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Hearings in infant death case to remain open

CHIPPEWA FALLS — Court hearings for a 10-year-old girl accused of stomping on 6-month-old Jaxon Hunter on Oct. 30, causing his death, will remain open to the public, a judge ruled Friday.

Dunn County Judge James Peterson, who was assigned to handle the Chippewa County case, determined Friday that the public has a right to know and scrutinize what is happening in a case while it remains in adult court.

“The court has ruled the proceedings will be open,” Peterson announced after an hourlong closed hearing Friday. “The public’s interest is open, public trials. It is not overridden by the request of the defendant and the defendant’s counsel.”

The girl, dressed in regular clothes, was escorted to the courtroom by law enforcement officers via the private elevator that connects to the jail. She cried as she entered the courtroom, saying, “I want my mommy.”

The girl’s name will be redacted, and she will be referred to by two initials in all court documents; her date of birth and address also will be redacted. Peterson said it is possible some future hearings or documents could remain closed to the public. He ordered the media to not show the girl’s face and to not show images of anyone in the courtroom to ensure privacy for the family.

Peterson set a court date for Jan. 17, where her initial appearance will be continued.

Defense attorney Laurie Sazama Osberg intends to raise the issue of competency at the Jan. 17 hearing, saying she will challenge the probable cause stated in the criminal complaint.

“This criminal complaint alleges criminal recklessness, and the act shows utter disregard for human life,” Osberg told Peterson. “I do not believe she is competent, under Wisconsin law, at this time.”

Osberg questioned if the girl, at age 10, has the mindset to understand the severity of her action.

“We’re concerned about her youth,” Osberg said after the hearing. “We intend to challenge that charge.”

Osberg said it is difficult having a client so young.

“You have to call on your paternal instinct when dealing with a child this young,” Osberg said. “It’s hard to relate legal concepts to a child.”

If Peterson orders a competency hearing, that report first must determine if the girl is competent, and if not, if she can become competent in the next year, Osberg said.

Osberg intends to call for the case being moved to juvenile court.

Prosecuting attorney Richard Dufour from the state Department of Justice declined to comment after the hearing. Dufour recently handled the prosecution of Doug Nitek, who was found guilty in September of fatally shooting Rusk County sheriff’s Deputy Dan Glaze.

DOJ took over the case after Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell recused himself. Jaxon’s father, Nate Liedl, is an employee in the clerk of court’s office, which created a conflict of interest.

Jaxon was born April 6. He was at a day care, which also serves as a foster home, Oct. 30 in the town of Tilden, where the 10-year-old girl, who lived there as a foster child, was alone inside the house while everyone else was playing outside. The girl told authorities she panicked after dropping the baby, and then she stomped on his head when he began to cry. The incident was reported at 4:34 p.m.

Jaxon was transferred to a hospital in Minnesota, where he died Nov. 1.

The girl appeared in Chippewa County’s adult court Nov. 5 on a possible charge of first-degree intentional homicide by someone age 10 or older. Judge James Isaacson ordered her held on a $50,000 cash bond and placed in a secure detention center. Osberg said the girl remains in that facility. Isaacson has since recused himself from handling the case.

Liedl attended the hearing but declined to comment, referring questions to Dufour.

A killer solution: Effort aims to reduce opioid-related deaths in Eau Claire, Dunn counties

Ten Eau Claire County residents required medical transport for potential opioid overdoses in October, the highest total among 18 western Wisconsin counties for that month and a sign of what local officials say is a substantial and growing problem in this part of the state.

Suspected opioid overdose cases totaled 34 in those counties during that month and are among 250 such cases in that region from January through October. Statewide, 4,185 ambulance runs for suspected opioid overdoses were logged during that time.

Law enforcement officers and others point to methamphetamine as the major drug threat in Eau Claire and across northwestern Wisconsin. But those ambulance trips for possible overdose cases due to opioids are evidence of a growing problem with those drugs in this part of the state, prompting new action intended to reduce that number.

A coalition of local agencies is forming the Overdose Fatality Review Team, an effort aimed at preventing more of opioid-related deaths. A wide array of agencies in Dunn and Eau Claire counties will comprise group, including the health departments in those counties, human services departments, law enforcement, health care providers and district attorney offices.

“Deaths caused by opioids has become a big enough problem here to merit an effort like this,” said Denise Wirth, community health promotion division manager with the Eau Claire City-County Health Department who will oversee the team.

