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Stender, passenger in Girl Scout crash, sentenced to three years in prison
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CHIPPEWA FALLS — Kimberly Helgeson said John E. Stender’s inactions in the seconds, minutes and hours after a crash Nov. 3, 2018, that killed four people and injured another shows his lack of character.

“I’m a mother of two daughters who were with me that day; one survived, and one did not,” Helgeson told Judge James Isaacon during Stender’s sentencing Thursday afternoon in Chippewa County Court.

Helgeson’s daughter, Autumn, was among the four people picking up trash along Highway P when they were struck by a truck driven by Colten Treu. Autumn died from her injuries; she would have turned 13 last week.

“He sure didn’t choose to do the courageous thing,” Helgeson said. “I’m enraged by the lack of compassion and lack of respect he had on that day.”

Stender, 24, 1303 Water St., Eau Claire, pleaded no contest in April to harboring/aiding a felon-falsifying information in Chippewa County Court. The crash killed three Girl Scouts and a mother. Stender had purchased a can of Dust-off at Walmart, opened it, and began “huffing” from it on the drive home before the crash occurred.

After hearing two hours of emotional testmony, Isaacson agreed with Helgeson and the other vctims’ family members, ordering Stender to serve three years in prison and three years of extended supervision. Isaacson noted that a pre-sentence investigation performed by the Department of Corrections recommended two years in prison and two years of extended supervision.

“We can’t ignore the big picture here,” Isaacson said, noting that this case isn’t as simple as hiding evidence of a theft. “You were with him huffing; you were with him when the carnage occurred. You knew the full extent of the crime that had been committed. That doesn’t make you guilty of that offense.”

Isaacson said he won’t order that Stender be required to clean up litter on Highway P on Nov. 3 of each year, but he will suggest it to the probation agent.

There is body camera footage from a Lake Hallie police officer who arrived at the scene. Isaacson asked Stender if he had seen it; Stender said he had not. Isaacson ordered Stender to be required to watch the footage on Nov. 3 of each of the three years he is on extended supervision.

“If that doesn’t bring you to tears, I don’t know what will,” Isaacson said, as he also started to fight back tears.

Stender’s voice quivered as he spoke prior to being sentenced.

“I know I did wrong, and I apologize for what I’ve put them through,” Stender told Isaacson. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t wish I could trade places with them. The children were too young to have this happen. No family should have to go through this. And I’m very ashamed I put them through this.”

Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell requested four years in prison and five years of extended supervision, saying it is warranted.

“The defendant’s character on that day is very significant,” Newell said.

Newell said that Stender had empty cans used for huffing in his bedroom and was the more experienced person in huffing. Yet, Stender handed the can to Treu while Treu was driving, knowing that a possible side effect of huffing is blacking out.

“His actions set this whole series of events in motion,” Newell said.

Emotional testimony

Helgeson said Stender didn’t do the right thing by getting out of the vehicle after the crash and helping the victims. Instead, Stender and Treu fled the scene and opted to hide the car in a garage.

“He pulled a vehicle with a flat tire out of the driveway to make room to hide the truck,” Helgeson said.

In the hours after the crash, Stender spent hours at the home of an acquaintance and made a trip to Walmart, before finally turning himself into authorities.

Brooklyn Helgeson, 11, talked about losing her older sister. Brooklyn said she has flashbacks of the crash. She struggles to go through her daily schedule where she used to see Autumn, but she’s no longer there.

“I don’t see her anymore,” Brooklyn Helgeson said. “Think of the most important person in your life, and that at 8 years old, you are sat down and told that person is dead. My pain, you can never imagine.”

Robin Kelley said she never saw the truck coming that struck and killed her 9-year-old daughter, Jayna.

“I was the first one to get to her, and felt in my heart she was gone.,” Kelley said. “I felt like I was watching a violent video game, as the truck worked to get back on the highway.”

Kelley expressed anger that Stender has been a free man for the past three years, and she felt he hasn’t shown remorse. He has been able to live his life and continue working, she said.

“His life did not stop like Jayna’s stopped,” Kelley said.

