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by Steve Kinderman 

Girl Scouts sing as hundreds of community members gather in the rain Nov. 4 for a candlelight vigil at Halmstad Elementary School in Chippewa Falls. The vigil honored the three fourth-grade Girl Scouts and a parent who died the previous day after being struck by a pickup truck while picking up trash along a county highway. View more photos at Leader


Crash that killed Girl Scouts top story of the year

CHIPPEWA FALLS — Tragedy struck Chippewa Falls on Nov. 3, when a vehicle driven by 21-year-old Colten Treu of Chippewa Falls veered off Highway P and struck five people, killing four of them.

Treu admits he was huffing from an aerosol spray when he struck five people, killing Jayna S. Kelley, 9, Autumn A. Helgeson, 10, Haylee J. Hickle, 10, and her mother, Sara Jo Schneider, 32. The victims were members of Girl Scouts Troop #3055, who were in the ditch, picking up trash.

Treu has been charged with 11 counts: four counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, four counts of hit and run-involving death, and one count each of hit and run-causing great bodily harm, intentionally abusing hazardous materials and bail jumping. He remains in jail on a $250,000 cash bond. He returns to court Jan. 30.

Madalyn Zwiefelhofer, the 10-year-old girl who was struck and survived the crash, suffered two broken legs, a displaced pelvis, a broken cheekbone and numerous injuries to her internal organs. She had heart surgery shortly after the crash. She will need at least one surgery on her right leg in the future, and it is still unclear how well she will walk. However, Madalyn was released from the hospital on Nov. 21 — the day before Thanksgiving — and came home to Chippewa Falls with her family.

The story has stunned and saddened the community, as seemingly everyone had a connection to the four people who died. On Nov. 4 perhaps up to 1,000 people stood in the rain at Halmstad Elementary School for a candlelight vigil. The crash also led to a generous outpouring of support, both emotionally and financially. Numerous benefits have been held, with money going to the Girl Scout troop or the victims of the crash. A GoFundMe page raised $100,000 for Madalyn’s family; the money will offset medical bills and transportation costs.

The story made nationwide news, with support generated from Girl Scout troops across the country. Dianne Zwiefelhofer, Madalyn’s mother, placed a picture on Facebook of a pile of mail sent from Girl Scouts nationwide to Madalyn.

Treu had a passenger in his car when the crash occurred. At this time, Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell has not charged him.

After years of assailing 'Obamacare,' some Republicans now fear the political fallout

WASHINGTON — Republicans in Congress, fresh off an election that punished their party for opposing health care protections, now worry that a recent federal court ruling undermining the Affordable Care Act could give Democrats new ammunition for 2020, and they’re scrambling to thwart any attacks.

Particularly in the Senate, some Republicans want to prove to voters that they will protect popular benefits mandated by President Barack Obama’s signature 2010 law, especially insurance coverage for people with pre-existing medical conditions. They are eager to neutralize an issue Democrats effectively used in the midterm elections to gain a net 40 House seats and take control of the chamber.

“I think it would be in our best interest as Republicans to assure the public that (on) the issues like pre-existing conditions, staying on your parents’ insurance until age 26 and things like that, we’re committed,” said Sen. Shelly Moore Capito, who is up for re-election in West Virginia in 2020.

Republican senators, including Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, are discussing what health care legislation they could introduce next year that would allow Republicans to show support for pre-existing conditions protections. One possibility is legislation to address the court decision, in which federal District Court Judge Reed O’Connor of Texas ruled two weeks ago that the entire health care law should be struck down.

In the ruling, widely criticized by legal scholars, O’Connor said Congress’s 2017 decision to repeal the law’s mandate requiring individuals to have health insurance meant that the entire law needed to be scrapped.

While the suit before O’Connor was initiated by Republican state officials, reflecting the party’s long-standing vow to repeal Obamacare, the law’s increased popularity has some Republicans on Capitol Hill distancing themselves from the decision, which is likely to remain in the news as appeals move through the court system.

“I intended to repeal the individual mandate. I did not intend to eliminate pre-existing conditions coverage,” Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said. “We ought to be prepared for dealing with pre-existing conditions.”

