Day 3: Todd Kendhammer trial

Todd Kendhammer's attorney Stephan Hurley asks forensic pathologist Kathleen McCubbin a question during cross examination. McCubbin performed the autopsy on Barbara Kendhammer.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

Barb Kendhammer’s head and neck injuries do not match her husband’s account of a freak car crash that he said claimed her life, a forensic pathologist testified in his trial on Wednesday.

“I don’t see any injury that is consistent with a pipe coming through the windshield,” Kathleen McCubbin told a jury.

Prosecutors contend Todd Kendhammer, 47, of West Salem killed his wife early Sept. 16, 2016, and tried to conceal her homicide by driving a 53-inch galvanized steel pipe through his windshield. His 10-day trial for first-degree intentional homicide opened Monday in La Crosse County Circuit Court.

The couple, Kendhammer told an investigator after the incident, was driving north to Holmen on Hwy. M about 8 a.m. to pick up Justin Heim’s truck to replace its windshield when he saw a pipe roll off a ¾-ton “flatbed looking truck” with metal sides that was dark green, dark blue or black.

“It looked like a bird,” Kendhammer said on a squad audio recording played for jurors. “I seen the thing coming, and I tried to stop it — or I don’t know what I tried to do.”

After the pipe pierced the windshield of the couple’s Toyota Camry with his wife in the passenger seat, Kendhammer never applied his brakes as he tried to remove the pipe from her while driving 100 yards north on Hwy. M and another 100 yards east on Bergum Coulee Road in the town of Hamilton.

“It was in her chest, or throat, or head or something. I don’t know how long it was there,” Kendhammer said. “She started profusely thrashing and spitting blood.”

Frantic, he put his car in reverse before it rolled backward down a grassy embankment. Kendhammer said that he removed the pipe from the windshield and “quick pulled” his wife from the passenger seat before starting CPR.

Kendhammer’s attorney told jurors in his opening statement that his client struggled to remove his wife from the car before yanking her out.

Randy Erler testified that he was en route to install drywall at a house on Bergum Coulee Road when he saw the Camry half in the ditch. The passenger door was open, but he did not see or hear anyone around the car when he slowed his truck to 4 or 5 mph.

“Did you see any damage to the windshield?” District Attorney Tim Gruenke asked.

“No, I did not. I looked through it,” he said.

Barb, 46, died the next day at the hospital of blunt impact injuries to her head and neck – none consistent with a single blow from a pipe, said McCubbin, who performed Barb’s autopsy in Madison.

She had bruising and abrasions on her forehead, a bruise on her jawline that extended to her neck, a fractured nose, scrapes on her neck, and dark bruising inside her lips, she said.

Barb suffered swelling and bleeding to her brain, a fractured skull and three bone-deep cuts to the back of her head from at least two impacts.

“A pipe traveling at that speed would cause worse injuries,” McCubbin testified. “It would tear the scalp, as opposed to three separate lacerations.”

Barb also had a fractured ring of cartilage in her trachea, consistent with strangulation or the neck striking a hard surface, McCubbin said. It’s possible a seat belt could cause the fracture, although McCubbin ruled it out because of the totality of Barb’s injuries.

On cross-examination, McCubbin said it’s possible the pipe struck Barb more than once, if she was moving when it pierced the glass.

Barb’s injuries, McCubbin said, also are consistent with a beating. There is no impact site from a pipe on her body.

Even if Barb suffered a seizure after the pipe pierced the windshield, whiplash after impact and was injured while she was removed from the car, “I do not feel that all her injuries are explained by that,” McCubbin said.

Days after the autopsy, La Crosse County sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Yehle invited Kendhammer to the sheriff’s department to review surveillance videos.

“I don’t think that was really in the plan,” Yehle said. “It was a way, hopefully, to get him in and speak with us.”

“Do some people avoid talking to the police when you try talking to them?” Gruenke asked.

“Yes. That’s fairly common.”

Heim, who worked with Kendhammer at Crown Cork & Seal Co. in La Crosse, told jurors that his friend needed a new windshield for his farm truck. That friend, Benjamin Pfaff, months before the Sept. 16 incident that took Barb’s life, relayed the information to Kendhammer, who replaced windshields on the side.

Heim told jurors that he never arranged to meet with Kendhammer on Sept. 16.

“Are you aware of any reason why Todd Kendhammer would be coming to your house on the morning of September 16?” assistant district attorney Sue Donskey asked.

“No,” he said.

“Are you aware if Todd Kendhammer had ever been to your house?

“No.”

“Was Ben Pfaff’s vehicle ever at your house?”

“No.”

Kendhammer later told authorities the couple was headed north to pick up Pfaff’s truck to replace its windshield.

But Pfaff told jurors he never spoke to Kendhammer about replacing the windshield.

Barb was scheduled to work the day of the incident at 8 a.m. in the West Salem Middle School cafeteria. The school does not allow employees to flex hours, Nutrition Services Director Kerri Feyen testified.

Testimony resumes at 8:30 a.m. Thursday.

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Police and courts reporter

Anne Jungen covers law enforcement and the criminal justice system in La Crosse County. She joined the Tribune reporting staff in December 2005. You can contact her directly at ajungen@lacrossetribune.com or 608-791-8224.

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