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2019 Ballyhoo crash case gets new judge, awaits new trial date

Kiara Renteria-Haist and Karly McDonald's memorial on Ballyhoo.
Alyssa McDonald
The defense's new lead counsel will need to find space in her schedule for the trial. She told the court she hopes she will have more room in her schedule in about a month.

A new judge overseeing a criminal case involving a fatal 2019 car crash in Unalaska has granted the defense extra time to solidify a new trial date.

In a status hearing on Feb. 8, Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews allowed Julia Moudy, the lead counsel for the defense, another month to go through discovery materials, gather experts and find a trial date that will fit her schedule. That comes after several delays and complications in the case – the latest being a change in lead counsel for the defense, which led to the appointment of a new trial judge.

In May of 2019, an Unalaska highschooler drove his truck off of Ulakta Head Cliff on Mount Ballyhoo. Inside the vehicle were two local teenagers, 16-year-old Karly McDonald and 18-year-old Kiara R. Haist. As the pickup descended about 900 feet down the mountain, the two young women were ejected from the vehicle and killed. The driver, Dustin Ruckman, claimed to have been thrown from the truck, sustaining minor injuries.

Prosecutors filed felony charges against Ruckman, and in June of 2020, he pleaded not guilty to counts of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and reckless driving.

A trial date was eventually set for August 2023 but that was pushed back when the defense cited health issues — Ruckman’s original lawyer has undergone cancer treatment during the case — and concerns about getting experts to the remote island. Then, at a status hearing in November, Superior Court Judge Herman Walker Jr. — the judge previously 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Ruckman’s former lawyer, David Mallet, has been replaced by Julia Moudy who is a longtime friend of the judge.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, but Mallet has previously discussed the difficulties involved with his cancer treatment.

Now, Moudy will need to find space in her schedule for the trial, get access to all of the discovery from the state, meet with the District Attorney’s Office and get up to speed on the case. She told the court she would not be able to take a trial date until the fall if she had to choose a date at the status hearing in February, but hopes she will have more room in her schedule in about a month.

The families of the two teen girls who died in the crash have been pushing the case toward trial for years.

Diana Rentaria is Kiara’s mother. She said she’s not going to quit fighting for a trial.

“I'm not stopping. I'm not going away,” she said. “I will be here until I take my last breath, until I see [Dustin Ruckman] held accountable.”

Superior Court Judge Thomas Matthews, the new trial judge, set another status hearing for next month, when he hopes Moudy will have a better idea of what her upcoming schedule will look like.

Moudy also told the court she is looking at filing a motion to change the venue for the trial, which is currently set to happen in Unalaska.

The court is aiming for an early summer trial date.

The next hearing will take place March 7.

Hailing from Southwest Washington, Maggie moved to Unalaska in 2019. She's dabbled in independent print journalism in Oregon and completed her Master of Arts in English Studies at Western Washington University — where she also taught Rhetoric and Composition courses.