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Todd Kendhammer wants judge to recuse himself days before sentencing for murdering his wife

Todd Kendhammer’s attorneys want the judge who presided over his trial to recuse himself from the case days before he is scheduled to sentence Kendhammer for the 2016 death of his wife.

Todd Kendhammer

Barb Kendhammer


Madison-based attorneys Stephen Hurley and Jonas Bednarek accuse La Crosse County Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke of bias and argue that he catered to the media during Kendhammer’s December trial.

They want another judge to impose sentence, according to a motion filed Tuesday.

Bjerke must issue a ruling before Kendhammer’s sentencing can move forward on Friday. He faces a life sentence for first-degree intentional homicide, but a judge could find him eligible for release after a minimum 20-year imprisonment.

Kendhammer, 47, early Sept. 16, 2016, fatally beat his wife of 25 years and then tried to conceal the cause of her death by staging a freak car accident. Barbara Kendhammer died the next day.

The West Salem man claimed he was driving north on Hwy. M in the town of Hamilton about 8 a.m. when what he thought was a bird but determined was a pipe rolled from an oncoming flatbed truck. He claimed he lunged forward and punched the window with one or both of his fists trying to deflect the pipe before it impaled the passenger side of his windshield.

Kendhammer said he was driving with his wife to pick up a truck owned in turn by Justin Heim, Ben Pfaff and finally Jarrod Loging to repair a windshield — at the same time his consistently punctual wife was supposed to be at work at West Salem Middle School.

All three men testified during the trial, telling jurors they had no arrangements to meet Kendhammer that day.

A passerby on Bergum Coulee Road, where Kendhammer stopped the car 200 yards from where the pipe was supposed to have hit his car, testified he saw the Toyota Camry in the ditch, its windshield intact, in the minutes before authorities believe Kendhammer took a 10-pound pipe from the trunk and drove it through the windshield.

There was no blood on the ends of the pipe, which struck the exterior of the glass before it broke through, and there was no blood on Barbara’s headrest, according to the State Crime Laboratory. She suffered three bone-deep cuts on the back of her head, among a host of other injuries.

A jury found Todd Kendhammer guilty of first-degree intentional homicide on Dec. 14 after nine hours of deliberations.

In their motion filed Tuesday, Kendhammer’s attorneys called pre-trial publicity “extensive” and tainted by “bias in favor of guilt,” singling out the Tribune for coverage that could have biased potential jurors. The newspaper published 12 articles on Kendhammer’s case before trial; the newspaper published 36 articles on Eric Koula’s case before his 2012 trial for the deaths of his parents.

From Tribune files: Todd Kendhammer found guilty of murdering wife

Law enforcement “provided the media” with interviews, crime lab reports, photographs, videos and 911 tapes that the newspaper published “without any critical analysis,” according to the motion by Kendhammer’s lawyers.

The La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department and Wisconsin State Patrol released those records under Wisconsin open record law. Defense attorneys declined to respond to repeated Tribune requests for comment before, during and after the trial.

Bjerke accommodated the media at Kendhammer’s trial by asking attorneys to speak into stationary microphones so reporters could hear proceedings and when he had a podium positioned in a “cattle chute-like configuration” for closing arguments to benefit television cameras, according to the motion.

The judge, they argued, also had Kendhammer move his late wife’s water jug from the railing of the witness stand during his testimony after he received a note the attorneys assumed came from reporters.

“During trial, the court catered to the needs of the media at the expense of the accused — at the expense of the attorney-client privilege and at the expense of the effective presentation of evidence to the jury,” according to the motion.

Kendhammer’s attorneys will argue at sentencing that he should be eligible for release at the minimum 20 years, citing strong family support, although a pre-sentence investigation recommended no opportunity for release “based on the severity of injuries to Barbara,” according to a brief also filed Tuesday.

Letters submitted to the court by the couple’s children and other family members and supporters shared anecdotes of a family-oriented man known for his kindness.

