The trial of the La Crosse man accused of killing a La Crosse woman begins Monday in La Crosse County Circuit Court.
Erik Sackett, 38, will be in front of Judge Elliott Levine as a jury hears evidence and weighs whether to find him guilty of a single charge: first-degree intentional homicide.
Jury selection begins at 8:45 a.m. Monday, and the trial is scheduled to last two weeks.
Sackett is accused of killing Erin Somvilai — also known as Erin Bushek — last year at her home in La Crosse, then disposing of her body in a Vernon County lake, according to the complaint.
During the trial, the public will not be allowed to display signs, buttons or clothing memorializing Somvilai anywhere in view of the jury. The jury will be sequestered and forbidden from discussing the case before deliberations.
Prosecutors are prohibited from bringing up Sackett’s criminal history, which includes a 2012 conviction of attempted second-degree sexual assault using force, battery and criminal damage to property in Vernon County after a jury found him guilty of assaulting a woman in 2011.
At the time Somvilai went missing, he was on extended supervision which prohibited him from having relationships without his probation agent’s knowledge and permission.
Somvilai was reported missing June 4, 2018, by her father, Mark Bushek. Bushek went to her Rose Street home to find her vehicles, keys, purse, prescriptions and cigarettes inside, but no sign of his daughter.
La Crosse police began a search for her, visiting Sackett on June 6. According to the complaint, Sackett told investigators at that time he had last seen Somvilai on June 3 at his home on Oak Drive in La Crosse. During the investigation, police found Sackett had been to her apartment several times June 3 after two witnesses reported seeing him there and surveillance video showed a truck matching the description of his vehicle driving down her block, according to the complaint.
Somvilai’s body was recovered June 17 in Runge Hollow Lake in Vernon County — the same lake she had been to with Sackett while he was visiting his family cabin. She was tied to two concrete blocks with ropes and a chain and was wearing the same sun dress her neighbor had seen her in June 3 and no undergarments.
Sackett was arrested Aug. 8 after a pathologist found Somvilai died of homicidal violence and charged Aug. 9 by La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke.
Gruenke is expected to argue Sackett killed Somvilai after an argument over their relationship, which Sackett described as a friendship to police.
According to the criminal complaint, Somvilai was upset with Sackett after finding him in bed with another woman the morning of June 3. Sackett’s truck was seen on surveillance driving to Somvilai’s apartment four times between 10:45 a.m. June 3 and 2:23 a.m. June 4.
An Amish man also saw the truck in an area near the lake in Vernon County at about 1:30 a.m., according to the complaint.
While Somvilai’s cellphone was never recovered, records show she texted Sackett for about 20 minutes June 3, saying she loved him and was upset that he broke off their relationship. She also texted another man at 2:30 p.m. saying the house was ransacked and there was broken glass everywhere. Her last phone call was to Dr. David Onsrud at 2:30 p.m. and lasted three minutes.
However, cellphone tracking showed her phone was in the area around her home at 7:15 p.m. June 3, in southern La Crosse County near Vernon County at 11:39 p.m. and in Sackett’s neighborhood at 9:28 a.m. June 4, according to the complaint. Sackett’s phone went back and forth between Somvilai’s residence and Vernon County June 3 before it was turned off at 7:29 p.m. It was turned back on at 4:44 a.m. June 4.
The defense is expected to argue Sackett is innocent and Somvilai, who was mentally ill, was instead killed by her doctor and employer, Onsrud.
According to a motion filed by the defense, Onsrud, a former employee at Mayo Clinic Health System, had a sexual relationship with Somvilai, who was his patient, as well as an employee with Independent Living Choices taking care of his disabled son. The defense alleges that he paid her up to $1,000 per session to dress provocatively and tie him up, and he provided her with prescription medication including Adderall, Sackett’s attorney Christopher Zachar said.
The trial is also expected to focus on the concrete blocks found tied to Somvilai’s body.
Police determined that the concrete blocks found in Sackett’s residence and with Somvilai’s body matched, and they were discontinued in 2002, according to the complaint.
Zachar said in a motion hearing that an FBI analyst examined the blocks and concluded they were chemically different than those found on Somvilai, and a hair found on the rope around Somvilai’s waist did not match Sackett.
