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As spring approaches, highway department looks to summer projects

As spring creeps into the Chippewa Valley, the county’s highway department is preparing for several summer construction projects, ranging from preliminary planning on the Cobban Bridge to paving projects in several municipalities.

But as the snow begins to melt, Chippewa County Highway Commissioner Brian Kelley wants the community to remember to put down their phones while driving through construction zones.

National Work Zone Awareness Week continues through April 13 nationwide, and Kelley said it’s an attempt to keep the public informed about their employees’ safety.

“We try and give our employees the tools to be safe,” he said. “We wear reflective clothing, have lots of signs out, but none of that’s going to do anything if drivers aren’t paying attention to the road.”

Cobban Bridge still waiting for DOT approval

The county is continuing preliminary designs for a new Cobban Bridge, but is still waiting on the state for a final decision on the project’s funding.

Those early designs aren’t as intricate as the existing bridge.

The state’s policy is to replace bridges with either an identical bridge, or a bridge built to the “minimum design standards,” Kelley said.

Because the Cobban Bridge is a two-span truss-type bridge and the oldest of its kind in Wisconsin, building a twin to replace it isn’t feasible: “We obviously can’t replace (the bridge) with the same geometry that’s there now, because it wouldn’t be adequate to handle the traffic,” he said.

In order to get state funding, a new bridge must be minimally wide and situated in the same place as the existing bridge. The county also wouldn’t change the alignment of the road leading up to the bridge.

“It’s the least expensive option. That’s what the state’s directed us to use in our application for funding,” Kelley said.

However, the county may be open to deep-pocketed bridge enthusiasts who want to preserve a piece of local history.

“We haven’t had anyone come in and offer (to buy it), so right now, the plan is to demolish it and take it out of there,” Kelley said. “If there is a way someone could salvage and preserve the history by moving it to another location, it’s something we would definitely consider.”

If the county gets the funding decision it’s hoping for, 80 percent of the cost of replacement would come from federal and state dollars; the county would pay the remaining 20 percent. The highway department is currently waiting on the state Department of Transportation for a final decision.

The price of a new bridge rings in at approximately $7.3 million. Under 80/20 percent deal, the county would pay approximately $1.4 million.

If the state doesn’t give a favorable verdict, Kelley said another option would require the towns of Arthur and Eagle Point to pitch in 33 percent of the cost, the county to take up 33 percent, and the federal government to pay the last 33 percent.

“It’s going to be difficult for the county to build the project if we get anything less than (80 percent funded),” Kelley said.

More county bridges getting facelifts

Another Chippewa County bridge is getting a full replacement — this project with a much lower price tag at $425,000.

A Highway K bridge over Little Drywood Creek in the town of Anson will be completely replaced in mid-to-late summer, Kelley said. The bridge will be closed for approximately two months.

Federal and state dollars are paying for 80 percent of that project, while the county is paying the remaining 20 percent. Chippewa Falls bridge repair company Larson Construction has been contracted for the project.

Several more county bridges will be getting deck maintenance in 2018, although the lucky recipients have yet to be chosen.

“We’ve got about $300,000 we’re spending in bridge repairs this year, trying to preserve them as long as we can,” Kelley said.

Many bridges need the repairs, but the highway department will soon prioritize which ones will receive maintenance this year.

In total, the county has budgeted $660,000 for bridge maintenance and construction in 2018, Kelley said.

Paving to be completed in summer

The highway department is re-paving roughly nine miles of roads this summer. All projects will begin in May, and most are expected to end in June.

The 2018 paving projects include:

  • Two miles on Highway UN in the town of Lafayette from Highway P to 160th Street
  • Five miles on Highway M in the town of Ruby, from Highway 27 to Highway G
  • A stretch of Highway H south of Stanley from 30th Avenue to the Eau Claire County line.

The county has 489 miles of roads, which are on a 57-year replacement cycle, Kelley said.

“I know there’s some talk about bonding in the future to bump up the amount of paving we do, trying to get caught up on some of these miles,” he said.

The highway department will also be completing 20 miles of protective road treatment, or chip sealing, on several stretches in the towns of Woodmohr, Tilden and Anson — including on Highway S in front of the Chippewa Valley Festival Grounds, which hosts Rock Fest and Country Fest. All are summer projects and slated to be completed before the fall.

The county has budgeted approximately $3.4 million for road construction in 2018, Kelley said.

