Todd Kendhammer faces a life sentence after a jury convicted him of murdering his wife last year.
A panel of 10 women and two men deliberated about nine hours Thursday at the end of the nine-day trial before finding him guilty of first-degree intentional homicide in La Crosse County Circuit Court.
Kendhammer, 47, of West Salem stood for the verdict and sat immediately after the judge pronounced it. His family and supporters wept and gasped at its delivery, and shouted at reporters outside the courtroom.
Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke revoked Kendhammer’s $250,000 bond and set sentencing for March 9.
“From the start, we were just trying to find the truth for Barbara,” La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke said. “I really feel Barb got some vindication today."
Kendhammer early Sept. 16 fatally beat his wife of 25 years while she fought for her life. He then tried to conceal the cause of her death by staging a freak car accident, Gruenke told jurors in his closing argument.
“Don’t let him get away with it,” he said in his final words to jurors.
Kendhammer claimed the couple were driving to Holmen to pick up a vehicle to replace its windshield when a 10-pound, 53-inch inch galvanized steel pipe rolled from an oncoming flatbed truck on Hwy. M in the town of Hamilton and impaled the passenger side of their Toyota Camry.
He said he continued to drive about 100 yards north and another 100 yards east on Bergum Coulee Road before rolling the car backward into a ditch. He said he tried to help his wife before calling 911 at 8:05 a.m. — five minutes after stopping.
“That’s a lot of time when your wife needs help,” Gruenke said. “There are a lot of blows you can land in three minutes — in one minute.”
While local, state and federal law enforcement hunted for the truth — “whatever it might be” — Kendhammer was lying, the prosecutor contended.
Physics won’t allow a 10-pound pipe to sail horizontally 10 feet from an oncoming vehicle, Gruenke said.
Kendhammer offered three versions of where the couple were going that morning when his wife was scheduled to be at work, including a version he told for the first time during the trial. All three, according to testimony, were lies.
“That shows us the defendant was traveling that way for no other reason other than to find a way to hide what he had done to Barbara Kendhammer,” Gruenke said.
Barb sustained three bone-deep cuts to the back of her head, a skull fracture, a broken nose, bruises and bleeding on the interior of her lips and fractured cartilage in her neck consistent with strangulation — injuries that don’t match her husband’s account of a pipe coming through the windshield.
“They do line up with a beating. A fatal beating,” Gruenke said. “This is a woman who was fighting for her life. This is a woman who was getting beat all over her head.”
Authorities found Kendhammer sweating and bloody, with knuckles injured and scratches on his neck and chest. Kendhammer did not punch the windshield with his fist in the third of a second during which he saw “a bird turn into a pipe,” Gruenke said.
Something happened between the seemingly happy couple that morning, he said. There was a fight inside the Camry. Barbara Kendhammer’s blood was on the center console and on her floor mat.
“Where was there no blood? The ends of the pipe. Pipe never touched her,” Gruenke said.
The evidence shows that Kendhammer inflicted Barb’s head injuries outside the car on Bergum Coulee Road, took the pipe from the trunk of the car and drove it into the windshield while Barb was on the ground, dying. In the minutes before emergency responders arrived, a passerby on Bergum Coulee Road saw the Camry in the ditch, its windshield intact, while Kendhammer was smothering his wife in the ditch, Gruenke said.
“This was a knock-down, drag-out fight,” he said.
On the day before Barb’s funeral, Kendhammer called one of his alibi witnesses seven minutes after investigators summoned him for an interrogation.
“He knew what was coming. He knew they suspected him. He knew he was guilty,” Gruenke said.
In his closing argument, defense attorney Stephen Hurley told jurors that, from the onset, authorities suffered “tunnel vision” in investigating traffic crash that required an interdisciplinary approach involving forensic pathology, forensics, biomechanics and glass fracture patterns.
“The immediate reaction is ‘he beat her’ and that’s where the investigation goes from then on,” he said. “The evidence doesn’t support any cogent theory that the prosecution is trying to get you to buy.”
While driving on Hwy. M, Kendhammer saw what he thought was a bird. In a fraction of a second, he realized it was a pipe and smashed the windshield with his fist, leaving abrasions on his knuckles from glass slivers.
Barb ducked and turned to her right trying to protect herself from the airborne pipe, driving her head into a stainless steel mug in her hands and into the dashboard, Hurley said. The pipe “skipped” across the back of her head, leaving three deep cuts, before she suffered a seizure, he said.
“The state expects Mr. Kendhammer to remember everything that happened in those two seconds,” Hurley said. “He was watching the woman he loved die in front of him, and it is so wrong to ask him to remember what traffic was like, whether someone came down the road.”
The pipe, Hurley told jurors, could have already been in the road, waiting to be “kicked up” by another vehicle.
“We don’t know and the state doesn’t know,” he said.
The forensic pathologist who performed Barb’s autopsy couldn’t explain all of the wide-ranging injuries, which don’t amount to foul play, Hurley said.
Prosecutors want jurors he believe that in the five minutes before he called 911, Kendhammer beat his wife for an unknown reason, intentionally entered a ditch, assaulted her without sustaining defensive wounds and then twice threw the pipe into the windshield, Hurley said.
“And he does it all in a public place,” he said. “It gives him two minutes to do all that. And that’s absurd.”
Hurley faulted investigators for bringing Kendhammer in for his interrogation under false pretenses on the day before his wife’s funeral and prosecutors for failing to prove how Kendhammer killed his wife.
“When you have no motive and all evidence suggests there is no motive, one has to ask where is the proof that this was some intentional assault,” Hurley said. “What reason would Todd Kendhammer ever have to harm his wife?”
“We don’t have to present motive. That fight could have been about anything,” Gruenke said. “I believe Todd Kendhammer lost control, snapped and beat his wife to death for some reason he’s not telling us.”