Partners in Eau Claire and Dunn counties are combining to form the review team, thanks to a $25,000 federal grant through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The money is disbursed to states that in turn choose communities to give it to. The money will be used to help pay for staff to work on the issue for one year, and those involved with the initiative hope to receive funding for an additional two years.

The Eau Claire-Dunn partnership is the only one in this part of the state to have received the grant and is one of three statewide to receive funding this year, the third year for the program that has now doled out money for nine partnerships in the state to prevent opioid deaths. The nearest county to also have received that funding is La Crosse.

‘Complicated issue’

Wirth said she was heartened by the willingness of others to join the overdose prevention team.

“We have so many partners willing to be a part of this,” she said. “All I had to do is ask, and they right away said, ‘Yes, we want to do this.’ They want to be a part of solving this problem.”

Making inroads on a subject that has garnered headlines across the U.S. because of lives lost will be “a huge challenge,” Wirth acknowledged.

“It’s a complicated issue with so many components,” she said. “That’s why a broad coalition with expertise in a lot of different areas is important.”

Sgt. Andy Falk, an Eau Claire police officer and supervisor of the West Central Drug Task Force, said that while meth remains the main drug threat regionally, opioid use and deaths are rising here. Having a multiagency group working to curb opioid-related deaths is important to make inroads on that issue, he said.

“Any time you can develop more information and try to identify causes, then you can target efforts toward the problem,” he said. “I think we are in a good position to address (opioid abuse) in the earlier stages of the epidemic. Hopefully we can impact it before it gets to be such a problem.”

Marcie Rosas, medical examiner in Dunn and Eau Claire counties, said she is seeing more opioid-related deaths in the region and backs the formation of the overdose team. Opioid-related overdoses “can affect anyone, people from all walks of life,” she said.

‘Power to kill’

Overdoses have gained national attention across the U.S. in recent years as a growing number of people have died because of opioid addiction.

According to figures provided by the CDC, drug overdoses killed 63,632 Americans in 2016. Nearly two-thirds of those deaths involved a prescription or illicit opioid. The number of opioid-related deaths has grown significantly in recent years, and medical experts say the figure continues to rise.

The CDC study and others show increases in drug overdose deaths are driven by the use of synthetic opioids other than methadone, such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl. That is happening in the Chippewa Valley as well, law enforcement officers said.

“Opioids make headlines because they have the power to kill people,” Falk said. “A lot of bad things happen because of meth, but people typically don’t die from it. But with opioids, too often they do.”

Many illegal opioids making their way to western Wisconsin is manufactured in Central America and Mexico, Falk said. Increasingly, he said, heroin is being replaced by fentanyl, and in some cases heroin is laced with that substance, which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin. In addition, many people become addicted to prescription opioids.

“A little misstep can result in death really quickly,” Falk said. “That’s why we’re seeing the recent uptick in deaths in this area related to opioids.”

Growing problem

Obtaining exact data regarding the number of people dying because of opioid overdose deaths in the Chippewa Valley and other parts of Wisconsin is sometimes difficult.

To provide timely information, the state tracks the number of medical transports because of opioid overdoses as a means of tracking the number of possible overdoses.

According to the Wisconsin Suspected Opioid Overdose Report compiled by the state Department of Health Services, Jackson County, at 62.9 overdoses per 100,000 residents, had the highest suspected overdose rate this year through October among western Wisconsin counties. La Crosse County ranked a close second, at 62.7, followed by Eau Claire County at 44.1 and Dunn County at 42.6.

The two counties with the largest populations, Eau Claire and La Crosse, recorded the two highest suspected opioid overdose cases so far this year, with 45 and 74, respectively, according to the overdose report.

All counties in the western part of the state fall below the state average of 72.5 deaths per 100,000 residents. However, law enforcement officers and others familiar with illegal drug use in the Eau Claire area say local usage is likely to rise.

“When it comes to opioids, we have been on an island,” Falk said, “but we’re seeing more of it now, and I think that will continue.”

Some of those involved in Overdose Fatality Review Team spent time recently in eastern Wisconsin’s Winnebago County, which received a grant last year to set up a similar team. Wirth hopes that effort helps the Eau Claire-Dunn County group form ideas.

“It will take time to get all of the information we need, to get up and running,” she said. “But this is an effort worth doing ... We want to stomp this out before it becomes too big of a problem here.”