From a policy standpoint, however, the two issues were linked, as the Obama administration argued before the Supreme Court. The individual mandate, originally a conservative idea, was intended to ensure that insurance companies would get more customers — and younger and healthier ones — to offset the companies’ costs of covering people with medical conditions. Severing the two posed difficulties for insurers as well as politicians writing legislation.

As Republicans maneuver for a response, Democrats will continue to stoke the issue.

Senate Democrats plan to make health care the focus of their January retreat, where they will set the year’s political message. House Democrats, with their new majority, are weighing whether to join appeals of the Texas lawsuit. They’re also considering legislation making minor changes to the health care law and undoing some Trump administration regulations, notably one allowing health plans that don’t adhere to Obamacare’s coverage requirements — “junk plans,” critics call them, because insurers can drop patients when they get sick.

Health care “is not going away as the No. 1 issue for the electorate and the No. 1 wedge issue between Republicans and Democrats,” said Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. “Separate and aside from the policy, do Republicans really want to gift us with this issue for the next two years?”

For years after the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, Republicans had the upper hand politically, using opposition to the law to retake control of the House that year. But public opinion on the law, long closely divided, turned more favorable in 2017, when President Donald Trump and congressional Republicans tried and failed to repeal it. Democrats used that record of opposition to advantage in the midterm campaigns, arguing that Republicans were willing to let insurance companies drop people with health conditions.

Republicans counter that their so-called “repeal and replace” bills against Obamacare would have protected people with pre-existing conditions in different but equally comprehensive ways. One alternative would have banned companies from charging patients more as long as they maintained insurance coverage, though health experts say it would not have been as comprehensive as Obamacare.

Even as the political dynamic has shifted around the health care law, the most conservative Republicans remain unbowed.

“Shame on us — we never put (Democrats) on the defensive about how they used the individual mandate to fine 8 million poor people in America by $2 billion,” said Sen. David Perdue of Georgia.

Still, Republicans say there are ways around the issue. One of the leaders among the Republican state attorneys general who brought the lawsuit against Obamacare, Josh Hawley of Missouri, managed to defeat Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill last month. Barrasso credited Hawley with talking directly to voters about his concern for people with pre-existing conditions.

Such tactics didn’t work for many Republicans, however. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher of California, David Young of Iowa and Dave Brat of Virginia, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, among others, cut campaign ads touting their concerns for people with pre-existing medical conditions. They all lost.

For Republican survivors, attempts to draft health care bills that address the issues holds risks. While almost every Republican is on the record in support of guaranteeing coverage for people with medical conditions, the party is still divided on how best to do so given the complexities of health care policy. They remain split as well on whether to try again to repeal Obamacare.

Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, who will lead the Senate committees that oversee health care policy next year, have tried to reshape the debate to one about the cost of health care premiums, a big concern for most Americans.

Alexander said he wants to convert “all the energy we’ve had arguing about the 6 percent of health insurance market” — referring to the share of people in Obamacare plans — “to how do we (reduce) that $1.8 trillion number that we spend every year on health care costs.”

“We don’t have to do anything on pre-existing conditions right now because that’s the law,” Alexander added.

In the House, the new chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Frank Pallone of New Jersey, declined to say what kind of health care legislation Democrats would pursue. His goals, he said, will be to roll back the administration’s regulations allowing insurance plans to skirt Obamacare’s rules and to stabilize the Obamacare markets.

And taking Republicans at their word, Pallone said he sees an opportunity to work with them.

“The No. 1 thing I think we can work with them on is no discrimination based on pre-existing conditions,” he said. “They’ve all articulated that they’re opposed to it, even the president.”

Tribune News Service

Tragedy and triumph in 2018

Leader-Telegram staff

News in the Chippewa Valley this year ranged from the tragic to the triumphant. The following are the rest of the top 10 stories as selected by Leader-Telegram staff members.

2 Girl vanishes

No suspects. No eyewitnesses. No motive. No DNA left behind at the scene.

And no one has heard from 13-year-old Jayme Closs since she vanished from her home just west of Barron on Oct. 15.

It is a case that has Barron County Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald stumped and frustrated.

Jayme’s parents, James Closs, 56, and Denise Closs, 46, died of gunshot wounds at their home Oct. 15 at 1268 U.S. 8, and Fitzgerald has ruled it a homicide. Jayme, who was believed to be home at the time, remains missing. Fitzgerald believes she is still alive.

