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B.J. Hollars: If stars could talk

Editor’s note: ”Sawdust Stories” is a weekly column by local authors, who share their tales about people and places they love in the Chippewa Valley.

It started with the stars, dozens of which are stuck to the particle board in the crawlspace beneath the stairs of our Putnam Heights home. I’d have never noticed them were it not for my young children, who took it upon themselves to transform that crawlspace into a clubhouse, populating it with their toys, stuffed animals and sleeping bags. One night, as I crawled in alongside them, I noticed the stickered galaxy glowing down upon us. Who stuck them there? I wonder. And when?

After a visit to the Register of Deeds, I was one step closer to my answer, leaving with a list of our home’s former owners.

“Well I’m sure they preceded us,” says Rodney Venberg, our home’s previous owner, during a phone call to his current home in Fergus Falls, Minn. “Our kids were in college by then.” Rodney and his wife, Helen, spent 18 years in the blue-and-white ranch-style home along the tree-lined street, though in all that time, stuck no stars to any walls. The Venbergs first moved to Eau Claire at the behest of Bethesda Lutheran Church, who called Rodney to serve as an associate pastor. After 30 years of missionary work in Africa, it was a dramatic change, though one the Venbergs were willing to make. Upon speaking to the real estate agent, Rodney painted a picture of their dream home: one within walking distance of the church, and with a dining room and finished basement. Such requests, modest as they were, soon proved problematic.

“We found houses that didn’t have dining space, but had beautiful basements,” Rodney says, “and others that had beautiful basements but no dining rooms.” Dispirited, the Venbergs were ready to give up, when a friend mentioned that a neighbor was considering moving, and perhaps they ought to have a look at the house. The Venbergs immediately fell in love with the place, purchasing it before it hit the market.

The home soon became a regular meeting spot for Bible study. Rodney recalled how he and Helen, along with three other couples, regularly crowded into the living room to further their faith.

“The house served us so well, we just loved it,” Rodney tells me. “And we were so excited when you people came along ... it was just the right time for us.”

While buying and selling a home can be an impersonal experience, it doesn’t have to be. Shortly after closing on the house, Rodney reached out to me to show me the ropes of our newly-purchased home. We moved from room to room together, Rodney detailing every last wall socket and window pane, and pointing out which doors needed a little elbow grease. He showed me, too, the proper way to start the snow blower and the lawnmower — both of which he’d leave behind for us.

As our conversation winds down, Rodney jokes, “I just hope you have a better snow blower than the one I left you.” I assure him that his is just fine.

Since I’m no closer to solving the mystery of the stars beneath the stairs, I reach further into the house’s past, placing a call to Duane Hookom, who, along with his wife, Laura, and their two young children, lived in the house from 1991-96.

While the Venbergs were attracted by the home’s proximity to the church, the Hookoms appreciated its proximity to Putnam Heights Elementary School. They were attracted to the floorplan, too, and the friendliness of the neighborhood. “It was a good place for us,” Duane recalls from his current home in Eden Prairie, Minn. But at the same time, Duane explains, the home still conjures difficult memories. Shortly before his 13th birthday, Duane and Laura’s son, Jake, began complaining of abdominal pains. He was soon diagnosed with appendicitis. While the appendectomy was initially deemed a success, a bacterial infection soon spread throughout Jake’s body. As the infection worsened, the doctors informed Duane and Laura that their son required additional medical attention at the children’s hospital in Minneapolis. Jake was flown by helicopter, and under new care, eventually recovered. Jake’s illness became major news for WCCO-TV, Minneapolis’s CBS affiliate. So big, in fact, that shortly after his recovery, a camera crew rolled into the Hookom’s driveway to shoot a commercial detailing WCCO’s coverage of Jake’s story.

“It was like that scene from E.T. where all these government trucks pull into the drive,” Duane says. The film crew descended into the home with cameras, dollies, lighting, and reams of extension cords. Duane recalled being interviewed in the living room — the same living room where Rodney and Helen would later host Bible study, and where my own family and I now spin records and play games.

“They played that commercial almost every night during the 1994 Winter Olympics,” Duane says. It was our home’s 15 minutes of fame.

