The top story of 2012: Homicides shake La Crosse

2012-12-31T00:00:00Z 2013-01-13T21:07:05Z The top story of 2012: Homicides shake La CrosseTribune staff La Crosse Tribune
December 31, 2012 12:00 am  • 

1. Four homicides shook the city of La Crosse in 2012, as residents mourned the deaths of a college student, a mother, a shopkeeper and his son.

It has been nearly a decade since the city recorded more than two homicides. This year, there were two killings in March alone — the strangulation of Kristen Tabbert Rodgers, 35, in a North Side alley and the shooting of 20-year-old Sara Hougom in her South Side apartment.

Paul and A.J. Petras were found in the family’s downtown camera shop six months later, shot to death.

The violent crime rate in La Crosse has been on the rise since 1994, but despite this year’s spike in homicides, there’s no sign of a trend toward more killings.

A Tribune analysis showed domestic abuse and alcohol-fueled assaults account for much of the rise in violence.

2. Gov. Scott Walker won the second election of his first term on June 5, becoming the first U.S. governor to survive a recall.

After pushing through controversial cuts and laws, an embattled Walker fended off a 2012 challenge from Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

Among Walker’s more divisive policies was Act 10, which ended collective bargaining for most public employee unions.

After the governor’s 2011 recommendations, Wisconsin schools and other governing bodies used their new authority to hike pension and health contributions for public workers. Membership plummeted by 30 percent in the state’s two largest teachers unions.

Republicans called Walker’s 2012 victory a public affirmation of his policies.

3. Mayor Matt Harter announced in November he would skip a run for a second term in 2013 after an often-contentious four years in City Hall.

The city’s youngest mayor when elected in 2009 at age 24, Harter came into office on a promise to hold the line on property taxes. While he met that goal, he clashed with the Common Council on several other matters, issuing an unprecedented 28 vetoes, including in the past year a development agreement for Kwik Trip Inc.’s planned expansion and a new sign ordinance. The council failed to override only six, most recently a move to eliminate the Committee of the Whole.

Harter supporters also led a successful effort to soundly defeat the city administrator referendum that turned as much into a vote on the young mayor.

Adding to the tumult is the pending January recall election of city council president Audrey Kader and nearly $80,000 in payments made to two city employees placed on administrative leave in late May for reasons that still have not been revealed.

4. Summer weather wreaked havoc in the Badger State. Heat killed three western Wisconsin residents, and drought ruined some harvests.

Local meteorologists used words like “epic” to describe record-breaking heat in July in the La Crosse area, a harmful condition made worse by the measly 2 inches of rain reported the same month. The dangerous combination of hot and dry weather lingered through the summer.

Even with this winter’s snow, moderate drought conditions persist, according to the National Weather Service.

5. Eric Koula was sentenced to life in prison in August for murdering his parents.

The West Salem resident was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences after one of the lengthiest trials in La Crosse County history.

Prosecutors said Koula, a struggling day trader, shot both of his parents in the head. His attorneys argued their deaths were the result of a bungled hit attempt on a neighbor.

During the sentencing, county circuit Judge Scott Horne said Koula’s dishonesty during the investigation gave him away. Koula lied about forging a $50,000 check from his parents account, and wrote “fixed u” on a piece of paper and pretended it was from the killer.

6. La Crosse’s Maple Leaf Parade appeared in jeopardy when Oktoberfest organizers threatened to halt the autumn tradition.

The reason?

A proposed $18,000 bill from the city for police and other services, which fest leaders said they couldn’t afford.

City officials reduced the fees to $10,000 as part of a compromise in which the festival agreed to add volunteers and private security.

The parade continued, and so might the debate. City officials have estimated fees could climb to $24,000 in 2013.

7. A decade-long partnership between La Crosse and the Mississippi Valley Conservancy to preserve bluffland property unraveled amid questions over how the MVC used public funds for the program.

The city and state Department of Natural Resources froze all further funding for the MVC while a six-month audit was done. An attorney for the city then claimed the audit showed the MVC owed the city $622,000, leading the city to declare MVC in breach of contract. The La Crosse-based land trust, in turn, said the audit confirmed no misuse of funds.

