Dustin Hegner Royce said he was driving his mother’s Hyundai through downtown St. Paul around midnight on Nov. 26. He’d stopped at a gas station to buy a lighter, then was heading out to the bar for a few drinks.
That's when he ran into a man who’d recently been involved at a robbery at his aunt’s house. He jumped back into his car and sped away, trying to avoid him.
A few minutes later, he had a heated argument with another driver. Hegner Royce called it a “road rage” incident. In an attempt to get away from the altercation, he ran a red light. There was a thud. Hegner Royce thought -- knew -- he’d hit “something.”
But he didn’t stop. He headed straight to Keenan’s Bar, where his mother tended bar.
Abbey Rose Hegner left her shift immediately. She told her manager that her son’s girlfriend was suicidal, and she had to go.
Police were sent that night to the corner of Seventh and Grand to report on a hit and run. A 52-year-old father and dishwasher at Brasa named Jose Hernandez Solano had been biking through the intersection on his way home. He was found motionless. An ambulance transported him to Regions Hospital with life-threatening injuries.
A few days later, Hegner Royce showed up to his landscaping job with the damaged Hyundai. He told his boss he’d hit a deer. Then he parked it on the side of the property, where it couldn’t be easily seen.
Soon afterward, the car was gone. A week and a half after the collision, Solano died.
An anonymous tipster would eventually call the St. Paul Police. They’d seen the “platinum sage” Hyundai Santa Fe before, they’d said. It was often parked outside Keenan’s Bar, about a half-mile west of the crash site. A bar patron told the manager that they’d seen Hegner Royce drive up minutes after the crash. Another said they saw him run up to Hegner and say, “Mom, I need your help,” before the two left together. Hegner seemed upset.
Police checked video footage at the nearby Holiday gas station. They saw the Hyundai, and someone who looked a lot like Hegner Royce. They followed other surveillance footage that showed the SUV speeding, illegally passing other vehicles, and ignoring signs as it made its way to the crash site.
Afterward, there was footage of the Hyundai sitting outside Mancini’s Char House, a restaurant near Keenan’s.
The next month, police arrested Hegner Royce and his mother. They asked them if they’d had anything to do with Solano’s death.
No, they said. Hegner said she’d sold her Hyundai four days before the crash to some guy -- an “unknown Mexican or Somali male” -- for $3,000.
They asked Hegner Royce if he’d been at the Holiday that night. They had video footage of him stopping at the gas station. But he denied being there.
Mother and son were released a few days later without charges. After all, police still didn’t have the SUV. It was the missing piece. The Pioneer Press reported in January that St. Paul police had filed more than 15 applications for search warrants on the case, all focusing on Hegner Royce and his mother.
For a while, nothing came of it. Police continued to investigate. Months passed.
Then, in March, Hegner Royce and his mother were charged. At first, they both denied any involvement. But this week Hegner Royce pleaded guilty. (His mother’s hearing is scheduled for today.)
St. Paul police didn’t respond to interview requests about what happened during those many weeks that would eventually lead to the case being solved. The Hyundai still hasn’t been found, but Hegner’s story about selling it isn’t holding water.
Neither Hegner Royce nor his mother ever deposited the alleged $3,000. A search warrant of Hegner’s home found a bag containing the owner’s manual, plus receipts from Burger King and McDonald’s dated two days before the collision -- and two days after Hegner said she sold it.
Surveillance at both restaurants shows a vehicle matching the Hyundai’s description. And Hegner Royce’s boss also saw the car that supposedly had hit a “deer.”
For months, Solano’s family have been waiting for answers. Now, half a year after he was killed, they’re starting to emerge.