Brian Kelley said he was at an ice-fishing contest and was having a good day last winter. However, his good mood turned to rage when he looked at a list of winners in a drawing and saw that Stender had won. He said it took a friend to help calm him down; he didn’t know how he would have reacted if he had seen Stender that day.

Judy Schneider talked about losing both her daughter, Sara Jo Schneider, and her granddaughter, 10-year-old Haylee J. Hickle, in the crash.

“You can not imagine how my life was shattered on Nov. 3, 2018,” Schneider said. “To say it has changed my life is an understatement. The behaviors of Colten Treu and John Stender will forever be part of my life. To see my grandson fight to keep the memories of his mother and sister alive is heart-wrenching.”

Schneider’s grandson, Jasper, now lives in Illinois with his father and wasn’t present Thursday.

Schneider said that when Stender gets out of prison, he will still have his dreams, ambitions, and a second chance at life. She urged him to do something good with his life to honor those who died.

“Our pain will still be just as raw in five years,” Schneider said. “You did have a greater part in this than just being a passenger.”

Other family members of the victims stated that Stender is just as guilty — if not more — as Treu, who was given a 54-year prison sentence in March 2020. Some family members called Stender a “coward.” Another person hammered the point that Stender chose to hide the truck rather than call authorities or help the victims.

“I hope today is your last day of freedom,” one family member said.

Defense sought probation, release for birth

About 20 of Stender’s family members attended the sentencing, but none opted to speak. Defense attorney Harry Hertel told Isaacson that Stender has deep guilt for his role in the crash. Hertel pointed out that Stender has not been in any trouble since the crash occurred.

“He’s someone who is truly remorseful, and if he could have taken their place and died, he would,” Hertel said. “People who have known him, have known him to be a good person.”

Hertel requested a one-year jail sentence with Huber work release privileges, five years of probation and an imposed-and-stayed five-year prison sentence. Hertel also asked for Stender to be allowed to attend the birth of his child.

Prior to sentencing, Hertel played the police interrogation video from the day of the arrest, where Stender cried while discussing the crash, wondering why Treu had driven away from the scene.

According to the criminal complaint, Treu and Stender had purchased an aerosol can at the Lake Hallie Walmart on Nov. 3, 2018, and were driving back to Treu’s home at 1060 Joseph St., Chippewa Falls. Both men had “huffed” from the aerosol can during the drive.

The crash happened shortly after 11:20 a.m. as Treu was driving northbound on Highway P, just south of the Highway 29 overpass, in the village of Lake Hallie. Treu’s vehicle veered off the west side of the road and struck the group of Girl Scouts as they were removing litter.

During his sentencing hearing, Treu claimed Stender caused the crash. Treu said he yelled at Stender, saying “What are you doing?” when Stender grabbed the wheel.

Treu said he overcorrected the vehicle and wound up going in the ditch, where he struck the Girl Scouts.

In interviews with law enforcement, Stender admitted he grabbed the wheel of the car, causing Treu to yell at him. Stender recalled seeing one person being struck by the vehicle; he hit his head and lost consciousness. He woke up just before they arrived at Treu’s home.

After striking the five people — one Girl Scout who was hit survived the crash — Treu drove his vehicle back to his home rather than staying at the scene. He then hid the pickup in a garage. Stender did not immediately assist law enforcement or return to the scene, leading to the charge of assisting or harboring a felon.

Newell filed the charges against Stender just days after Treu’s sentencing concluded.

A stone's throw

I woke around five in the morning with a radiating pain originating in the lower left of my back. I thought two things: 1. my appendix had burst (turns out: wrong side) or 2. kidney stones. In that moment, lying in bed writhing and grimacing, I desperately wanted the problem to be my appendix. This is because about a dozen years ago I passed a kidney stone and that was a kingdom of pain I did not care to revisit. So, I took a hot shower. I limped around the house. I slipped back into bed. For the next two hours the pain washed over me like a lazy tide, in and out. It was possible at times to even ignore it. Then, suddenly, it was decidedly not.

Recently I had just had a conversation with my friend Novak in which he lamented the cost of an ambulance ride. “Yeah,” I agreed, “that ain’t fun money to spend. You’d almost rather drag yourself to a hospital.”