Fitzgerald has worked to keep the case in the forefront. He has urged hunters to keep an eye out for anything unusual. He’s held numerous news conferences and sent out even more news releases, urging the public to stay vigilant and look for clues. He sent out descriptions of two vehicles that may have been in the area at the time. Posters and flyers, showing Jayme’s face, hang in storefronts across western Wisconsin.

With the help of several investigation agencies, Fitzgerald’s office has received numerous tips, but so far, none has led to Jayme.

The public has rallied behind the search for Jayme, with numerous events in her honor, ranging from erecting a Christmas tree at the Barron County Courthouse to a balloon release.

3 Pablo Center opens

The much-anticipated opening of the Pablo Center at the Confluence attracted a packed house, and audience members have continued to show up since to attend a varied performance schedule.

All of the shows in the RCU Theatre at the $60 million structure that opened Sept. 22 have sold more than 68 percent of available seats, the break-even point for operations during the venue’s inaugural year, Pablo executive director Jason Jon Anderson said.

In addition to shows in the Pablo’s main theater, other spaces at the arts center, notably the Jamf Theatre, also have hosted many performances, some of which have been free or at reduced prices.

“We want to make this theater as accessible as we can to this community,” Anderson said.

The arts center was funded by a combination of public and private money, and while most of its costs have been covered, about $5 million remains to be raised.

Pablo visitors will have an added attraction by next summer, when work on a decorative plaza outside the building is expected to be completed.

4 Baby death

The details are horrific, tragic and unfathomable.

On Nov. 5, a 10-year-old girl appeared in Chippewa County Court accused of stomping on the head of 6-month-old Jaxon Hunter on Oct. 30; the boy died two days later at a hospital in St. Paul.

The case quickly gained national attention. Footage of the girl, dressed in pink shoes and a dress, sobbing in the arms of her parents, wound up appearing on national news programs, and a debate began if the girl could and should be charged as an adult.

The girl will return to court Jan. 17. As of now, her case remains in adult court, but that could change. The girl’s attorney, Laurie Sazama Osberg, said this month that she intends to seek a competency hearing, contending her client doesn’t understand what is happening to her.

The 6-month-old was at a day care, which also serves as a foster home, in the town of Tilden on Oct. 30 when 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.

5 Altoona superintendent

Altoona schools officials continue to move past a tumultuous school year that included the exit of the district’s superintendent.

Connie Biedron resigned Feb. 16 amid an investigation about her handling of a situation involving the high school athletic director that revealed her heavy-handed management style that created an aura of fear among district staff, prompting some to leave.

The investigation arose after Biedron told Altoona school board members she didn’t fire the district’s football coach and blamed that action on athletic director Jamie Oliver. However, text messages about the matter showed that Biedron backed dismissing the coach.

The school board had previously sided with Biedron on matters in which she butted heads with staff members. This time, however, the board decided to seek Biedron’s ouster.

The board subsequently hired Ron Walsh as interim superintendent for this school year and currently is searching for a more permanent superintendent.

6 Wheel tax

The Eau Claire County Board — following nearly three hours of discussion — voted 20-9 July 17 to enact a $30-per-vehicle registration fee, which is projected to raise $2.39 million annually for county road maintenance.

The $30 fee is in addition to the $75-per-vehicle registration fee the state charges annually to own a vehicle in Wisconsin.

The fee takes effect in 2019, and the county has received $26,400 so far from the state from vehicle owners renewing their registration fees for next year, said Jon Johnson, Eau Claire County’s highway commissioner.

With the additional revenue generated by the fee, “I’m hopeful in eight years we’ll hit our goal of a pavement rating of 6,” said Johnson, meaning the average pavement surfaces are in fair condition. (The county’s current rating is 5.)

In recent years, the county has borrowed increasing amounts of money to repair and maintain its roads. However, county officials have said continued borrowing at those levels isn’t feasible because the interest on that borrowing becomes too costly.

7 Kroeze on ‘The Voice’

This fall, many across the country might not have known the city of Barron existed. But thanks to Barron native Chris Kroeze’s huge success as the runner-up on NBC’s television show “The Voice,” that city’s story and Kroeze’s are well known nationwide.

