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Snow once again closes schools, creates havoc on roads

Heavy snowfall across western Wisconsin that began Wednesday evening and continued into Thursday once again closed schools, led to canceled events and created struggles for street departments.

Eau Claire schools superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck said Thursday marked the 11th snow day for the district this winter.

“It really has to do with the weather conditions and the driving conditions,” Hardebeck said of the decision to close. “The biggest thing is safety. The driving is just very difficult.”

Hardebeck called it an “unprecedented” winter with the numerous heavy snowfalls. She isn’t sure how the district will now make up yet another missed school day.

“We’ll get something to our families (today),” she said. “We need to look at plans and logistics. We appreciate the cooperation and support from our families, and our staff has been great.”

Chippewa Falls schools superintendent Heidi Taylor-Eliopoulos agreed that the district had to shut down again.

“I think everyone is in agreement that this recent snowstorm and resulting school cancellation was an unwelcome guest in our community,” Taylor-Eliopoulos said. “This winter has been highly unusual, but it has caused us to consider additional ways we can build in even more flexibility and options for next year.”

Westbound Interstate 94 between Osseo and Hixton was closed entirely for several hours Thursday morning, although the state Department of Transportation warned drivers that the roads remained slippery and reminded people to slow down.

Removing snow from roads was a challenge, said Eau Claire County highway commissioner Jon Johnson.

“Through the night, it was really nasty, with zero visibility,” Johnson said mid-day Thursday. “We have a lot of snow pack on the roads we’re trying to remove. We’re in pretty bad shape overall. We’re putting a grader on the interstate.”

Salt mix wasn’t working much in melting snow, he added.

“The rain dilutes the salt we used,” Johnson said.

Rain gave way to snow, but then freezing rain fell on top of it.

“It made ice sandwiches on the road we can’t get off,” he said.

Chippewa County highway commissioner Brian Kelley agreed that the roads are slick.

“We were dealing with a lot of wind and drifting,” Kelley said. “We had some hard-packed ice. We were trying not to use a lot of salt.”

Kelley said the county’s highway committee will be reviewing the costs of this winter’s snow removal at the next meeting, as February alone totaled $922,000. The county usually estimates about $1.5 million for the entire year.

“It’s definitely an expensive year,” Kelley said.

Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk said his department received calls of 30 different crashes Thursday morning, with nearly all of them of cars sliding off roads and into ditches. However, no injuries were reported.

“They were driving too fast for conditions,” he said of motorists.

Two semis also couldn’t get up the ramp onto Highway T from Highway 29, he said.

“The highway department is having a hard time keeping up with the snow,” Kowalczyk said. “Highway 29 was plowed but seeing the markings was hard.”

The National Weather Service reports the Chippewa Valley received 11.3 inches of snow between 4 p.m. Wednesday and 11 a.m. Thursday.

“That shatters the official all-time record,” said meteorologist Caleb Grunzke. With this snowfall, the Chippewa Valley has now received 98.7 inches of snow this winter, he said.

More snow could still come today, he added.

“It’s not looking like a lot — an inch at most,” Grunzke said.

The snow over the day makes the second-most ever in a 24-hour period in April for the Chippewa Valley, Grunzke added.

The good news is it won’t last long.

“It should warm up. This snow should disappear quickly,” Grunzke said. “It will be low to mid 40s this weekend, and in the 50s next week.”

Takeaways from the case of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange

WASHINGTON — Julian Assange’s arrest on Thursday in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London opens the next chapter in the saga of the WikiLeaks founder: an expected extradition fight over a pending criminal prosecution in the United States.

It’s also likely to trigger a debate over press freedom and call attention to unresolved questions about Assange’s role in the release of stolen Democratic emails leading up to the 2016 presidential election, part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s recently concluded investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Some takeaways from his arrest:

Charges in the U.S.

Assange, for now at least, faces a single count of computer intrusion conspiracy.

He’s accused of conspiring in 2010 with Chelsea Manning, then a U.S. Army intelligence analyst who leaked troves of classified material to WikiLeaks, to crack a password that would give her higher-level access to classified computer networks.

Prosecutors say Assange and Manning tried to conceal Manning’s role as a source by deleting chat logs and removing usernames from sensitive records that were shared. They used a special folder to transmit classified and national defense information, the indictment says. Assange ultimately requested more information related to the password, telling Manning that while he had tried to crack it, he “had no luck so far.”

Press freedom implications

Assange and his supporters say he’s a journalist who deserves legal protections for publishing stolen material. But the indictment doesn’t really have to do with whether Assange is a journalist.

