A Madison woman died after reportedly falling off a golf cart. Her mother demands justice.

A dog is part of a Portage man’s explanation of what led up to his girlfriend falling off a golf cart and hitting her head on the pavement.
Published: Jul. 31, 2023 at 6:12 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 31, 2023 at 6:32 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - “You did not love my daughter,” Pearl SearVogel said. “You blame it on the dog.”

A dog is part of a Portage man’s explanation of what led up to his girlfriend falling off a golf cart and hitting her head on the pavement, according to Columbia Co. investigators reports. More than a year after Rhonda SearVogel went to the hospital and died from injuries to her head, her mother Pearl is fighting for justice in her tragedy.

Pearl (front) and Rhonda SearVogel (back, pictured)
Pearl (front) and Rhonda SearVogel (back, pictured)(WMTV/Jason Rice)

On April 23, 2022, a report by the Columbia Co. Sheriff’s Office shows around 7:30 p.m., a 911 call from a neighbor alerted first responders of an unconscious woman who fell off a golf cart. That woman was Rhonda. She was with her boyfriend Scott Oelke at his neighborhood.

A criminal complaint details how officers, upon arriving at the 800 block of Saddle Ridge Dr., saw Oelke standing nearby, slurring his words and struggling to walk in a line. Prosecutors later charged him with two counts of operating while intoxicated, as his blood alcohol level was recorded to be triple the legal limit. Oelke was not charged with Rhonda’s death.

Scott Oelke worked in the Columbia Co. Sheriff's Office between 1996 and 2015. He was arrested...
Scott Oelke worked in the Columbia Co. Sheriff's Office between 1996 and 2015. He was arrested in April 2022 for OWI.(WMTV)

Police records obtained by NBC15 show the only known witness to the fall was Oelke. In response to an open records request in May, Columbia Co. officials told us there were no body cameras at the time of last year’s incident, and the 911 recordings were no longer available because they’re only kept for 180 days.

Sgt. Ronald Stage recorded in documents that Oelke claimed he was making a turn on his golf cart and his dog tried to jump from it. That’s when he said he saw Rhonda, who was holding onto the dog, fall to the pavement and hit her head on the ground.

In another interview documented in the same police filing, the neighbor who called 911 told cops she saw a wild dog on a leash.

Meanwhile, Pearl remains in grief. She showed NBC15 Investigates what old belongings she’s kept from her daughter, from uniforms to crumbled pieces of paper.

“She said she’s going to take care of me,” Pearl said. “Instead of [her burying] me, I have to bury her.”

Surviving family and friends question prosecution, as well as Oelke’s history and possible connections. As cited in police reports, Columbia County’s Sheriff Roger Brandner, who was off duty at the time, walked by the scene of the crime in his neighborhood and recalled Rhonda saying “in an angry voice, ‘Scott, get off of me.’” Oelke is then quoted, calling the sheriff by his first name, “‘Roger, I did nothing wrong.’”

Oelke had worked at the Columbia Co. Sheriff’s Office for roughly 20 years. He resigned as a deputy sheriff in 2015. An email to staff on Aug. 3, 2015, shows Oelke had resigned that day, and “starting immediately,” officials were told to limit his access to buildings.

In an email received Tuesday, Sheriff Brandner wrote, in part: “It is irrelevant that he worked for the sheriff’s office years ago as the deputies investigated this incident just like they would have for anyone else.  These investigating deputies never worked with Mr. Oelke.  Nobody is above the law and he should be held accountable for his actions.”

“I’m fighting, again, the DA,” Pearl said about her demands to move prosecution outside the county. “Reinvestigate. Reconstruct the whole thing.”

“This case will always be a Columbia County case because that’s where the offense occurred,” Columbia Co. District Attorney Brenda Yaskal wrote to NBC15 Investigates. She said the prosecuting attorney never worked with Oelke and doesn’t know him outside of this case. She added, “If either that attorney or myself believes that there would be a conflict of interest with our ethical rules, we would request a special prosecutor.”

John Gross, a clinical associate professor of law at the UW Law School, reviewed Oelke’s case with NBC15 Investigates. He said, “Legal ethics really speaks to addressing, obviously, actual conflicts, yes, but also the appearance of bias, a potential conflict.”

DA Yaskal wrote to NBC15 she will not explain her charging decisions, in part, ”It involves the facts of the case and I’m not willing to discuss that with you while the case is still pending because I want to preserve the integrity of the prosecution.”

Gross said, “What we have is a prosecutor who’s looking at the totality of the circumstances and all the evidence, anticipating what defense counsel would argue.” He explained state law is typically strict when it comes to death by intoxicated use of a vehicle. But in those statutes, there’s a kind of caveat that defendants can argue, “by saying, ‘It was not my use of the vehicle that actually caused the death, there was this intervening cause.’”

Gross believes that intervening cause was the dog.

Oelke’s attorney did not return our repeated requests for comment. The latest court records show as of mid-June, parties will be filing a motion to dismiss the OWI case.

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