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It’s not every day you get accused of causing a murder conviction. But when you’re the Enemy of the American People, it goes with the territory.

Rusty Cunningham mug

Rusty Cunningham

Last week’s last-minute attempt to blame the La Crosse Tribune and the judge who presided over the Todd Kendhammer case made as much sense as the defendant’s explanation of how his wife died.

His attorneys blamed the Tribune for “extensive” pre-trial coverage.

For the record, that coverage included a dozen stories before the case came to trial; that’s just one-third the number of the stories written about Eric Koula’s case before his 2012 trial for the deaths of his parents.

That Kendhammer coverage was based on interviews, crime lab reports, photographs, videos and 911 tapes released by the La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department and Wisconsin State Patrol under Wisconsin’s open-records law.

Using state law, that information was sought by our criminal justice reporter, Anne Jungen, a four-time winner of the Golden Gavel Award from the Wisconsin Bar Association for excellence in coverage of legal affairs.

With every bit of information and before every story, she sought comment from the defense attorneys and the family of the accused.

There was never a response for the record.

Interestingly, there was no defense motion for a change of venue. Kendhammer was convicted in a matter of hours by a jury of his peers.

The defense motion before last week’s sentencing also accuses reporters of passing a note to the judge during the trial.

One problem: The bailiff actually delivered a note from a juror to the judge, which is permissible.

It didn’t come from a reporter because that would have violated courtroom decorum.

The media room in the La Crosse County courtroom — a space for typing, sweating and listening to testimony — is there so journalists can do their job without disrupting proceedings.

Of course, reporters and family members share common space outside the courtroom. That’s where we were subjected to swearing, shouting, obscene gestures.

District Attorney Tim Gruenke said during Friday’s sentencing hearing: “After the verdict … the family members of Mr. Kendhammer physically attacked the media.”

The nicest family member during the proceedings was Todd, who politely let a reporter have the first drink at the bubbler outside the courtroom during one break.

The defense also suggested last week that Judge Todd Bjerke recuse himself because of his cozy relationship with us.

He’s always been professional, but cozy?

When he was running for judge in March 2007, we wrote in an editorial: “Bjerke clearly has leadership skills, honed in his active-duty military service with the Marine Corps, and his continuing Army Reserve service, where he attained the rank of colonel. In both branches of the service, he worked as a military lawyer, including defense work. Bjerke has developed a reputation as an expert on drug prosecutions, in particular, and his work in that regard is impressive.”

For the record, we didn’t endorse him. We endorsed a candidate who had more experience on the bench.

Judge Bjerke probably remembers that — and yet he was courteous and professional during the trial, checking once whether reporters could hear testimony back in the sweat box in order to do their jobs.

While the anger and threats and obscenities weren’t really surprising, I continue to be stunned that we had heard so little about the victim until Friday’s sentencing. I can’t remember such lack of respect during far too many homicide cases during the past 40 years.

During Friday’s hearing, the judge mentioned the lack of words, the lack of support that had been expressed for the victim.

By all accounts, Barb Kendhammer was a sweet, loving woman.

Her birthday came and went last Sunday, March 4.

Her cousin, Gerianne Buchner-Wettstein, said during Friday’s hearing that Barbara had an infectious laugh and big blue eyes. She was a proud mother who enjoyed gardening, cooking, animals, the outdoors, decorating and, finally, becoming a grandmother.

Barbara loved working with the kids and staff at West Salem Middle School. She loved making lefse with friends and checking out crafts at the Warren’s Cranberry Festival.

Buchner-Wettstein said Friday that there weren’t more supporters of Barbara sitting through the trial because they couldn’t reconcile that a man who professed love could have killed her.

“The horror of knowing she suffered terribly while being strangled and having her skull fractured by her assailant is gut-wrenching,” she said. “We cannot help but wonder, ‘Was she crying out? Was she begging for her life?’”

I can’t help but wonder, too.

A warm person beaten in a cold rural ditch.

Why?


Rusty Cunningham is executive editor of the La Crosse Tribune and River Valley Media Group.

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(28) comments

laxlax

I don't know if anyone in Barb's family is reading these comments but if they are, I have a few things to say. 1. Shame on you for supporting the man who was convicted of killing your loved one more than you support her legacy, her memory. 2. Domestic violence is rarely ever seen outside of the home. Take that into account. 3. Do NOT continue supporting this man and letting him manipulate all of you to believing that he is innocent. He isn't and it is obvious. I hope that some day you all will see this. Think of what Barb is thinking right now. She has more people in the public, who didn't know her, supporting her than she does in her own family. That is a travesty. It is disturbing, sad, pathetic and down right wrong. No support for this woman who can't speak for herself in the courtroom? What has this world come to. I hope you all feel horrible.

kingman10

A senseless killing and a horrific end of one's life. At least there was justice and the right person was convicted I believe. Still so sad for the family and loved ones of the deceased. Let the poor woman rest is peace and the rest of you political hacks shut the h*ll up!

Frangel45

Barbara did not deserve this entire family! So utterly gut wrenching.

capedcrusader

Buggs, have you been sucking down the martinis already today? You start off by saying you hadn't read his article until today but you responded to it twice yesterday. Article in today's paper (Star-Tribune) says fake news spreads faster online than real news does. Btw, the Star-Tribune isn't owned by Lee Enterprises. You gotta trust somebody and something. You place your trust in Alex Jones. I don't. I also think you like stirring up confrontation and you don't honestly believe half of what he says. (or more). You wouldn't even watch his melt down that I told you about several times because you were worried that you couldn't rationally respond. The Tribune isn't so much about fake news or you wouldn't be here reading it everyday. It's become more about advertising and less interaction on the part of readers. Perhaps you could talk Rusty and the Tribune into starting your own column where readers could directly respond to you. Even using real names if they so choose! They would still get advertising AND possibly get more interest and subscribers. Nothing ventured nothing gained!