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Preparing for every emergency: Sheriff's office receives two-day training

High-voltage power lines and hazardous materials may not be everyday occurrences for Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office deputies, but after recent training, they are prepared for both.

“(It’s) training they don’t necessarily get anyplace else,” said Lieutenant Mitch Gibson with the Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office.

Employees with the department were taught about hazardous materials awareness and high-voltage safety Tuesday and Wednesday to help deputies see “the big picture” of the whole scene when responding to calls, Gibson said.

The training takes place every two to three years, Gibson said, and gives deputies additional information for what to observe when entering a crash scene, an area with storm damage or a manufacturing plant with chemicals.

Deputies were taught the dangers of downed power lines and chemical spills, which would be factors in a variety of calls they get sent to, Gibson said.

Line Supervisor Jim Hodowanic and his crew with Chippewa Valley Electric Cooperative set up their mobile voltage and electric safety unit for the department Wednesday. The unit features demonstrations on high energized vehicle dangers, transformers and power lines.

The mobile safety unit also presents to other municipalities and schools, and will be giving a presentation at the Cornell Fire Department to about 50 local firefighters Monday, Hodowanic said.

Touching a rubber glove to one of the portable “lines” Wednesday, the presenters showed deputies the impact of 7,200 volts coursing through an unfortunate rubber glove that was chosen — it promptly started on fire.

It takes about 120 volts to kill a human being, Hodowanic said.

The demonstration and others like it Wednesday are part of an education Hodowanic said deputies responding to calls and residents in the community should understand when confronted with power lines or electricity issues.

Visuals like the rubber glove make the impact of what could happen more realistic and memorable, Hodowanic said.

“If they see it, hopefully they’ll remember,” Hodowanic said. “…I think by showing it, it gives people a better idea.”

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Trial of man charged in UW-Stout student death gets underway

The trial of the Minnesota man charged in the death of a University of Wisconsin-Stout international student is underway at last.

In their opening statements early Tuesday afternoon, Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf and defense attorney Christopher Zipko of St. Paul presented markedly different versions of what took place during a reported altercation between Hussain Saeed Alnahdi and Cullen Osburn on Menomonie’s Main Street in the early morning hours of Oct. 30, 2016.

But both emphatically urged a jury of six woman and eight men to pay very close to the evidence that would be presented over the course of what could be an eight-day trial.

In custody at the Dunn County Jail since February 2017 on a $25,000 cash bond, Osburn, 29, faces charges of felony murder and aggravated battery resulting from an altercation involving Alnahdi that took place outside a pizza restaurant in downtown Menomonie. Alnahdi died in an Eau Claire hospital the following day as a result of traumatic brain injuries.

Opening salvos

Calling what took place a violent and needless loss of life, Nodolf told the jury that Osburn’s girlfriend was vacationing in Florida and refusing to talk with him. “He specifically told her ‘you don’t answer my calls, I’m going to beat someone up.’ Unfortunately for Hussain Alnahdi ... that is exactly what happened.”

“He was angry and he had something to prove. He was looking to party and looking for a fight,” Nodolf added, noting that when he came to Menomonie, “Who the fight was with didn’t really matter.”

Predicting that the defense would depict Alnahdi as the aggressor, Nodolf said that the Stout junior was described by his family and friends as a “bright light” who loved living life, a hard worker with a great sense of humor.

According to Zipko, what actually took place was a matter of self defense on Osburn’s part. Characterizing Nodolf’s version “distilled” and “myopic”, he asked the jury to focus on the testimony of the witnesses, the bartender and bouncer from the nearby Abbey bar, and the students who saw Alnahdi that night.

“Mr. Alnahdi had a .280 blood alcohol content,” Zipko said. “He was so drunk that when he went to the hospital, they classified him as suffering from acute alcohol intoxication.”

Having hosted a small pre-Halloween party on the night Oct. 29 at the home he shared with roommates, Alnahdi decided to go downtown to The Abbey bar on Main Street, Nodolf said.

Zipko said when Alnahdi got to The Abbey, video evidence show that he drank so much he passed out, unable to stay on his feet. The bouncer escorted him from the premises and propped him on a ledge outside the bar.

Moments later, Zipko said, “He falls down hard for what appears to be about two minutes. ... When Mr. Alnahdi fell down, he injured his face and started bleeding.”

Until he walked out of video range toward Topper’s Pizza, Zipko noted that Alnahdi was seen holding a napkin to his nose with his head tipped back.