All sides reached a settlement in December that has the MVC transferring seven bluffland parcels to the city as required in the original agreement, plus 54 acres of marsh and lowlands and $400,000 of city money for future land purchases. While MVC will retain conservation easements over the land, its future involvement in the city’s Bluffland Protection Program is unknown.

8. Chief Ron Tischer joined the La Crosse police force in September, intent on cracking down on drug dealers, downtown crime, and the boozier side of Oktoberfest.

The city’s first new police chief in nearly 20 years, Tischer calls himself an officer at heart. The Waukesha transplant came to La Crosse looking for a challenge.

“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” he told the Tribune in November.

9. Many La Crosse County municipalities turned their focus to frac sand as they struggled to regulate a regional mining boom.

Mining companies have descended on Minnesota and Wisconsin intent on digging up sand for natural gas companies.

The region’s sandstone yields granules perfect for a gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing.

Cities and counties responded with laws designed to cut down on truck traffic and production, as residents worried about the potentially harmful side effects of digging up and shipping the sand.

10. High-voltage power lines will cut a path from Alma to Holmen after the state’s Public Service Commission approved the route in May for the CAPX2020 project.

The route runs southeast from Alma along Hwy. 35, juts east near Trempealeau, cuts through Galesville and then heads south toward Holmen.

The commission avoided a route that had the 345-kv line running near Holmen’s Prairie View Elementary School and land reserved for future growth. Holmen officials were still displeased with the route.

“This is still an atrocity for our community and for north county,” village Administrator Scott Heinig told the Tribune in May.


Also considered by Tribune staff

Escaped convicts: Two men escaped a Jackson County prison in July and led police on a high-speed chase. After disappearing into a Tomah cornfield, James Cody Misleveck, 18, and James R. Newman, 29, were arrested in Florida.

UW-L fires: More than 271 college students were left homeless after a January fire in a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse residence hall. College officials spent days finding new homes for the displaced students, and months repairing and refurbishing Drake Hall, rendered uninhabitable by the blaze. Then, months later, a second, unrelated fire broke out in the second-oldest building on campus. No one was injured in either fire, and both Wittich and Drake were ready for fall semester.

Homeless deaths: Yvonne Boehme died after being hit by a car. Mark Fuchsteiner was found dead in a yard, the victim of hypothermia.

Both were homeless. Both died within blocks of La Crosse Winter Warming Center. Even though nearly 1,000 people in the area experience homelessness each year, it’s a problem that stays hidden. The transitional housing program at Couleecap turns down between 15 and 20 applicants each year.

Copyright 2015 La Crosse Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(3) Comments

  1. hougie
    Report Abuse
    hougie - December 31, 2012 8:50 am
    You mean like kong vue not getting jail time for beating a guy with a bat. Then a few months later shooting and killing sara hougom. Guess Dale Passel should have done more than give him a scolding. I own a house in lax but moved out of it. Feel safer in a city twice the size.
  2. thatswhyileft
    Report Abuse
    thatswhyileft - December 30, 2012 2:39 pm
    What we have to understand is why these things are happening. It is concerning that these are happening in my hometown. Being smack dab between Chicago and MLPS, over the years I have seen an increase in drugs, gangs and people running from mistakes they have made in there hometown and bringing there problems to La Crosse. I have know La Crosse to always hold there arms open to everyone, but there has to come a point when Community Policing, Neighborhood Watches need to go into effect and our citizens not be worried about being a "Snitch". We all want to live in peace and not have to look behind our shoulders, not have to lock the door, and go for a walk and not cross the street because some of the knuckleheads that think they are bad and wear there pants below their butt. The city of La Crosse PD need to allow their citizens to be vigilant in policing their neighborhoods and adapt what say Florida and Arizona have.... "Stand you Ground" law. Just saying.
  3. Napoleon
    Report Abuse
    Napoleon - December 30, 2012 1:02 am
    "Four homicides shook the city of La Crosse in 2012,...every is under control, under control, under control..."

    ...and the majority of offenders we see daily here are repeat offenders, despite a recent letter from county judges that claimed recidivism rates of 'only' twenty percent. Something's not right around here.

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