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Mayor calls for removal of controversial Hiawatha statue from Riverside Park in La Crosse

La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat Monday asked the city’s Board of Park Commissioners to remove the Hiawatha Statue from Riverside Park, after decades of debating the future of the controversial artwork.

“It is time. Communities across our nation are facing the symbols from their pasts and making decisions about how to heal and move forward,” Kabat wrote in a letter to the board.

The roughly 60-year-old statue has received pushback from community members, including individual members of the Ho-Chunk Nation, for depicting exaggerated racial stereotypes of Indigenous communities.

But others have argued that the artwork should remain intact as a piece of La Crosse’s history, a towering 25-foot figure that has stood on the north side of Riverside Park since 1961.

“It’s interesting to read some of the meeting minutes and some of the discussions from various city officials back in the early 1960s when this was first proposed as a tourist attraction for the La Crosse area,” Kabat said of the city’s research into the statue’s history.

“That leads me to believe that there was controversy even back then,” Kabat said, saying he could “read between the lines” of the records, noting that the city council never approved the artwork, with the parks board having the final say.

The mayor asks the board to remove the statue and temporarily store it until the family of the statue’s artist, Anthony Zimmerhakl, finds a new home for it.

Family members have stated they would compromise with relocating it to private property instead of destroying it.

The removal of the statue and storage for up to one year will cost the city $14,000, according to Jay Odegaard, the director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department.

Zimmerhakl was an art teacher in La Crosse when he constructed the statue out of cement and wire, and community members and city officials have said he used his position as a teacher to educate people about Indigenous people.

Zimmerhakl’s family said they had no knowledge of Kabat’s call ahead of Monday, and said finding a new home for the artwork has been challenging.

“We’ve tried to find a location, but what we seem to run into,” said Tim Slonka, son-in-law to Zimmerhakl, “is the upkeep of the statue and the insurance that would be associated with it.”

“As a whole, the family has never been in favor of removing it from the park,” Slonka continued. “However, in these times we’re living in now, it’s probably time.”

“Although if my father-in-law were still alive he’d have a much stronger opinion,” Slonka added.

Though the Ho-Chunk Nation has remained neutral on the issue, individual members have spoken out about its damage to the community, including its influence on young Indigenous children and the impact on mental health in Indigenous communities.

This call to action from Mayor Kabat comes when statues and other controversial symbols have come toppling down in recent weeks in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after a Black man was killed in Minneapolis by police.

“With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s hard not to pay attention to our place, La Crosse’s place, in this big world,” Kabat said. “The timing is right.”

In Madison, the Forward statue and another of a Union Civil War colonel outside of the Capitol were torn down last month by protesters, who threw one of them into the lake, saying the monuments did not accurately represent the fabric of the city.

And in Columbus, Wisconsin, the city council voted to remove a statue of its namesake, Christopher Columbus, whose history of slavery and genocide have often been overshadowed by his explorations.

Nationally, Kabat’s announcement is especially timely. On Monday, the Washington football team announcing it would retire its longtime name and logo.

“I understand there will be upset residents, but deep down each of us must know that it is time to retire the Hiawatha,” Kabat wrote. “Let’s come together in solidarity to move all of La Crosse forward in a positive way.”

Kabat said that once the statue is removed, the city would look to replace it with a more inclusive marker to celebrate the spot where the La Crosse, Black and Mississippi rivers meet.

“This, I think, is a good opportunity for us to move forward. And yes, it’s going to cause some pain,” he said. “We can do something that can be a true celebration so everyone can feel proud about it.”

The Board of Park Commissioners will meet for its regular monthly meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, though a final agenda has not been released yet.

Photos: Discover these 31 public art sculptures in La Crosse
Photos: Discover these 31 public art sculptures in La Crosse
“With everything that’s going on in the world, it’s hard not to pay attention to our place, La Crosse’s place, in this big world. The timing is right.” Mayor Tim Kabat

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Holmen woman pleads not guilty in husband's death

A Holmen woman accused of killing her husband pleaded not guilty Monday during a preliminary hearing in La Crosse County Circuit Court.

Lori Ann Phillips, 50, was charged last month with second-degree reckless homicide in connection with the incident the night of Feb. 22, 2019. She was accused of fatally hitting her husband, 48-year-old Mark Phillips, with his truck while driving away after they argued last year.