Scene of the altercation

Calling Alnahdi a “vulnerable target” as he walked down the sidewalk toward the Topper’s, Nodolf said, “He came face to face with the defendant. Within a matter of moments, the defendant punches Hussain who falls back, never to get up again.”

Witness Nina Simonette said she walked past the two men in front of Topper’s, then heard a man say in an aggressive tone, “What did you say?” Turning back, she said she saw Alnahdi shaking his head and holding both hands in the air as if to indicate he didn’t want a problem.

“She sees the defendant punch Hussain, he falls back. She hears a loud crack as the back of his head hits the wall. And she sees Hussain lying on the sidewalk, unconscious and bloody,” Nodolf recounted. “And then she sees the defendant flee before law enforcement can arrive.”

According to Zipko, Simonette’s statements about Alnahdi’s encounter with Osburn outside Toppers are varied, vague and don’t match the surveillance video. He called Alnahdi’s friend, Evan Walters, the real witness in the case, but pointed out his stories showed myriad inconsistencies.

Zipko claims that the people who were with Osburn and witnessed what took place from inside the restaurant tell a different tale. His brother, Deonte Hughes, and Joshua Sims said they saw Alnahdi pushing Osburn and that Walters’ hand was on Osburn’s collar. When Hughes exited the restaurant to separate the men, Osburn’s necklace was pulled off.

Following the fight

Wanting to “hole up” at Motel Six but without a ride to get there, Nodolf said Osburn encountered a teen at the Kwik Trip (on South Broadway): “He said, ‘I just punched somebody and he’s bleeding out, and if you don’t give me a ride, I’ll [expletive] punch you, too.’”

Meanwhile, Alnahdi was transported by Mayo Clinic Health System-Red Cedar in Menomonie, then transferred by helicopter to Mayo in Eau Claire where he was found to have a fracture of the occipital bone on the back of his skull. After Alnahdi suffered a seizure, surgery was performed to relieve the pressure. But his injuries were too great and he was declared brain dead.

About the death report, Zipko said, the forensics show that there was no anatomical or physical proof that Alnahdi was in a fight. “Mr. Osburn, on the street in front of Toppers, was confronted by Mr. Alnahdi and Mr. Walters — both who were drunk,” Zipko told the jury. “There’s no evidence that there was a fight.

Nodolf said that having returned to Minnesota, Osburn was following the case, searching on his phone information about traumatic brain injury, how to get a rush passport, and what countries don’t extradite to the United States. Osburn was taken into custody on Jan. 12, 2017.

“The defendant’s weapon of choice is violence,” Nodolf said. “Even more disturbing, he brags about it. You’ll be able to watch a video from Motel Six from later that night when Hussain was attacked.”

The D.A. said there would be testimony of the motel’s receptionist about Osburn boasting about how he got into a fight with a bouncer when he was talking about Alnahdi. “If you watch that video closely, you’ll see the defendant reenact what happens.”

‘Final’ instructions

Nodolf told the jury she wanted them to listen for three things throughout the trial. In addition to first paying close attention to the evidence, she said, “I want you to listen to the law ... what Judge Smeltzer tells you it is.”

And thirdly, she asked them to use their common sense: “When you’re listening to people testify on the stand, I want you to assess their credibility. You can think about who has an interest in the outcome of this case ... possible motives for falsifying testimony.”

Zipko acknowledged that Alnahdi’s death was a senseless loss of someone with a lot of potential. But he warned the jury that the kind of person the prosecution would portray to them was not the same person who died on the street outside Topper’s.

“The Mr. Alnahdi that was on the site was drunk, was aggressive, was yelling at my client,” Zipko said. “My client only tried to get away, and Mr. Alnahdi, who had already fallen once — and been down for two minutes — fell again and suffered his injury. As tragic as this is, it is not a crime. My client didn’t assault him, he didn’t do anything but try to defend himself.”

He predicted that the evidence presented by the state would be aimed at making the jury dislike Osburn. “The fact is, it doesn’t matter,” Zipko concluded. “He did not hit him, he did not provoke him, he did not do anything but act in self defense in trying to get away from two people who were drunk.”

ROD STETZER, The Herald 


barbara / BARBARA LYON, Dunn County News 

Defendant Cullen M. Osburn consults with his attorney Christopher Zipko before a hearing leading up to his trial which began Tuesday.

Ryan bowing out, sending ripples of uncertainty through GOP

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Paul Ryan announced Wednesday he will retire rather than seek another term in Congress as the steady if reluctant wingman for President Donald Trump, sending ripples through a Washington already on edge and spreading new uncertainty through a party bracing for a rough election year.

