investigation conducted by the North Dakota Highway Patrol, the Foster County Sheriff’s Department, and the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation supported such a charge.

Then last month, prosecutors in the Foster County State’s Attorney’s Office downgraded the charges against Brandt to one count of felony manslaughter and one count of felony leaving the scene of a crash. He pleaded guilty to the manslaughter charge in exchange for prosecutors agreeing to drop the latter charge.

In an email to The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, Brandt’s attorney said his client was taking accountability for his actions.

“Shannon has never denied responsibility for his part in this tragic accident,” Brandt’s attorney, Mark Friese, reportedly wrote in an email to the newspaper. “A plea of guilty permits him to accept responsibility while limiting the stress and emotional toll for all involved.”

In another email to Fox News Digital, Friese also denied that his client’s actions were motivated by political ideology, saying that investigators initially got it wrong. Notably, prosecutors never alleged that Brandt was motivated by politics.

“Mr. Brandt is pleased that a comprehensive investigation has conclusively established that initial claims regarding the cause and circumstances of this tragic accident were untrue. Autopsy findings and forensic review by the State Medical Examiner’s Office resulted in classification of the tragic death as accidental,” Friese reportedly wrote. “Defense forensic review confirms these findings. Recordings, transcripts, and testimony in preliminary proceedings prove a state patrolman falsely represented Mr. Brandt’s comments to the court and to the public. The resulting intense media attention is directly attributable to those misrepresentations.”

Friese did not immediately respond to an email from Law&Crime.

According to a probable cause affidavit, deputies with the Foster County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 911 call about a hit-and-run fatality in northern Foster County at 2:55 a.m. on Sept. 18, 2022. The caller allegedly identified himself as Brandt. He said that he “struck the pedestrian because the pedestrian was threatening him,” according to North Dakota’s emergency dispatch radio logs.

“Brandt stated that the pedestrian called some people, and Brandt was afraid they were coming to get him,” the affidavit states. “Brandt admitted to State Radio that he hit the pedestrian and that the pedestrian was part of a Republican extremist group.”

First responders reportedly found Ellingson lying in the street. Medical personnel rushed him to Carrington Hospital for treatment. Ellingson’s family arrived, and members of Brandt’s family showed up soon after. Brandt, however, had reportedly left the area by then.

Authorities responded to the home of Brandt’s parents in rural McHenry and later went to Brandt’s home in Glenfield, where they found him.

“There, Brandt was interviewed by [redacted] outside his residence and admitted to consuming alcohol prior to the incident,” the probable cause affidavit states. “Brandt admitted to striking the pedestrian with his car because he had a political argument with the pedestrian and believed the pedestrian was calling people to come get him. Brandt admitted to leaving the scene of the incident and returning shortly after where he called 911. Brandt did not remain on scene till law enforcement arrived and ultimately returned to his residence.”

Authorities arrested Brandt for driving under the influence and transported him to Stutsman County Jail. Brandt allegedly consented to a chemical breath test, which deputies say registered “above the legal limit of 0.08.”

Investigators met with Ellingson’s parents in Grace City. His mother told the detective that she had a conversation with her son at 2:41 a.m. he asked her whether she or his father knew Brandt. She responded that they did, but she told the detective that she did not believe her son knew Brandt.

Ellingson’s mother then told him she would pick him up from McHenry. However, a “short time later, [Ellingson] called again [and] stated that ‘he’ or ‘they’ were chasing him, and after this, she could not reach [Ellingson],” the affidavit states.

Brandt is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 8

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.