“Our mission is very simple,” Reggie Jackson told a crowd of about 300 people Saturday morning. “To get us as a nation to a place where we can have conversations that we’re not accustomed to having.”
While the mission may be simple, unpacking and moving beyond our deeply ingrained racial bias is a complex and, at times, uncomfortable process.
Jackson and Fran Kaplan, co-founders of Nurturing Diversity Partners, touched on how lived experiences, history and neurobiology shape how we seen the world during the “Un c o n s c i o u s Bias: Can we see our own blind spots?” program, the first of two public presentations presented by the Creating A Healthier Multicultural Community Project.
The project, formed in response to “the desire of many residents of the predominantly white La Crosse region to widen their awareness, understanding, respect and empathy for the lived realities of people with a wide range of racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds,” is sponsored by organizations including La Crosse Interfaith Shoulder to Shoulder Network, La Crosse Area Showing Up For Racial Justice and the La Crosse Community Foundation.
Held at English Lutheran Church, Jackson and Kaplan’s two-hour talk and presentation — interspersed with video clips and real-time digital surveys of the audience — was followed by a closed session of “Deep Dives,” respectful small group dialogues on identifying and challenging implicit racial stereotypes, facilitated by Jackson, Kaplan and 24 trained community members.
“These are an opportunity to share stories about our experiences living in the community and get to know each other so we can tackle some of the difficult conversations about race,” said Pat Lunney, co-leader of the Creating a Healthier Multicultural Community team and 2020 Waking Up White Regional Learning Collaborative steering committee member.
Jackson, a nationally recognized speaker about the Black Holocaust and winner of several awards, including the 2015 Eliminating Racism Award from southeast Wisconsin YWCA and 2018 Legacy Award from Milwaukee Inner-City Congregations Allied for Hope, discussed how the inner workings of the human brain program us toward bias.
By allowing us to make associations between things and form habits, our thoughts become “glued” to strong feelings. Unconscious bias is the brain’s “automatic, instant association of stereotypes or attitudes toward particular groups ... even the most conscious egalitarians have implicit bias.”
“We have images and words in our culture that bombard us with what to think,” said Kaplan, an author, educator and filmmaker who specializes in poverty and social justice issues and received the 2016 Eliminating Racism Award.
The two shared findings from studies about bias that showed, when given identical job applications, employers were 50 percent more likely to call back candidates with a “white sounding” name versus a “black sounding” name. Additionally, young black children were more likely to be suspended or expelled from school. Among middle and high schoolers, black students with white teachers were less likely to be assigned to gifted and talented classes.
Studies also revealed police officers were slower to shoot an armed white male than an armed black male, and that black female youth are seen as less in need of comfort or nurturing than their white peers. Black youth were perceived as older and less susceptible to pain than their white counterparts.
Looking back at 400 years of history, Kaplan and Jackson examined the “white racial frame,” the ascribing of cultural and personal traits and perception of inferiority or superiority based on physical features — those of northern and western European descent were favored.
A former teacher, Jackson spoke about the slanted information in social studies textbooks, showing a page which abstained from using the word “slaves,” stating rather that black individuals were brought to the U.S. as “workers.”
Other books circulating in schools celebrate Dr. Marion Sims as the “father of gynecology,” though he purchased slaves to use as test subjects, forgoing any form of pain relief or anesthesia during his experimental procedures.
“Black people suffered horrendous, horrendous treatment by medical professionals,” Jackson said.
During the program, Kaplan and Jackson showed a clip from a talk by Debby Irving, author of the book “Waking Up White,” which is the regional read for the spring White Privilege Symposium, which will be open to the public. Irving was startled by her own level of bias, citing underminers such as the “narrow version” of history being taught in our schools.
“I had no idea that there were 1.2 million black Americans fighting in World War II,” Irvin said. “I didn’t know there were indigenous troops, I didn’t know there were Asian troops, I didn’t know there were Mexican troops. This is what is called whitewashed history.”
Leading with the quote “If you want to change the invisible, you must first change the invisible,” Kaplan and Jackson concluded their talk with ways to begin looking at the world through an equality lens:
“The good news,” Kaplan said, “is cultures can change and they do all the time. Individuals can change and they do all the time.”