Buggs Raplin

I responded to a reader's comments before reading the column. Anything wrong with that? Now I've responded to Rusty's column, where poor ol' Rusty laments that he and his Tribune are an enemy of the people. I tried to distinguish that the main culprit is the national media, a sophisticated propaganda enterprise whose purpose is to advance the elite agenda, which has NO regard for the truth. The truth is irrelevant. It doesn't matter. The Tribune is culpable in this propaganda. All of its columnists, including Lowry, are part of it, and anyone reading an article from the AssoCIAted Press printed in the Tribune, and believing they're getting the whole truth is a FOOL. Again, let me repeat. Thank God for people like Alex Jones, Jeff Rense, Mike Adams, Michael Rivero, and the others in the alternative media bringing forth the truth on the things that matter. Caped, you go on believing the propaganda. It is indeed comforting for gullibles like you, what with its necessary illusions. I'll go with the truth, as ugly as it is. It is still the truth. Finally, you think Rusty would give me a regular column? Yes, it would make the Tribune more interesting, but it would go against all the rules of a propaganda enterprise. I'm just lucky to get a letter to the editor published now and then, as a number have been censored by Rusty.

capedcrusader

Well, I do think most people read the article first before responding... But, no, nothing wrong with it I guess. Well, I wish we could come up with something where people could discuss anything and actually keep it going if needed/wanted. Political Forums for the most part have died out and Facebook for the most part is just people who want to talk about themselves. Sure would be nice to talk about things in the paper and not have to worry about censorship. I think most of it started when companies started buying up numerous papers, (Lee Enterprises?), and now I see Des Moines is turning into a magazine Capital so we may not even get away from propaganda there. Not sure where it will all go but I guess I would prefer the olden days when cities had numerous newspapers.

Buggs Raplin

Caped. I totally agree with your comment. Thank you.

Cassandra2

Chippy ALWAYS makes up his mind before reading articles and getting the facts.

Buggs Raplin

I hadn't read Rusty's column until today. As I state below, I was just responding to a comment by madmen. I did not follow the trial closely as I correctly ascertained the guilt of Mr. Kendhammer early on in the proceedings. I'm thinking the victim did not get her due because Kendhammer had convinced a number of family members that he was innocent. Obviously a probation agent was assigned to do a pre-sentence investigation before Judge Bjerke passed sentence. That report would have included victims' statements to give the judge a feel on how family members were dealing with the loss. There again with Kendhammer fooling some of the family members, the effect was muted. Rusty felt it necessary to defend the Tribune from a convicted murderer desperate to avoid the justice he deserves. So be it. But he adds a somewhat mournful lament about the media being perceived as an enemy of the people. Well, Rusty, that is exactly the case on the national level, and more and more people are waking up to that realization. The MSM can no longer claim they are the watchdogs of our freedoms. They've proven time and time and time again, they are lapdogs resting comfortably in the laps of the elite, advancing their agenda, and trying to destroy truth in the process. Thank God for the alternative media.

Buggs Raplin

I was just replying to madmen, who had made an intelligent comment. But I guess I'm just an empty soul.

DaisyL

It's hard to believe that a local woman's murder & death can somehow be side tracked by comments about Hillary & Trump. Also surprised the Trib allowed them to be printed for comments on this particular article as they have nothing to do with the subject matter.

capedcrusader

Free speech.

DaisyL

I find it amazing that an article about about a local woman's death can bring out the usual commenters who are so tunnel focused, that they make it about Hillary & Trump.

oldhomey

The topic at hand in this excellent column is one that does not need the distraction of empty souls riding through it on their personal hobby horses, oblivious to anything else.

Comment deleted.
Buggs Raplin

And the capedcrusader lies prostrated before CNN

capedcrusader

You leave my prostate out of this! ;)

Comment deleted.
RegularJane

Thank you! I know absolutely no one in this situation, but have followed it and I felt almost sick that the convicted man had more people speak for him than the victim did. I appreciate this article and your comment. Shame on those who have turned this woman's tragic death into yet another political argument!

madmen60

I think that the media typically has a pro prosecution bias.

Buggs Raplin

Except for Hillary. She can do anything. She's untouchable.

capedcrusader

That's because you right wing radicals got nothin. You sir are one of the people constantly railing on the Tribune in essence calling it fake news. And yet here you are. The one person "untouchable" so far of any relevance has been Trump. I'm hoping that changes if nothing else by election day. That rabbit hole you fell down has become a very dark place.

Cassandra2

In his typical paranoid delusion, Chippy laments that Hillary Clinton is "untouchable" despite being investigated by republicans more than any person in history. Chippy once again disregards the facts. What a pathetic loser.

Snow Cougar Mary Burke

You must have patience and faith - HRC and Hussein are "touchable". Over 18,000 sealed indictments since October 2017. A normal year has around 1,100 sealed indictments. This month is also known as 'March Madness' - the storm is about to be unleashed.

The Democrat party may no longer exist by the end of the year.....

Buggs Raplin

Ah, I wish it was true, but it won't happen. She's a criminal, but untouchable. The CIA will protect her for as long as she lives. Wake up Cougar to the reality.

Cassandra2

The Cougar is a Russian bot, once again spreading fake news. She's a regular Tokyo Rose.

shameless

Only Buggs would use a local murder story to stroke his Hillary bone.

capedcrusader

Buggs gets her mixed up with the current criminal in the White House. You know, the one having the Stormy relationship. Interesting that Snow Cougar shows up again. Who's next, Climatehoax?

Buggs Raplin

Just replying to madmen...

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