Judge Elliott Levine ruled Monday that there was probable cause to bind her over for trial.

Phillips’ attorney, Chris Zachar, argued Monday that prosecutors did not have enough evidence to charge his client with homicide.

“There are huge problems with causation in this case,” Zachar said. “The state of Wisconsin is literally relying on the assumption that this must have happened because they don’t have another explanation.”

Zachar emphasized that the vehicle wasn’t damaged and the only fibers found on the outside of the truck were made of blue cotton — which would match not only Mark Phillips’ blue jeans, but many other articles of clothing, he said.

“There’s nothing that indicates definitively that Mr. Phillips was run over and that Ms. Phillips did it,” Zachar said.

Assistant District Attorney Susan Donskey brought in forensic pathologist Dr. Ross Reichard and La Crosse County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Fritz Leinfelder to testify at the hearing.

Reichard testified that Mark Phillips died from multiple blunt-force trauma injuries, including broken ribs that lacerated his lungs and bleeding in his brain, and that the injuries were consistent with being hit by a truck.

He testified that the manner of death was undetermined.

While cross-examining Reichard, Zachar suggested there were numerous other ways Mark Phillips could have been injured and noted that he had alcohol and Benadryl in his system.

Leinfelder testified that Mark Phillips was found facedown in a snowbank at the end of his driveway. While his torso was frozen to the ground, his legs were not; however, there were rips in his jeans, according to Leinfelder’s testimony. The Wisconsin Crime Lab found fibers found in the driveshaft of the truck were consistent with Mark Phillips’ jeans.

According to the criminal complaint, the Phillipses argued that night after going out for dinner and drinks, then the altercation became violent.

“They argued that evening, but they came home together and they were the only two who are there,” Donskey said.

Phillips told investigators her husband put her in a chokehold and Leinfelder testified that she had an injury to her chest. Phillips said that they returned home about 11 p.m. and Mark Phillips went inside, then came back out with his hand in a fist as if he were planning to punch her, according to the complaint.

He walked around the truck and Lori Phillips drove away, stopping after a couple blocks, then continuing on. She told police she attempted to get a hotel room before parking in the Woodman’s Market lot, according to the complaint. Investigators say she checked her home security cameras about 10 times using her phone, then returned home and went to sleep.

Phillips told police she found Mark Phillips outside the next morning and called 911.

Donskey argued that Phillips hit Mark Phillips with the truck, then recklessly left him to succumb to his injuries.

“Mr. Phillips is not a small man. … If someone ran over him or hit him, they would know,” Donskey said. “The testimony today was that his injuries were being consistent with being ran over or hit by a truck, and the only person with Mark, the person driving the truck was Lori Phillips.”

Levine ruled that there was enough evidence to find probable cause that a felony was committed and Phillips probably committed it.

“In this case, there is not a lack of evidence. There is enough evidence to reach that probable cause level,” Levine said, noting that some of the evidence was in dispute.

Phillips was released on a $50,000 signature bond.

La Crosse County Circuit Court felony cases in July
La Crosse County Circuit Court felony cases in July

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La Crosse Labor Day parade canceled

The annual Labor Day parade and festival in La Crosse have been canceled for 2020 because of COVID-19.

The Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO made the announcement Monday, calling off what would have been the 129th year for the parade. The group hopes to hold a virtual event this year.

“2020 will continue to look different for a lot of Coulee Region residents, but we are committed to using the tools at our disposal to recognize Labor Day and its meaning,” said Tyler Tubbs, president of the Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO.

“It obviously saddens us to make such an announcement, but the cancelation will not hold us back from continuing to develop collective power and solidarity in Western Wisconsin,” said Bill Brockmiller, webmaster for the Western Wisconsin AFL-CIO and AFT 4999 treasurer. “Whether we gather online or in-person, we’ll continue to engage active and retiree members by encouraging them to connect with each other and with community and elected officials in safe and healthy ways.”

La Crosse’s first Labor Day Parade was in 1891, and 2020 marks only the eighth time the parade was not held. Previous years without a parade were in 1896, 1897, 1899, 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1965.

Officials said the local labor movement continues to work to safeguard the health and safety of all laborers, including workers on the front lines of the public health crisis.