That was a joke, but Novak could conceivably drag himself to one of Eau Claire’s hospitals, whereas I live in the sticks, the boondocks. The closest landmark I can drag myself to would be the Cleghorn Keg, and I’m proud to say that I’ve never hankered for a cold beer that desperately.

With that conversation fresh in my mind, I stubbornly climbed behind the helm of our Subaru and began the drive into Eau Claire. I wasn’t even out the driveway when the pain began surging around my abdomen and then lower down my body. Disturbing discomfort. For me, the pain presents itself like a deep, blaring, intense soreness that intermittently throbs. Imagine being tackled, full force by an NFL linebacker, imagine that hard, molded plastic helmet hitting your lower back. That impact won’t kill you. But imagine you just keep getting tackled like that, over and over, imagine the bruising, the soreness.

Now imagine that scenario but as you’re driving the dozen or so miles into town to seek medical attention. Never have I wanted to live in the city more. But there I was, taking the ridges and valleys of Hillview Road a little too fast, then driving west on Highway 94, doing what an old boss of mine called “the pain dance” in the driver’s seat, teeth clenched, seeking some sort of comfortable position while an imaginary NFL linebacker grinned devilishly and lined up for yet another shot at my spine and kidneys.

There was temporary relief when I exited 94 and drove towards Highway 37, but the relief was crushed when I spotted about five cars at the bottom of the exit ramp in front of me. They seemed in no hurry, and the traffic on 37 was steady. I sat in the idling Subaru and pounded at the steering wheel.

The Numeric Pain Rating Scale is an eleven-point system designed for a medical patient to assess their own pain, with zero representing no pain and 10 essentially representing an iron maiden-type experience. I take this scale seriously and would never say I’ve endured a pain greater than seven or eight, but as I waited, right turn indicator blinking patiently, my pain definitely escalated from a four towards a five or six. Finally, I turned onto 37, committed minor and inconsequential traffic infractions at the intersection of 37 and Short Street, and cruised onward, every traffic light representing a nexus of prolonged agony.

Another minor and inconsequential traffic infraction may have happened just south of the hospital as I “inadvertently” turned left during a red light and immediately hooked into the ER’s parking lot. At that point, I was sweating through every layer of clothing on my body. The pain was spiking at six or seven. I limped into the ER-admitting area and literally fell to my knees at the receptionist’s desk. She processed my information quickly and helped me into a wheelchair where I sat swearing a blue streak and occasionally apologizing to no one in particular.

Before I was admitted, a janitor entered that small anteroom and began nonchalantly vacuuming. He vacuumed within inches of my feet, even as I rocked back and forth in misery. I suppose he’d seen it all before.

Kidney stones are rarely fatal, but if you’ve had one, you may have wished they were. The ER nurse who took care of me that morning was incredibly kind and immediately began introducing a very powerful, very beautiful narcotic into my bloodstream. I felt the drug soothe first my legs, then my midsection, and moments later, I blissfully shut my eyes and slept.

“You’re going to have a baby,” the nurse finally announced hours later, “three millimeters. We’ll get you some painkillers to take home that ought to help.”

All that pain and I hadn’t even passed the stone. Like climbing almost to the peak of a mountain, only to awaken sometime later, at the base, some 20,000 feet below with a kind Sherpa telling you he’s got your bag packed and it’s time to start climbing again. That’s where I’m at right now. No less than four pints of water on my bedside table, three new medical prescriptions in my bathroom, and a three-millimeter baby moving slowly out of my body through passageways not meant for such traffic.

But at least I’m home again.

‘Absolutely exhausted’: Hospitalizations ramp up, taking toll on Eau Claire hospitals
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EAU CLAIRE — Amid a swell of COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin, Eau Claire hospital officials say they’re seeing more severely ill patients and that their health care staff are stretched thin.

Hospitals aren’t yet at the urgent point they reached in November 2020, when a COVID-19 surge resulted in hospital leaders warning that the local health care system could be overwhelmed.

But as of mid-September, local hospitals’ capacities have decreased. Officials say it’s taking a toll on heath care workers.

“The peak of this surge hopefully will not be what it was (last year),” said Jennifer Drayton, chief nursing officer for HSHS Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls.