“I know in my heart that Todd didn’t hurt Barbara,” her mother, Joyce Adams, wrote.

Photos: Inside the courtroom of the Todd Kendhammer trial

Photos: Inside the courtroom of the Todd Kendhammer trial

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La Crosse steel firms fret about effect of Trump's tariffs

Even though Mid-City Steel in La Crosse uses American-made steel to manufacture the skeletons for industrial buildings and other projects, President Donald Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum still concerns Paul Bagniefski, Mid-City’s president and chief operating officer.

“If it goes through, the price of raw material could go up,” Bagniefski said in an interview, adding that demand for resources already is up this year, and Mid-City has a healthy backlog of orders to fill.


“Hopefully, it’s just a tactic” to force Canada and Mexico to the table to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, Bagniefski said.

Mike Sexauer, CEO of Badger Corrugating in La Crosse, expressed similar apprehension about the tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on foreign aluminum that Trump has said he will announce formally next week.

The president insists that the tariffs are a sure thing, unless the two countries heel, although the threat is facing increasing blowback — even among Republicans.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, normally a backer of Trump policies, broke ranks with the president last week.

Scott Walker

On Tuesday, Walker underscored the breakaway when he traveled to a Bemis Industrial Products plant in Oshkosh and Seneca Foods in Janesville to argue against the tariffs. He cited the potential for retaliation from other countries, increasing prices for steel and aluminum and hurting Wisconsin manufacturers.

“The goal of the Trump administration, I believe, is to protect American workers,” Walker said. “Unfortunately, the practical application of the tariffs on steel and aluminum would lead to jobs being lost in Wisconsin and moved, not to other states, but to other countries.

“That is why I respectfully ask the president of the United States to reconsider this policy,” Walker said.

Seneca’s concern about aluminum may seem odd for a food company, but it and Bemis rely on ultra-thin aluminum for core production and manufacturing operations.

Seneca Foods has nine plants employing a total of 1,200 workers across the state, including locations in Baraboo, Cambria, Clyman, Cumberland, Gillett, Janesville, Mayville, Oakfield and Ripon.

Bemis, based in Neenah, employs about 9,000 people throughout the United States, including about 5,000 in the Badger State.

On Monday, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan added his opposition to the chorus, which also includes the voices of Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, and U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, to name a few.

“From the car in their garage to the beer in their fridge, Wisconsinites use aluminum and steel every day,” Kind said Tuesday. “The recent uncertainty about new tariffs will cost us jobs, increase the cost of Wisconsin products, and slow our economy.”

Kind advocated “setting high standards for how we trade with the rest of the world, and (we) should never mirror China’s bad behavior in negotiations.

“The consequence of retaliation would be widespread across the state and could threaten jobs in industries and businesses Wisconsin is proud of, including Wisconsin dairy, cranberries, breweries and Harley-Davidson,” Kind said.

“I urge the president to address the issue with a scalpel, not a hammer,” the La Crosse Democrat said.

Bagniefski, whose company produces structural materials for the mining industry, sand plants and other industrial projects, expressed similar concerns.

“A higher level of fear is what impact it will have on the economy — things are going well,” he said.

“One disappointment is that the tariff doesn’t address fabricated steel,” Bagniefski said, so the effect on that segment of the industry is uncertain.

“Our fab shop does excellent work,” he said. “The biggest feedback from our customers is how well (components) fit. We’re proud of that.”

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune 

Finished structural steel beams wait to be shipped out from Mid-City Steel in La Crosse, where President and CEO Paul Bagniefski is concerned about the effect of steel and aluminum tariffs President Donald Trump is proposing.


Mid-City, which was founded in 1972, has 100 employees, including several added since Jan. 1, Bagniefski said. The company could add more to its payroll if business maintains its pace, he said.

“We’re waiting to see, just like everybody else,” he said.

Badger Corrugating, which has been in business for 114 years and has about 200 employees, was anticipating increased costs for raw materials even before the tariff talk began, Sexauer said.