The allegations don’t relate to the publication of classified information but focus on his attempts to obtain the material in what prosecutors say was an illegal manner.

That distinction could be vital in the government’s case and complicate Assange’s efforts to cast the prosecution as infringing on press freedom. Justice Department media guidelines are meant to protect journalists from prosecution for doing their jobs, which has historically included the publication of classified information. But the protections don’t easily extend to journalists or others who themselves break the law to obtain information or who solicit others to do so, as the government alleges.

“The act of coaching” someone how to steal information, as alleged in the indictment, “is a step too far,” said Ryan Fayhee, a former Justice Department prosecutor who specialized in counterintelligence cases.

Assange may well have grounds to argue that, unlike Manning or government officials or contractors, he had no obligation to safeguard American secrets.

But his publication of stolen Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign and reliance for them on a foreign adversary like Russia may undermine any defense claim that he’s motivated by a public good.

“His conduct and his organization’s conduct, I believe, undermines any defense that he would pursue having to do with his genuine interest in rooting out corruption and his absolute commitment to transparency,” Fayhee said. “Because Russia is anything but the right model to point to in terms of transparency.”

What happens next

Assange is expected to fight extradition to the U.S., a process that could stretch out for years.

He has a top-notch legal team, many devoted supporters and the legal issues in the U.S. case may prove complex.

Assuming he is eventually brought to the U.S., Assange would face charges in the Eastern District of Virginia, just outside Washington. The office has considerable experience in national security prosecutions involving accused terrorists and spies and other high-profile matters, like the case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Justice Department officials could easily supplement their indictment with a new one with more serious charges. Manning was jailed last month after she refused to testify before a grand jury in Virginia, suggesting that prosecutors’ work related to Assange is not done.

Ecuador’s president, Lenin Moreno, said he had secured a guarantee from the United Kingdom that Assange wouldn’t be extradited to a country where he could face a death penalty. That’s likely a reassurance to Assange’s supporters, but the charge he currently faces carries just a five-year maximum penalty.

The Espionage Act can carry the death penalty for people who deliver national defense information to foreign nations, but that charge was not brought against Assange in the current indictment.

Though some of the language in the indictment, including the references to national defense information, mimics the Espionage Act, there’s no allegation Assange disclosed American secrets to a foreign power with the goal of harming the U.S.

Connection to Mueller investigation

On its face, the charges have nothing to do with Mueller’s probe.

The indictment was brought not by Mueller and his team but rather by prosecutors in Virginia and the Justice Department’s national security division.

There is no allegation in the indictment of any involvement in Russian election interference, coordination with Russian hackers or interactions with Trump campaign associates.

That’s striking since Assange and WikiLeaks have surfaced, albeit obliquely and not by name, in multiple criminal cases brought by Mueller. WikiLeaks was the organization that published Democratic emails stolen by Russian intelligence officers. And Roger Stone, a Trump confidant under indictment, repeatedly boasted of connections to WikiLeaks and of having advance knowledge of the organization’s publication plans.

It is unclear what information, if any, Assange might be willing to offer about how WikiLeaks came to possess the stolen emails.

Mueller has farmed out investigations peripheral to his central mission to other Justice Department offices. Though Assange and WikiLeaks cut to the heart of the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, the special counsel ultimately closed his investigation without charging him and before he could even be taken into custody.

That could suggest Mueller didn’t see a criminal case to be made against Assange or deferred to the Justice Department’s existing investigation into him.

Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.

Detention center may be built in region

New Richmond Mayor Fred Horne opened Monday night’s City Council meeting by announcing that the city is reviewing a request from Immigration Centers of America to rezone private property west of the St. Croix County Correctional Center to allow for the construction of a new immigration detention facility.

ICA, according to the Wisconsin Radio Network, is a private contractor that houses detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

“The city of New Richmond has received a request for a new zoning district from ICA, Immigration Centers of America, to rezone a parcel of land just west of the current CIP (Challenge Incarceration Program) to allow for institutional uses. The city is currently reviewing that request,” Horne said.

“Public participation will be important in this process. A community meeting will be held later this month to allow public comment prior to the formal public hearing. Please follow social media, the New Richmond News and our city’s website ( for additional information.”

Created in 2003, ICE was formed through a merger of the investigative and interior enforcement elements of the former U.S. Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, according to the agency’s website.

It now has more than 20,000 law enforcement and support personnel in more than 400 offices in the U.S. and around the world.