Much like the Venbergs, the Hookoms’ happiest times in the home were when they hosted others. Each spring they threw a party, gathering friends and relatives for an afternoon of food, fellowship, and sandlot baseball at the nearby school. Duane reflects fondly on that era of their lives, and though he gives the house some credit for their happiness, he attributes it mostly to “the people we got to share our lives with while in that house.”

I know what he means.

Before hanging up, I thank Duane for the wainscot bookcase he built by hand, as well as the American Linden, which, two decades after Duane’s planting, now provides us the perfect shade.

“You’re welcome,” Duane laughs. “I’m glad that’s all working out.”

When at last I get to my impetus for calling, the stars beneath the stairs, he gasps. I hear him shout to his wife — “The glow in the dark stars!” — before returning his attention to me.

“That was our kids,” he says proudly. “I think we had some on the ceiling in the bedroom too. I remember peeling them off when we sold,” he laughs, “but I must’ve forgotten the ones beneath the stairs.”

I tell him I’m glad he did, because those stars gave us a chance to chat. And a chance to learn about the lives in this house before it was ours.

As I hang up the phone, I begin to take stock of what we’ll leave behind: the crayon scrawl on the wall, the stain on the carpet, all our messes that double as memories. I wonder, What will the next owners make of our constellation of clues?

May they feel what we felt when we walked through the door: that this house was always a home.

Next Saturday: Columnist Patti See enjoys a Friday night fish fry and a trip down memory lane with her 92-year-old father.

Woman sentenced to two years jail for fatal crash that killed four

CHIPPEWA FALLS — An Eau Claire woman who missed a stop sign and crashed her car in May 2017, killing three passengers in her vehicle and a woman in another vehicle, was sentenced Friday to serve two years in the county jail.

Cara Stevens, 25, 1802 Ball St., Eau Claire, pleaded no contest in Chippewa County Court in January to homicide by negligent operation of a motor vehicle and reckless driving-causing great bodily harm.

The crash occurred in the northeast corner of Chippewa County, killing Raven Ellin, 21, Jonathan Jorgensen, 35, and Mikaila Toske, 23, in Stevens’ car, along with Kristine Kummer, 46, who was in another vehicle.

Judge Steve Cray said because people use automobiles every day, they can forget they are a dangerous weapon.

“They must use it with a great deal of caution,” Cray said.

Ultimately, Cray said he couldn’t reconcile the fact that Stevens missed several traffic signs before driving through the stop sign. However, he couldn’t find a reason to give Stevens a prison sentence.

Stevens will have Huber work release privileges, and she is not eligible for electronic monitoring. Her driver’s license will be revoked for one year. She must report to jail by Sunday.

Stevens apologized to the victims’ families prior to the sentencing.

“I don’t know how I’ll ever find enough words to say how sorry I am,” she said.

Several of the victims’ family members spoke during the hearing, describing the loss caused by the crash that day.

Shannon Young, Toske’s mother, described the crash as an accident, and said Stevens doesn’t deserve to be incarcerated.

“I know how difficult and hard this is for all of you,” Young said as she turned to Kummer’s family. “There is nobody that is standing up with a voice of reason in all of this. I lost my only daughter that day. I understand how trying and difficult this is. But this was a tragic accident. A stop sign was innocently missed. But two drivers were violating traffic laws that day. But it was just an accident.”

Young said it is insulting the case has focused on the death and loss for the Kummer family, and the other three families who lost loved ones have been ignored.

“There was no exhibition driving. There was no ill-intent,” Young said. “No one was on their cellphone. To signal Cara out is just one more injustice.”

Young said she is grateful that her daughter was with her boyfriend and best friend at the time of the crash.

Kriste Niznik, one of Kummer’s friends, said she was at the scene moments after the crash occurred.

“I want you to know what I had to go through that day, watching my best friend pass away in front of me,” Niznik told Cray.

The Kummers drive race cars, and were on their way to Rice Lake for an event. She described coming across the crash, and trying unsuccessfully to help Kummer.

“I believe Cara should get five years in prison for what she has done to Kris and Kris’ family,” Niznik said. She described it as “one thoughtless act” that led to the death of four people. “We lost a great part of our family that day.”

Lakyn Kummer, Kristine Kummer’s daughter, said the death and loss of her mother is still as fresh and hurtful today as the day of the crash nearly two years ago.