“Our suppliers said to expect three or four price increases this year, and we’ve already seen two,” he said.

Badger Corrugating’s products include not only steel for agricultural and light commercial uses but also steel and aluminum siding, and a full line of standard and custom wooden millwork for houses and businesses.

Even domestic suppliers of the metals will bump up prices if the tariffs are enacted, he said.

Steel mills that produce rebar pulled their products off the market when Trump threatened the tariffs in a spur-of-the moment announcement that startled even his White House advisers and businesses that had argued against it.

“They’re not going to sell something if they think they can get more in a few weeks,” Sexauer said.

A 25 percent increase in the price of rebar may not seem like much, but it easily can add a couple of hundred dollars to the cost of a house, he said.

The impact might not be as immediate for aluminum products because suppliers generally have a six-month supply on hand, Sexauer said.

Asked about Badger Corrugating’s sales volume, Sexauer said, “Speaking in generalities, for ag business, a couple hundred truckloads and, for rebar, 75 to 100 trucks” a year.

Assessing overall conditions, he said, “There’s no question this is the year inflation really is going to kick in. It’s been around 3 percent, but it will be going up.”

DNR to hold hearing on wetland permit for Jackson County frac operation

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources will hold a public hearing Wednesday on a permit to allow a Colorado company to fill Jackson County wetlands for a frac sand operation that is the subject of a lawsuit from neighbors.

OmniTRAX is proposing to build a processing plant and rail terminal fed by an adjacent mine via a nearly 2-mile conveyor belt. According to the application, OmniTrax intends to ship about 3 million tons of sand per year to oil fields in Texas and Montana.

The company says it needs to fill a little more than 4 acres of hardwood swamp land to build nearly 10 miles of rail along the banks of Halls Creek, a class II trout stream. OmniTRAX says this is necessary to fill more than 80 rail cars per day.

The DNR has made a tentative decision to approve the permit pending comments received at Wednesday’s hearing. The agency says the project will create habitat fragmentation and has expressed concerns about the impact of lighting on wildlife.

OmniTRAX project with wetland delineation

The company has proposed to purchase wetland bank credits rather than doing on-site mitigation.

The permit application was originally submitted in 2015 by the Canadian company Terracor, which later filed for bankruptcy. OmniTRAX, a shipping logistics firm, later acquired Terracor’s assets, including rights to the 945-acre site, which straddles two towns about five miles north of Black River Falls.

A group of neighbors has sued to block construction of the project using a novel legal approach.

Three families with adjacent land claim the mine and processing facility would create a nuisance and infringe on their rights to the peaceful enjoyment of their own property. They based their claims on affidavits from people living near other operating mines.

“It’s going to be noise, it’s going to be light, silica dust,” said Tom Lister, the attorney representing the plaintiffs.


An attorney representing OmniTRAX sought to dismiss the case on the grounds that a mine can’t be a nuisance if it doesn’t yet exist.

“How would it remotely be appropriate to entertain a request to permanently enjoin a business operation based upon other competitor facilities?” Richard White wrote in a court brief. “(A)ny such attempt would be a violation of the due process rights of OmniTRAX to have the fate of its business operation controlled by that operation alone.”

Circuit Judge Scott Horne has yet to rule on whether the case can go forward.

Last year, Horne dismissed a similar nuisance case against AllEnergy Sands, which is seeking to build a 750-acre mine and processing operation several miles away. That case is now before the state court of appeals.

While the project could yet be stopped by the courts, Lister said he has concerns about the permitting process.

“We see the DNR and OmniTRAX getting their way on just about everything,” he said. “We’re not confident we’re going to get a fair and impartial hearing.”

Pete Segerson was one of two new supervisors elected to the Adams town board last year after the previous board violated open meeting laws and granted a zoning change for two crucial 40-acre parcels on what board members later said was misleading information about the scope of the project.

A former fisheries supervisor for the Wisconsin DNR, Segerson said the project should not be located so close to Halls Creek, which supports numerous species of “special concern.”