“The difference, right now, is that people who aren’t vaccinated are getting very, very sick. And they get sick very quickly, and it’s all ages … now we’re seeing very, very ill people who have minimal comorbidities. The delta variant is a different animal.”

Both Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s hospitals were full to capacity Thursday, which Drayton said isn’t unusual this summer.

“Every day for the past three or four months we’ve been full to capacity and waiting for discharges so we can take in admissions. It’s no different today,” Drayton said Thursday. “It’s just that the number of acutely ill patients has dramatically increased.”

It’s not just patients with severe COVID-19. The two hospitals are seeing an increase in people who need care for other reasons, Drayton said: “We’re seeing a lot more patients with heart failure, COPD, trauma, because people are out and about living their lives again and we didn’t see that during the first surge of COVID.”

The HSHS hospitals will stabilize and treat new patients, but if they need to be admitted to the hospital afterward and there’s not an open bed, they need to be transferred to another facility, Drayton said.

“We’re at the point” of transferring patients to La Crosse and the Twin Cities, Drayton said.

“Sometimes we have to try 10 to 15 different facilities before we find one with an open bed,” she said. “We’ve gotten calls (asking) us to take patients from as far away as the Dakotas.”

Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire isn’t full to capacity, though it’s also seen an increase in hospitalizations, said Bill Priest, chief administrative officer at Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire. The hospital had to reopen its COVID-19 unit in mid-August.

As of early Thursday, Marshfield Medical Center-Eau Claire had six COVID-19 patients, but that number fluctuates on almost an hourly basis and could be significantly higher or lower by day’s end, Priest said.

“Currently ... our limiting factor isn’t physical beds, our limiting factor is our staff,” he said. “As we add these COVID patients in, it’s in addition to the normal patient population that might need hospitalization, those who have a cardiac event or stroke.”

The hospital is able to manage currently, but “it is stretching our resources thin,” Priest said.

It’s typical for Mayo Clinic sites to see high demand for hospital services, not just during the pandemic, but the clinic is also seeing an increase in hospitalized patients with COVID-19, said Dr. Richard Helmers, regional vice president of Mayo Clinic Health System’s northwest Wisconsin region.

Helmers said in a statement to the Leader-Telegram that during times of high demand in northwest Wisconsin, some patients who need to be admitted must be transferred to a different hospital.

“One thing the public can do to help hospitals like ours deal with increased demand is to seek care in the appropriate location,” Helmers said, adding that Mayo Clinic has noted some people walking into the emergency department to ask for an unscheduled test. People should schedule their COVID-19 tests at a testing location, he said. Mayo Clinic is also experiencing a high volume of phone calls, and people can set up a patient services account at www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/patient-online-services to schedule a test.

Data: County still at January level of transmission

More people with COVID-19 are being hospitalized, Eau Claire County data confirmed.

Roughly seven county residents with COVID-19 were hospitalized in June, 14 in July and about 37 in August. Eighteen county residents have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since Sept. 1, according to data from the Eau Claire City-County Health Department.

As of Thursday, an average of 55 Eau Claire County residents per day are testing positive for COVID-19, a case rate last seen in January.

HSHS data indicated that most of their hospitalized COVID-19 patients continue to be unvaccinated.

As of Monday, at HSHS’ six Wisconsin and nine Illinois hospitals, 83% of the 149 people hospitalized were unvaccinated, and 54% were younger than 65, according to data from HSHS. In those 15 hospitals, of 39 people in the ICU, 90% were unvaccinated.

Stretched thin

Priest asked the community to get vaccinated and to realize that local health care workers are stretched thin.

“They’re stressed, and kindness goes a long way,” he said.

Drayton said her nurses at Sacred Heart and St. Joseph’s are “absolutely exhausted,” working overtime and picking up extra shifts to care for the flow of patients.

“I’ll be honest with you, it’s very hard,” she said. “They care very much about this community, and they’re stepping up and doing the right thing, and they’re tired. It’s really hard to watch patients suffer with COVID.

“Providers, respiratory therapists, nurses, everyone’s bending over backwards with overtime, extra shifts and prayer to keep everybody moving forward,” Drayton added. “But I think if my nurses had to ask one thing of the community, it would be to care enough about us to get vaccinated. Please.”