“I lost everything that day, all because she blew a stop sign,” Lakyn Kummer said.

Maureen McIlligott, Ellin’s grandmother, said that Stevens missed four traffic signs, not just one stop sign. McIlligott said the crash tore her family apart.

“You’ve got to keep your eyes on the road,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a brand-new driver or 60 years old.”

Gabrielle Hodges, Ellin’s sister, said that Stevens showed remorse at her sister’s family. Stevens attended Ellin’s funeral.

“She said she never meant for anything to happen,” Hodges said. “No amount of punishment is going to bring my sister back.”

District Attorney Wade Newell recommended that Stevens be placed in prison for two years along with three years of extended supervision, plus one year in jail.

“No one is saying this is an intentional homicide; no one is saying this is a reckless homicide,” Newell told Cray. “She is here for a homicide by criminal negligence.”

Newell said a traffic reconstruction report indicates that Stevens might have had her eyes off the road for eight seconds. He reiterated there were numerous traffic signs that Stevens missed.

“It’s the totality of the circumstances,” Newell said. “You have to decide what is reasonable. She closed her attention to what was going on around her.”

He added that his recommendation factors in the totality of the harm caused.

Stevens’ attorney, Rich White, said the case is “tragic beyond comprehension,” but reiterated that this was an accident. He admits he has ran a stop sign before, and it was just sheer luck that he didn’t cause a crash. He reminded Cray that there was no drug or alcohol use, no texting, and no exhibition driving. Stevens also has no prior criminal record.

“Cara is overwhelmed by this. The tragedy caused to everyone has not been lost on her,” White said. “In her mind, she knows she bares responsibility.”

Cray said a reasonable period of probation and jail time is a better outcome than a prison sentence.

About 60 people packed Cray’s courtroom, including several from Kummer’s family, who all wore identical black race shirts with her name on the front, and reading “In loving memory of mom” on the back.

According to the criminal complaint:

Stevens was northbound on Highway G in the town of Ruby when the crash occurred at 5:02 p.m. May 27, 2017.

Stevens’ Chrysler Pacifica crashed with a westbound Chevrolet Silverado at the intersection of Highway G and Highway 64, halfway between Cornell and Gilman. The Wisconsin State Patrol responded to the crash and handled the investigation.

“Ms. Stevens failed to stop for the stop sign,” the report states. The vehicles collided, entered the ditch, and began to roll.

The driver of the Silverado was David Kummer. Along with the death of Kristine Kummer, other passengers in the vehicle suffered serious injuries. Nicole Ronni suffered a compression fracture, a clavicle fracture, cracked ribs and a punctured lung. Cody Kummer suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. Two others had minor injuries.

Stevens was taken to HSHS Sacred Heart Hospital in Eau Claire. An officer interviewed her there, and Stevens said she and her friends were headed to a rural bar, but she hadn’t been there before. Stevens said she had passed an Amish buggy, and looked at it in her rear-view mirror. When she “looked up,” the Silverado was in front of her, and the vehicles collided.

Blood samples were taken from both Stevens and David Kummer. Kummer had no alcohol or restricted controlled substances in his system; Stevens had morphine and Midazolam in her system, but those were drugs administered to her at the hospital.

“Driver impairment does not appear to be a factor in this crash,” the report states.

After examining the scene, the officer determined that Stevens didn’t attempt to stop before the crash, noting the tire mark “does not appear until after entering the intersection.”

“While the exact reasons for Ms. Stevens’ inattention are not known, it is likely her attention was not focused to the approaching intersection and stop sign,” the criminal complaint concludes.

The criminal complaint doesn’t indicate any cellphone use by either driver while driving.

'Our country is full': Trump says migrants straining system

CALEXICO, Calif. — Eager to make border security a central campaign issue, President Donald Trump consulted with immigration agents in a California border city Friday while insisting that the nation’s immigration system was overburdened and declaring that “our country is full.”

The political battle over the border ignited again just as Air Force One touched down in Calexico, not far from Mexico, as California and 19 other states that are suing Trump over his declaration requested a court order to stop money from being diverted to fund the project. But Trump, who has placed hard-line immigration policy at the heart of his administration, declared that his move, which included vetoing a congressional vote and some opposition from his own party, was necessary.