And though Kroeze’s definitely enjoyed the national stage where he finished runner-up and got more comfortable performing on it, he is looking forward to returning to small-town Wisconsin.

“This stuff is all so weird to me, this is not even my world,” Kroeze said. “I’m super excited to get back home and start living a more normal life again. Granted, there are going to be changes, but I’m not made for the big city.”

He can’t say exactly what’s next, but he does have new music he recorded before his journey on “The Voice” began. He plans to release that when he returns.

He also sees himself performing on bigger stages — including at this summer’s Country Jam USA.

“I’m working on putting together a good live show for festivals and bigger events,” he said. “I’m going to tour around ... and start working on my actual music a little bit harder.”

8 Fall election

After another long and combative campaign season, west-central Wisconsin voters selected four new state lawmakers to represent them in the 2018 fall elections.

Regional winners being sworn in for the first time Jan. 7 will be Rep.-elects Jodi Emerson, D-Eau Claire, in the 91st Assembly District and Jesse James, R-Altoona, in the 68th Assembly District. Emerson survived a four-way Democratic primary and a contested general election en route to her taking over for Rep. Dana Wachs, D-Eau Claire, who didn’t seek re-election because he ran for governor. James will take over the seat previously occupied by Rep. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie.

The elections also resulted in a pair of familiar faces taking over new posts. Former Rep. Jeff Smith, D-town of Brunswick, got through a three-way Democratic primary and a contested election to win the 31st Senate District seat that Sen. Kathleen Vinehout, D-Alma, decided to vacate to run for governor. Meanwhile, Bernier will move from the Assembly to the more exclusive Senate after claiming the 23rd Senate District seat held by retiring Sen. Terry Moulton, R-town of Seymour.

Incumbents were re-elected in all other regional legislative races.

9 Council turnover

Four Eau Claire City Council incumbents — including two who each served for more than a decade — lost their seats in April’s election to four newcomers to city politics.

Bob Von Haden, David Klinkhammer, Kathleen Mitchell and Tim Tewalt lost their district seats to Jill Christopherson, Emily Anderson, Jeremy Gragert and Emily Berge, respectively.

Councilman Andrew Werthmann ran unopposed for re-election to his district seat, and incumbent at-large representative Terry Weld handily beat challenger Zachary Meives.

In the wake of the large turnover, council President Kerry Kincaid resigned midterm in June, which has left Werthmann as acting council president.

The upcoming spring election will bring more changes to the council’s membership. Incumbents Michael Xiong and David Strobel will not run for re-election, while Werthmann and Weld have both announced their intent to run for council president.

10 Foxconn’s EC plans

Foxconn Technology Group officials promised to bring a slice of the largest economic development project in state history to the Chippewa Valley when they announced in July plans to open an innovation center in Eau Claire expected to create 150 high-tech jobs.

Foxconn officials indicated employees at the center, dubbed Foxconn Place Chippewa Valley and expected to open in 2019, would develop and test new technology and support smart city initiatives across the state.

In November, a Foxconn subsidiary completed its purchase of 15,454 square feet, or 45 percent of the commercial space, on the first floor of the Haymarket Landing building at 200 Eau Claire St. in downtown Eau Claire for $2.7 million, according to records in the Eau Claire County register of deeds office.

In addition to space in Haymarket Landing, Foxconn said this summer it would buy the six-story former Wells Fargo building at 204 E. Grand Ave., although county records indicated that building had not been sold as of mid-December.

Downtown Eau Claire, with its mix of technology workers and UW-Eau Claire students living at Haymarket Landing, is just the kind of place Foxconn seeks when trying to create a work environment that will generate innovation, Alan Yeung, Foxconn’s director of U.S. strategic initiatives, told the Leader-Telegram during a September visit to Eau Claire.

Taiwan-based Foxconn is in the process of building a $10 billion flat-panel display manufacturing facility in southeastern Wisconsin that it says will employ up to 13,000 people.

Staff members Chris Vetter, Julian Emerson, Christena T. O’Brien, Katy Macek, Eric Lindquist and Andrew Dowd contributed to this report.

Trump tries to deflect blame for migrant children's deaths

President Donald Trump sought to deflect blame for the deaths of two Guatemalan children in U.S. custody by claiming they were "very sick" when they arrived, even though immigration authorities have said both children passed initial health checks.

