Kathy Tabbert was thrust into the unfamiliar criminal justice system when her daughter was murdered last year.
She put all her confidence in a stranger — confidence that this man, someone she’d never met before, would fight for justice.
“He stood by me every step of the way,” she said.
La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke was patient and caring, Tabbert said, guiding her through the process that put the man who killed Kristen Rodgers in prison for life.
Even after the case ended, Gruenke showed up at a weekend benefit honoring the victim.
“It was just wonderful — that he was still thinking about her,” Tabbert said. “He showed up for me, too. It was very touching.”
Gruenke, the county’s top prosecutor since 2007, is more than a skilled attorney who led last year’s prosecutions against Eric Koula, Izelia Golatt and Pao Choua Vue and Kong Vue, say those who work alongside him.
He’s a partner to law enforcement and a mentor to his staff, a leader who is able to provide a critical calm under enormous pressure. He has a passion for the system and compassion for victims.
“He is never out to just win a case,”
La Crosse police Capt. Shawn Kudron said. “He strives to make the victims whole again.”
It’s because of Gruenke’s commitment to crime victims and his efforts to make the community a better place that the Tribune selected him as the newspaper’s 2012 Person of the Year.
“His sensitivity toward victims’ families and the way he does his job without seeking the limelight puts him in great company of previous winners of this award,” Tribune Executive Editor Chris Hardie said.
Gruenke reluctantly accepts the recognition, saying he just did the job his constituents elected him to do.
“I didn’t do anything this year alone,” he said.
And that’s Tim Gruenke. Humble but deserving.
Path to prosecution
Gruenke, 42, didn’t always plan to be an attorney. He was a criminal justice major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville without a plan for his degree when his adviser suggested he pursue a career as a prosecutor.
“I didn’t know what law school meant,” he said.
He was accepted to the University of Wisconsin Law School and landed internships at the state Department of Justice and Dane County District Attorney’s office.
As a student, Gruenke was grounded and disciplined, said law professor Ben Kempinen. That hasn’t changed, said Kempinen, who calls Gruenke one of the state’s top district attorneys.
He also stands apart from district attorneys who view the position as a step in their political careers, Kempinen said.
“What impresses me about him? Follow him around from eight to five Monday through Friday,” Kempinen said.
Gruenke graduated law school in 1995 and joined the La Crosse County District Attorney’s office later that year prosecuting juvenile, domestic violence and white collar cases.
La Crosse County Circuit Judge Scott Horne, the county’s former district attorney, hired Gruenke, who he saw then as thoughtful and “obviously intelligent.” He later appointed Gruenke to prosecute sexual assault cases because of his patience and kindness toward victims.
“Those are the hardest cases because victims have the highest degree of trauma,” Gruenke said.
Gruenke in 2007 applied to replace Horne and earned the appointment from then-Gov. Jim Doyle.
“If I didn’t do it, I would have always wondered what if I would have tried,” Gruenke said.
Judges and police praise his judgment. Prosecutors call him logical and unshakable. Defense attorneys say he’s fair.
“He treats defendants like human beings,” said attorney Jim Kroner, who has represented defendants in more than 100 cases with Gruenke.
Gruenke’s not looking for a conviction, said Bob Muth, an investigator in the district attorney’s office. He’s searching for justice.
“He gets on these cases and he takes them to heart,” Muth said. “It’s not just his job.”
Prosecuting the cases can be mentally exhausting, Gruenke said.
“You’re always working. Even if you’re not here, you’re still thinking about the case,” he said. “You are living the case.”
Retired Circuit Judge John Perlich said he’s encouraged Gruenke to seek a “bigger” leadership role in the justice system. He called Gruenke a knowledgeable tactician with a solid understanding of the rules of evidence.
“He’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve seen in the system in quite some time,” Perlich said.
He’s also a role model to the seven attorneys in his office and ones who have moved on, said Adams County (Wis.) District Attorney Tania Bonnett, a former La Crosse County assistant prosecutor.
He’s there for advice, to listen or to lend his sense of humor, which can be uplifting during tough cases, prosecutors say.
“He trusts our judgment. It gives us self confidence,” Assistant District Attorney Jessica Skemp said. “He’s here nights and weekends. His work ethic is amazing.”
Said Gruenke: “I try to lead by example.”
Victims are his priority, and Gruenke has a great ability to connect with them, advocates say. He listens. He’s honest. He cares.
“He has a gentle approach with victims, and he doesn’t make promises he can’t keep,” said Maureen Funk, who coordinates Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center’s Domestic Abuse and Sexual Assault Program.
Victims are people, not cases, Gruenke said. He tries to understand their trauma, respect the position they’re in and include them in the process, he said.
