Day 4: Todd Kendhammer trial

La Crosse County Sheriff's Department investigator Fritz Leinfelder, left, watches the interview of Todd Kendhammer from the witness stand during the fourth day of Kendhammer's homicide trial.

Erik Daily, La Crosse Tribune

Under police interrogation, Todd Kendhammer repeatedly denied hurting his wife but conceded that a single blow from a pipe he said pierced the windshield of the couple’s car couldn’t account for all of her wide-ranging injuries.

Kendhammer left the courtroom in tears Thursday during his trial as jurors watched video of his 3½-hour interview with investigators, in which he proclaimed his innocence when pressed for details of a freak car crash he said took his wife’s life in September 2016.

The West Salem man on trial for first-degree intentional homicide in La Crosse County Circuit maintains his wife died after a pipe fell from an oncoming truck and perforated their windshield on a rural highway, while prosecutors contend Kendhammer, 47, drove the 53-inch galvanized steel pipe through the window to disguise the cause of Barb Kendhammer’s death.

“If I was going to do something to my wife,” Kendhammer said during his interrogation, “I sure as hell wouldn’t have done it like this.”

At the start of his interview, Kendhammer said the couple left their West Salem home about 7:45 a.m. and were driving north on Hwy. M in the town of Hamilton when he “lunged hard” and punched the windshield trying to deflect what he thought was a bird.

After realizing a pipe broke through the windshield, Kendhammer drove about 100 yards north, then another 100 yards east on Bergum Coulee Road, where the car slid into reverse and rolled backward into a ditch.

Kendhammer couldn’t recall how he removed his wife from the passenger seat, then told investigators he yanked her from the car, possibly with his hands around her neck and leg.

“But I don’t know,” he said. “I was in panic mode.”

Kendhammer bounced and swung his knee during the circuitous interview as investigators asked him to explain inconsistencies in his account of the couple’s destination that morning, his version of the incident and what caused his wife’s broken nose, interior lip bruises, crushed cartilage in her throat, a fractured skull and three bone-deep gashes to the back of her head.

“Are you guys insinuating that I did this to my wife?” Kendhammer asked.

“I’m not insinuating anything at this point,” La Crosse County sheriff’s investigator Fritz Leinfelder said.

Seconds later, “I’m not changing my story,” Kendhammer said.

There under the impression he would review surveillance videos, Kendhammer never asked for an attorney or asked to leave the interview.

Kendhammer told investigators the pipe fell from a 2000s model dark-color flatbed truck but that he “wasn’t looking at the truck, you know, to see it.”

No truck matching the description provided by Kendhammer is on surveillance video captured around that time in the area.

Barb’s injuries, Leinfelder told Kendhammer, aren’t consistent with a pipe penetrating the windshield.

“If it had hit her, it would have gone right through her head,” the investigator said.

“Yep,” Kendhammer said.

Kendhammer throughout his interview told investigators he cannot explain Barb’s injuries or the scratches on his neck and chest, and insisted that he had no reason to harm her.

“Let the evidence talk,” he said. “I did not hurt my wife at all.”

Kendhammer encouraged investigators to comb his finances, computer, cell phones and told authorities they didn’t need a warrant to search his house.

Defense attorney Stephen Hurley accused Leinfelder of badgering Kendhammer for hours and trying to extract a confession on the day before his wife’s funeral.

“(During the interrogation), did he ever once snap?” Hurley asked.

“No, he did not,” Leinfelder said.

Early in the interview, Kendhammer said he was en route to pick up Justin Heim’s truck in Holmen to replace its windshield. Heim testified earlier that he never arranged to meet with Kendhammer on Sept. 16.

Kendhammer also said his wife reports to work at West Salem Middle School at 8 or 8:30 a.m. on Fridays. Consistently punctual, Barb’s employer called at 8:02 a.m. Sept. 16 when she failed to show up. Barb was scheduled to work the day of the incident at 8 a.m., and the school does not allow employees flexible hours, Nutrition Services director Kerri Feyen testified earlier.

Prosecutors are expected to rest their case after testimony Friday.

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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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