The mother of the boy who died Christmas Eve told The Associated Press on Saturday that her son was healthy when he left with his father on their journey hoping to migrate to the U.S.

Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen visited Border Patrol agents and medical officials at the southern border amid promises of more thorough health screenings for migrant children.

Trump, whose administration has faced widespread criticism over the deaths, pointed on Twitter at Democrats "and their pathetic immigration policies that allow people to make the long trek thinking they can enter our country illegally."

He also said that both children "were very sick before they were given over to Border Patrol."

The two tweets were his first comments on the Dec. 8 death of 7-year-old Jakelin Caal and the death on Christmas Eve of 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo.

Felipe's mother, Catarina Alonzo, told the AP that her son reported he was doing well every time that he and his father called home during their trek. She spoke with AP journalists at the family's home in the remote Guatemalan village of Yalambojoch, her stepdaughter Catarina Gomez translating her indigenous language Chuj into Spanish.

"When he called me, he told me he was fine. He told me not to worry because he was fine," Catarina Alonzo said.

The mother said the last time she spoke with Felipe he was in Mexico at the U.S. border and said he was eating chicken. Their village is in Nenton municipality in Huehuetenango province, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) west of Guatemala City.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection has issued detailed statements about both children's deaths.

An initial screening of Jakelin "revealed no evidence of health issues," CBP said on Dec. 14. It wasn't until several hours later that Jakelin's father, Nery Caal, told agents that she was "sick and vomiting," CBP said. Attorneys for the Caal family have also denied claims that Nery "hadn't given her water in days," as Trump wrote.

And CBP said Tuesday that agents logged 23 welfare checks of Felipe and his father in the first several days the two were was detained. Felipe's father, Agustin Gomez, told a Guatemalan official that the boy first showed signs of illness Monday morning, the day he died.

Despite Trump's claim that Democrats were responsible for "pathetic" immigration policies, at least one of the laws his administration has blamed — legislation that prevents the immediate deportation of unaccompanied children from Central American countries — was signed in 2008 by President George W. Bush, a Republican.

Democrats criticized the president's tweets. In a tweet addressing the president, Sen. Mazie Hirono wrote: "Obviously nothing is too low or cruel for you. A collective New Year's wish: For the sake of our country, you can stop now."

"You slander Jakelin's memory and re-traumatize her family by spreading lies about why she died," said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas.

The president's comments came Saturday afternoon, the same day Nielsen was in Yuma, Arizona, to meet with medical staff at the border. Nielsen said in a statement that "the system is clearly overwhelmed and we must work together to address this humanitarian crisis." She called on Congress to "act with urgency."

Her office said she was briefed in El Paso, Texas, on Friday on "recently instituted secondary medical screenings and the more thorough initial health screenings of migrants."

El Paso Mayor Dee Margo said he met with Nielsen and told CNN on Saturday that he agreed with her that the immigration policy is "broken."

"El Paso is dealing with the symptoms as a result of the lack of fortitude in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, to deal with our immigration policy," the Republican said.

Felipe and Agustin Gomez were apprehended by border agents Dec. 18 near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. The two were detained at the bridge's processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso, until being taken at about 1 a.m. Sunday to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.

After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was diagnosed with a common cold and found to have a fever of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.

Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to CBP, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.

But the boy fell sick hours later Monday and was re-admitted to the hospital. He died just before midnight.

New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said this week that prior to this month, no child had died in their custody in more than a decade.

Trump threatened via Twitter the previous day to cut off aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in Central America's so-called Northern Triangle region. He has made similar threats in the past without following through.

The government of El Salvador is pushing back against Trump's assertion it doesn't do enough to stem migration north to the United States. The Central American nation says it has made strides in economic and social improvements to try to tamp down the root causes of the phenomenon.

A statement released Saturday said that the Salvadoran government has pushed a media campaign urging its citizens not to risk their lives making the dangerous journey, and especially not to expose children. It says migration from the country has fallen significantly this year.


Merchant reported from Houston and Miller and Long from Washington. Marcos Aleman in El Salvador and Sonia Perez D. in Guatemala contributed to this report.


This story has been corrected to show that 8-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo died in Alamogordo, New Mexico, not El Paso, Texas.