“I try to treat them the way I would want to be treated,” Gruenke said.
Onalaska police officer Jim Page became a crime victim in 2010 when a West Salem man charged him with a butcher knife. Gruenke was compassionate with the officer and the defendant’s family, while handling the case with great tenacity, Page said.
“Tim treats everyone with respect, and that’s crucial,” Assistant District Attorney Julie Nelson said. “You’re probably a better person for knowing him.”
Funk praised Gruenke for his efforts to inform the community about sexual assault and domestic violence. In 2008, an award from the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault recognized his sensitivity to the crime and courage in taking a stand against sexual violence.
Gruenke understands the trauma suffered by sexual assault and domestic violence victims, said Ingrid Peterson, a violence prevention specialist at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He’s willing to hold a debriefing after a case to evaluate how his office could improve, she said.
“He’s incredibly open and receptive to the needs of victims of domestic violence,” said Renee Jacquet, a legal advocate at New Horizons Shelter and Outreach Center. “There’s a great relief to know they’re being respected.”
A partner to police
Gruenke always is available to police, often showing up at crime scenes to offer guidance and another perspective, said Kudron, who worked alongside Gruenke on sexual assault and homicide investigations.
“It’s not because he’s a workaholic. It’s because he cares,” he said.
La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson noted it’s uncommon for a district attorney to maintain an open-door policy to police.
“Officers are not afraid to call him at 2:30 a.m. to ask a question,” Muth said. “Tim always answers.”
The Koula case
The Eric Koula case could be the most significant of Gruenke’s career, but he doesn’t want the case to define it. He hopes he’s remembered for giving everything to all his cases.
In June, after two years of investigation and a month-long trial, Gruenke proved through a circumstantial case that Koula murdered his parents for money.
He was instrumental in the early stages of the massive and complex case, spending late nights alongside investigators, sheriff’s Capt. Kurt Papenfuss said.
“He has a team approach to cases and let everyone have their voices heard when talking about different parts of the case,” said Mary Jo Werner, a financial expert who exchanged more than 1,000 emails with Gruenke while working on the Koula case and nominated him for Person of the Year.
Trying the Koula case alongside Gruenke was one of the best experiences of his career, said Assistant Attorney General Gary Freyberg, who has handled some of the state’s most high profile cases, including the pending case against a father charged with killing his three daughters.
Freyberg praised Gruenke’s evidence based — not ego based — decisions and his exceptional command of the facts of the case. He witnessed Gruenke slave through 16-hour days before and during the trial.
“There were times during the trial I had an ‘Oh, crap,’ moment, but Tim was calm. He was prepared for anything that came at him,” said John Christophersen, a now retired state agent who spearheaded the Koula investigation. “Tim lived that case.”
Gruenke was honest, compassionate and respectful when dealing with a grieving family who faced the grim reality that their relative was charged with murder, said Gib Koula, the victim’s brother and brother-in-law.
“He has a sense of integrity about him. You feel that right away,” Gib Koula said.
Horne, who presided over the Koula trial and once prosecuted a circumstantial triple homicide case, called Gruenke’s trial performance “first rate.”
“I knew Tim could do it,” he said.
For weeks after, Gruenke would wake at night and strategize about the case before remembering that it was over, Helgeson said.
“Sometimes you have to tell him, ‘You won,’” Papenfuss said.
‘More good than bad’
Gruenke is a member of the Crime Victims Rights Board, Sexual Assault Task Force, Mediation Services Board, Criminal Justice Management Council and more. He’s also coached the West Salem High School mock trial team for a decade.
Working with the students keeps him from getting jaded, he said.
“You need balance in your life,” Gruenke said. “I need to see kids who are motivated and not in trouble.”
He’s patient with the students and gentle with his criticism and suggestions, said John Goodwin, a retired teacher who coached with Gruenke.
“What the students like about him is he is a regular guy,” he said.
When he can, Gruenke relaxes with golf, woodworking, traveling and reading.
Gruenke also is a Type 1 diabetic, a diagnosis he received at 19 years old. His doctor warned him not to go into a high stress job.
“It helps put your problems into prospective,” he said. “You don’t sweat the small things.”
Gruenke tests his blood sugar level four times daily and wears an insulin pump to help control the levels.
“The hard part is it never leaves, even during sickness, during trials, during long hours. I can’t ever take a break from it,” he said. “I want people to know that if they are diagnosed with Type 1, it doesn’t have to keep you from achieving your goals. It’s a struggle, but it isn’t impossible.”
As the county closes a particularly violent year, Gruenke says it’s the people, justice for victims and the complexity of the job that bring him to work every day.
“Even with all negative things we see,’ he said, ‘we still see more good than bad.”