“There is indeed an emergency on our southern border,” Trump said at a border security briefing, adding that there has been a sharp uptick in illegal crossings. “It’s a colossal surge, and it’s overwhelming our immigration system. We can’t take you anymore. Our country is full.”

Although the wall — his signature campaign promise — remains unbuilt, Trump declared that at least 400 miles (650 kilometers) of the border barrier would be erected over the next two years even as he tried to blame Democrats for a lack of progress on the wall.

“The crisis is a direct result of the obstruction by Democrats,” the president claimed.

Trump also denied that he changed his mind about shutting down the border with Mexico, a threat he backed off on Thursday. Trump said he reversed course because he saw Mexico get tougher in stopping an influx of immigrants from moving north.

“Mexico has been absolutely terrific for the last four days,” the president said as he left the White House. “I never changed my mind at all. I may shut it down at some point.”

Though Trump, who has pulled a series of about-faces in recent days, walked away from his threat to close the border, he went ahead and highlighted the conditions at the boundary with Mexico. The fence that Trump is touring is a 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) section that was a long-planned replacement for an older barrier, rather than new wall. The White House says the barrier is marked with a plaque bearing Trump’s name and those of top homeland security officials.

The president’s visit came a day after he withdrew his nominee to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Longtime border official Ron Vitiello appeared to be cruising toward confirmation, but Trump said Friday that he wanted to go in a “tougher direction.”

Trump, who wants to return to illegal immigration as a key 2020 re-election issue, also took to Twitter earlier Friday to claim that he could revive his threat to shut the border, a move that fellow Republicans warned would have a devastating economic impact.

“If for any reason Mexico stops apprehending and bringing the illegals back to where they came from, the U.S. will be forced to Tariff at 25% all cars made in Mexico and shipped over the Border to us. If that doesn’t work, which it will, I will close the Border,” Trump tweeted, before invoking the new but not-yet-approved trade policy. “This will supersede USMCA.”

As Trump landed in California, the state’s governor ripped the president’s push for Congress to pass legislation that would tighten asylum rules to make it harder for people to qualify.

“Since our founding, this country has been a place of refuge — a safe haven for people fleeing tyranny, oppression and violence. His words show a total disregard of the Constitution, our justice system, and what it means to be an American,” said Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

And the state’s attorney general, Democrat Xavier Becerra, said Friday that 20 states took action to prevent $1.6 billion from being siphoned away from fighting drug trafficking and funding military construction projects.

Trump, who was presented with a piece of the future border wall, traveled to the border with a number of congressional Republicans, including Rep. Duncan Hunter, who was indicted last year on a litany of campaign finance violations and has since been stripped of committee assignments. Hunter still won re-election.

Trump has been increasingly exasperated at his inability to halt the swelling number of migrants entering the U.S., including thousands who have been released after arriving because border officials have no space for them. Arrests along the southern border have skyrocketed in recent months, and border agents were on track to make 100,000 arrests or denials of entry in March, a 12-year high. More than half of those are families with children, who require extra care.

The southern border is nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) long and already has about 650 miles (1,050 kilometers) of different types of barriers, including short vehicle barricades and tall steel fences that go up to 30 feet (9 meters) high. Most of the fencing was built during the administration of George W. Bush, and there have been updates and maintenance throughout other administrations.

Trump has yet to complete any new mileage of fencing or other barriers anywhere on the border. His administration has only replaced existing fencing, including the section he is touring Friday. Construction for that small chunk of fencing cost about $18 million, began in February 2018 and was completed in October. Plans to replace that fence date back to 2009, during President Barack Obama’s tenure.

Administration officials had been studying ways to minimize the economic impact of a potential border closure in case Trump went through with his threat, including keeping trucking lanes open or closing only certain ports.

But even absent that extraordinary step, delays at border stations have been mounting after some 2,000 border officers were reassigned from checking vehicles to deal with migrant crowds.

Trump walked away from his border closure threat just days after he also abruptly postponed Republican efforts to work on a replacement for Obama’s health care law, commonly called “Obamacare.”

After the border visit, Trump was slated to travel to Los Angeles, where he was set to hold a pair of fundraisers in the deeply liberal city. He was then poised to travel to Las Vegas for another re-election fundraiser and an address to the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is backed by GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.