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.
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.