“I understand society has a need for industrial sand,” Segerson said. “I just think there’s good places, bad places and better places to site it.”


Rory O'Driscoll, La Crosse Tribune 

Bangor's Emma Wittmershaus passes the ball against the defense of Aquinas' Courtney Becker during a nonconference game at the La Crosse Center in January. The Cardinals are in their second consecutive WIAA state tournament and will play a Division 5 semifinal against Clayton on Friday morning at the Resch Center.

Barb Kendhammer

Todd Kendhammer

Top 2 execs at Mayo-Franciscan in La Crosse to leave posts

Two top executives at Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare in La Crosse announced Tuesday that they are leaving their posts — one to focus on patient care and the other to retire.

Dr. Tim Johnson will leave his position as Mayo Clinic’s regional vice president for southwest Wisconsin in September to treat patients. Joe Kruse plans to retire by the end of the year from his position as regional administration chairman for Mayo Clinic Health System’s southwest Wisconsin region.

Asked what he is proudest of as Mayo-Franciscan’s CEO, the 63-year-old Johnson said, “I and our team have created a compassionate, caring community emphasizing quality, safety and problem-solving that focuses on eliminating waste.”

The Mayo-Franciscan atmosphere is founded on “a great deal of respect for everyone who works here,” he said.

“It is based on servant leadership — the value of respect (we are) taught to use in many, many ways by our sisters,” he said, referring to the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who have transferred control over the hospital and Viterbo University in La Crosse, effective July 1, to focus on other ministries.

Asked what health care’s biggest challenge is, Johnson said, “The global challenge is increasing quality while at the same time lowering costs.”

That can be accomplished through research, education, innovative developments and new models to take advantage of technology, he said.

“It also means letting go of a lot of ‘the way we’ve always done it,’” Johnson said.

“I look forward to the year ahead as we work to optimize the power of the Epic electronic health record and expand our specialty practices,” he said.

Kruse said, “I have felt blessed to be able to call this beautiful and inspiring location my home for more than 30 years, and to be a part of this team of supportive, caring, positive staff.”

Asked about his retirement plans, Kruse noted that he recently read an article referring to retirement as the third act, so he plans to take a “creative direction in writing and acting that third act, with more time for other things.”

Kruse and his wife, Barb, will continue to live in La Crosse, where two of their four sons live, and maintain involvement in community activities. They have two granddaughters, “with tons of potential for more grandchildren,” he said, grinning.

An avid woodworker, Kruse said he and Barb also have a small tract of land near Ontario in Vernon County where they also will spend time.

The aspect of Mayo-Franciscan he will miss most, he said, is the “the people, the relationships, a lot of great people doing great work. I’ve been lucky to do meaningful work.”

Mayo officials said they opted to coordinate the transitions concurrently to ensure a smooth succession.

“Without doubt, the hallmark achievement of this leadership team has been their commitment to protecting and enhancing a culture of genuine caring that permeates the Mayo practices across southwest Wisconsin,” said Dr. Bobbie Gostout, a Mayo Clinic vice president.

Johnson came to Mayo-Franciscan in June 2010 from the Austin (Minn.) Medical Center, also affiliated with the Mayo Clinic. He has continued to treat patients, focusing on physical medicine and rehabilitation, musculoskeletal disorders and pain management.

Kruse’s role as administration vice chairman includes all of Mayo-Franciscan and other services in the southwest Wisconsin and northeast Iowa regions. He is responsible for overall operational and strategic administrative leadership for the southwest Wisconsin region.

Having worked at Mayo-Franciscan for 34 years, Kruse has filled several administrative roles over the years, including being chief administrative officer since October 2012.

Kruse has served several community boards and is a past board chairman for the Greater La Crosse Chamber of Commerce, Franke Foundation and A Place of Grace Catholic Worker House. Barb is on the staff of the Franciscan Spirituality Center in La Crosse as a spiritual director and program coordinator.