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La Crosse County confirms 27 new COVID-19 cases over 3 days; officials warn of misinformation

La Crosse County confirmed 12 new cases of COVID-19 during the weekend and 15 new cases on Monday, bringing its new total to 593.

Eight new cases were confirmed on Saturday and four on Sunday, the La Crosse County Health Department reported, which does not currently report data during the weekend.

Of all the test results reported on Monday, 51.7% came back positive, and 11 of those came from the National Guard testing site hosted in La Crosse Friday.

Four have remained hospitalized through the weekend in the county, and there are still no deaths.

In Wisconsin, 494 new cases were confirmed Monday, on the heels of three record-breaking days last week. There were no new deaths reported in the state on Monday, and 26 new hospitalizations confirmed.

Of the state’s overall cases, 20% remain active, compared to the 30% of active cases in La Crosse County.

As cases across the area, state and country begin to climb back up, contact tracing has posed challenges for health officials.

On top of being overwhelmed with surges of new cases to track, some areas — including Wisconsin — have reported having trouble reaching individuals for reasons ranging from fears of scams to misinformation about privacy.

“It’s not just about giving you instructions,” La Crosse County Health Department director Jen Rombalski said, “it’s about a relationship that can include support.”

La Crosse County has hired 14 new contact tracers to help ease stress the team has seen in recent weeks with the surge of new cases, relieving some cases the county has had to ask the state to help with.

“At this point, we have had hundreds of positive cases in our community, with thousands of contacts,” said Rebecca Lakowske, a contact tracer and health educator with La Crosse County.

“We could have a million contact tracers and investigators and if people are not answering their phone, we’re still not able to make that connection,” she said.

Lakowske said that overall in La Crosse County, people have been responsive to the calls from contact tracers, and understands that answering calls from an unknown number can be anxiety-inducing for some.

“For those who aren’t answering their phones,” she said, “it’s not a painful process. We really try to be kind.”

Currently, if you have tested positive for the disease in La Crosse County or have been within six feet of someone who has tested positive for longer than 10 minutes, a team member will contact you to provide information on moving forward.

Usually, this information includes guiding you through how to isolate for two weeks, especially if work schedules or an unsafe living environment pose challenges, but also on what to do if you are experiencing symptoms or do throughout your isolation period.

If you don’t answer, the contact tracer will leave a voicemail with callback information, but will not reveal any of your personal information in the message.

Contact tracers will never ask for your financial information or Social Security number, Rombalski said, and if someone does those should be red flags that it’s a scam.

She also said that if you are contacted and feel uncomfortable, you can ask the person on the other phone to hang up so you can call them back, or you can call the health department to confirm the identity of the caller.

“We want to help you be safe and not be at risk of something ... that might be a scam,” Rombalski said.

Ever-changing information

As things develop in what health officials know about the novel coronavirus disease, officials also reminded the community to remain vigilant in using reliable sources for their information.

“There are a lot of unknowns, and while there are unknowns that really raise anxiety for individuals and people, it’s just part of human nature that when we don’t have known answers we may seek answers that are not factual,” Rombalski said.

And with the amount of unknown details about the disease comes the unknown level of risk it poses, officials also remind the community.

“It isn’t just about death, and there can be long-term health effects that we are still learning about,” Rombalski said.

“I say that because it may seem like, because we haven’t had any deaths in La Crosse County and most individuals don’t require hospitalization, it might feel like it could just be like getting the flu, and what is the fuss all about, essentially,” she said.

“Just remember that there are a lot of unknowns about COVID-19,” Rombalski added.

More testing sites

On Friday, the county hosted another free testing site through the National Guard, where 400 tests were administered, and results are already being seen.

“It’s the first time we were able to maximize the amount of tests available,” Rombalski said.

Some individuals with symptoms who were waiting in line had to be referred to get tests through health care providers because the site ran out of tests sooner than expected.

Rombalski said that if you tested positive, the health department will contact you, and if you tested negative, the National Guard will call you instead.

All results should be in by the end of Wednesday, she added, reminding anyone who was tested on Friday to remain isolated.

The next free National Guard testing site will be on July 24 at the Omni Center in Onalaska from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Anyone with symptoms can attend.