CHIPPEWA FALLS — The Chippewa Falls community is devastated with the news of deaths of three Girl Scouts and a mother in the district, schools Superintendent Heidi Taylor-Eliopoulos said.
“Chippewa Falls is a close-knit community. I’ve lived here 36 years,” Taylor-Eliopoulos said at a news conference Sunday at the Korger-Chestnut building. “These kids are a part of my heart. Our people care about our children, and they are all hurting right now.”
Later Sunday evening, Girl Scouts led a candlelight vigil for the victims.
The names of the people involved will be released this morning by the Lake Hallie Police Department, which is handling the investigation, she said. However, she confirmed two of the deceased girls attended Halmstad Elementary School and the other attended Southview Elementary. The adult woman who died was the mother of the girl from Southview.
Additionally, one child is still in critical care; she also attends Halmstad.
Taylor-Eliopoulos said a group of perhaps 15 Girl Scouts from Troop 3055 and parents were cleaning trash off the side of Highway P when the crash occurred at 11:40 a.m. Saturday.
Colten R. Treu, 21, 1060 Joseph St., Chippewa Falls, is accused of striking a group of Girl Scouts while they were picking up trash on P, on the south side of the Highway 29 overpass. Treu fled the scene in his black Ford F-150 truck but reportedly turned himself in later in the day.
Online court records show Treu was cited for drunken driving in 2014. Treu is likely facing four charges of homicide through negligent use of a vehicle.
Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell hadn’t seen any reports by Sunday night, so he couldn’t comment on the case. Newell wasn’t sure the time of bond hearings this morning or if Treu will appear in person or via video from the jail.
Treu graduated from Chippewa Falls High School, Taylor-Eliopoulos said.
Taylor-Eliopoulos thanked the first responders who were at the scene as well as all those who are assisting in helping students and staff members cope. The two elementary schools were open Sunday for people to meet and grieve.
“Our district and building crisis teams convened (Saturday) to plan and prepare for school, family and community supports (Sunday) as well as supports we will provide again (today),” she said. “We had school counselors, psychologists, staff, therapy dogs and faith leaders available to students and parents. They have and will continue to play a major role in assisting our students, staff and families as we heal.”
Halmstad principal Wade Pilloud and Southview principal Sara Denure issued a joint statement saying the school families “have been devastated by this sudden, tragic and unnecessary loss. The outpouring of support from everyone in our community and across the country has been heartfelt for all of us.
“Please join us to continue to support our grieving families with your thoughts and prayers.”
Chippewa Falls Mayor Greg Hoffman — who lives just a few blocks from both elementary schools — said it has been a difficult day for the community.
“It’s just a real tragedy,” Hoffman said. “I feel for all the families. It’s a terrible, horrible experience, to have loved ones taken abruptly from you. It makes little kids grow up way too fast, when they have to go through something like this.”
Despite 40-degree weather and light rain, hundreds of Chippewa Valley residents gathered outside Halmstad on Sunday night for a candlelight vigil led by Girl Scouts, who sang campfire songs and mourned their lost friends.
“It’s an incredibly important night,” said Sherry Jasper, who serves on the board of directors for the Girl Scouts of the Northwestern Great Lakes. Jasper is also a school counselor at Halmstad. “The candlelight vigil is meant for a time like this. We sing because we’re happy; we sing because we’re working; we sing because we’re sad. It’s a time for us to sing.”
Stella Kostuch, 16, of Menomonie has been a Girl Scout for the past 10 years. Kostuch said she knew the deceased girls from camping.
“I knew them and wanted to pay tribute,” Kostuch said.
Chloe Wilson, a seventh-grader at Chippewa Falls Middle School, also is in a Girl Scout troop in the city. She attended the vigil with her family to show unity.
“We just came out to show our love for the community and our fellow Girl Scouts, said her mom, Erin Wilson. “This is a horrible tragedy. It makes my heart ache.”
Staish Buchner, a former Chippewa Falls school board member, was principal at Halmstad during his career with the district. He was pleased to see a turnout that may have numbered close to 1,000 at the vigil.
“It’s a community that cares about the kids,” Buchner said. “This is a hard time. I love this school; your heart never leaves. It hurts.”