Todd Kendhammer on Tuesday denied killing his wife but admitted he lied to investigators about where the couple was going when she sustained her fatal injuries.
During three hours of testimony, Kendhammer stood by his account of the events of the morning of Sept. 16, 2016: that Barbara Kendhammer was grievously injured after an airborne pipe pierced the windshield of the couple’s car as he drove down a rural highway in the town of Hamilton. She died the next day.
Prosecutors contend Kendhammer inflicted Barb’s fatal injuries and drove the pipe through the window to disguise the cause of her death. The West Salem man’s 10-day trial for first-degree intentional homicide in La Crosse County Circuit Court entered its second week on Monday.
Kendhammer was composed throughout his direct testimony, methodically looking at jurors, but he repeatedly said “I don’t recall” when cross-examined.
“Did you love Barb?” defense attorney Stephen Hurley asked.
“Yes,” Kendhammer said.
“Did you love her on September 16th of last year?”
“Yes. I still do.”
“Did you ever do anything to harm Barb?”
At the onset of his testimony, Kendhammer told jurors that he and Barb met as teenagers at a wedding in 1986.
“It was one of the things where you know immediately — that’s the girl I want,” he said.
They married on Aug. 3, 1991, and have two grown children, who sit behind their father in the courtroom each day.
The couple were seldom apart, except when Kendhammer went deer hunting. Even then, he said, he drove home in the evenings to see Barb, he said.
On Sept. 16, they stopped at the neighbor’s house about 7:45 a.m. to check on equipment stored in an unlocked garage. Kendhammer planned to take his wife to work at West Salem Middle School after picking up a truck from the base of Shefelbine Hill to replace its windshield, he testified.
In earlier statements, Kendhammer said they were driving to Holmen to pick up a truck owned by Justin Heim and then Benjamin Pfaff. Kendhammer mentioned a third owner’s name during his testimony.
“I wasn’t in the right state of mind,” he said of inconsistent stories he told investigators. “I was thinking of Barb.”
While on Hwy. M in the town of Hamilton, Kendhammer said, he suddenly saw an airborne object.
“Um, I don’t remember what it was,” he said. “I thought it was a bird. I thought it was a pipe.”
Kendhammer said he lunged forward and punched the windshield trying to deflect a 10-pound, 53-inch galvanized steel pipe that he told authorities rolled from an oncoming truck and pierced the passenger side of the windshield.
“Everything happened so fast,” he said. “Barb started flailing and moving around, and I quick turned onto Bergum Coulee Road.”
In the fraction of a second before impact, Barb ducked to avoid the airborne pipe, which cut her scalp and knocked her forward, causing her throat to hit a stainless steel coffee mug in her hand, retired emergency medicine doctor Steven Cook testified Tuesday.
When Kendhammer turned onto Bergum Coulee Road, Barb’s body struck the pipe again, leaving another deep cut to the back of her head, Cook said.
“I think the injuries here are entirely consistent with what was described by Mr. Kendhammer,” he said. “I do not believe (the injuries) were the product of a beating. If this was a beating, this would have had to be a rage beating with the amount of injuries that were there.”
Kendhammer’s injuries on his left knuckles are consistent with a punch to the windshield, “more so than striking a face,” Cook added.
On cross-examination, Cook told jurors he has never before testified about the cause of death in a criminal case and that he was contacted by the defense to examine the case because the attorneys know his brother. Impact with the glass, Cook said, was enough to stop the pipe without its touching Barb’s seat.
Kendhammer said he found his wife leaning forward and “the pipe hanging there” when he opened her door.
“I don’t know if I threw the pipe or set it down but I got it out of the way,” he said.
Kendhammer said he tried to gently remove his wife from the seat but she was caught. He tugged on her body, causing both to fall backward and Barb to land on top of him with her head near the rear passenger tire. He tried life-saving measures before calling 911 at 8:06 a.m. and did not see a passerby on Bergum Coulee Road, he said.
“Did you take her head and bash it against the wheel rim?” Hurley asked.
“Did you take a pipe and beat her in any way?”
“Did you take the Bubba mug and smash it against her face?”
“Have you ever hit Barb?”
“No. Never even raised my voice to Barb. Never hit her either.”
Barb sustained injuries encompassing her head and neck, and her husband had injuries to knuckles on both hands, scratches on both sides of his neck and scratches on his chest.
“And you’re saying those are inconsistent with a fight?” District Attorney Tim Gruenke asked the doctor.
“You can sustain those injuries in a fight, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said.
Barb could have sustained the injuries outside the car, Cook testified, although he believes “this was an incredibly bizarre accident.”
In Barb’s final moments at the hospital, Kendhammer said, he held her hand and kissed his wife of 25 years.
“I told her that I loved her, too, and I would take care of her mom,” he said, his voice cracking.
On cross-examination, Gruenke reminded Kendhammer that his initial statements about where the couple was headed that morning couldn’t be verified by either man he said owned the truck.
“And today you have a third story,” Gruenke said.
“No. I have a second story,” Kendhammer said.
“You were driving around looking for a man you’ve never talked to and don’t know where he lives, right?”
Barb was scheduled to work at 8 a.m. and did not call to report that she would be late.
“She was not physically able to call because you had already hurt her, right?” Gruenke asked.
Kendhammer couldn’t explain to jurors what caused the injuries to the knuckles on his right hand and scratches on his neck, or why he didn’t see the passerby on Bergum Coulee Road.
According to phone records, Kendhammer called Justin Heim seven minutes after investigators called him into the sheriff’s department. Kendhammer told jurors that he did not place that call. Investigators challenged his story about where the couple was driving that morning during his interview.
“Did you change your story for trial because you knew police had figured out your lies?” Gruenke said.
The defense is expected to rest its case today.