The Wisconsin Republican cast the decision to end his 20-year career as a personal one, saying he did not want his children growing up with a "weekend dad." Claiming he's accomplished "a heckuva lot," he said the party can point to strong gains as lawmakers campaign ahead of November elections. A self-styled budget expert, Ryan had made tax cuts a centerpiece of his legislative agenda, and a personal cause, and Congress delivered on that late last year.

"I have given this job everything I have," he said. "We're going to have a great record to run on."

But Ryan's impending departure also sets off a scramble among his lieutenants to take the helm. And it will fuel speculation that Ryan is eyeing a coming Democratic surge, fueled by opposition to Trump, that could wrest control of the House from Republicans' grip. Several GOP veterans have announced plans to retire in recent months and another, Rep. Dennis Ross of Florida, followed Ryan on Wednesday.

After talking with Trump early Wednesday, Ryan, 48, first announced his plans at a closed-door meeting of House Republicans. Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina said an emotional Ryan "choked up a few times trying to get through" his remarks to colleagues and received three standing ovations.

Moments later, Ryan told reporters that if he were to stay for one more term, his children — now all teens — would only know him as a weekend dad.

"I can't let that happen," he said.

The speaker had been heading toward this decision since late last year, said a person familiar with his thinking, but as recently as February he had considered running for another term. His own father died suddenly of a heart attack when he was 16, and though Ryan is in good health, the distance from his family weighed on him. A final decision was made over the two-week congressional recess, which was partly spent on a family vacation in the Czech Republic.

Ryan called extended family and a few close friends Tuesday night and alerted a few staff. On Wednesday morning, after talking to the president, the vice president and fellow GOP lawmakers from Wisconsin, he gathered the rest of his staff before going to the conference meeting, officials.

Ryan, who has had a difficult relationship with Trump, thanked the president for giving him the chance to move the GOP ahead.

For many Republicans, Ryan has been "a steady force in contrast to the president's more mercurial tone," said Rep. Mark Sanford of South Carolina. "That's needed."

Ryan, from Janesville, Wisconsin, was first elected to Congress in 1998. Along with Reps. Eric Cantor and Kevin McCarthy, he branded himself a rising "young gun" in an aging party and a new breed of hard-charging Republican ready to shrink the size of government.

He became GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012.

Ryan was pulled into the leadership job by the abrupt retirement of Speaker John Boehner in 2015. Boehner had struggled to wrangle the chamber's restless conservative wing and failed to the seal big deals on fiscal policy he sought. Ryan had more trust with the hardliners in the House.

"That's probably his greatest gift to us," said Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota. "His ability to bridge the vast divide."

But Ryan ultimately had to wrestle with another unexpected challenge: Trump, a president with little of Ryan's interest in policy detail or ideological purity. The two have had not had a close working relationship.

House Majority Leader McCarthy, a Republican from California known to be tighter with Trump, is expected to again seek the top leadership post that slipped from his reach in 2015. He will likely compete with Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana. Both men spoke at the closed-door meeting Wednesday, delivering tributes to Ryan.

Another potential rival, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, demurred when asked if he'd pursue the speaker's job. "Leadership has never been on my bucket list, and it's not on my bucket list today," he said.

Ryan's announcement comes as Republicans are bracing for a potential blue wave of voter enthusiasm for Democrats, who need to flip at least 24 GOP-held seats in November to regain the majority.

As the House GOP's top fundraiser, Ryan's sudden lame duck status could send shockwave through donor circles that are relying on his leadership at the helm of the House majority. He has hauled in $54 million so far this election cycle.

"It injects some more uncertainty to be sure," said the No. 2 Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas. "It's just another issue that's floating out there, and obviously there's going to be some competition for his successor."

A top GOP fundraiser, Eric Tanenblatt, expects Ryan to remain a force in a tough cycle. "Donors who are committed to making sure Republicans hold onto the majority will do whatever they have to do to make that happen," he said.

In Wisconsin, the most likely Republican candidate for Ryan's seat is state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, multiple Republicans in the state said. Vos did not immediately return telephone or text messages.

Another Republican mentioned as a potential candidate is longtime Ryan family friend and backer Bryan Steil, an attorney and member of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents. Steil did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

Democrat Randy Bryce, a colorful ironworker who has cultivated an "IronStache" moniker, had been Ryan's best-known challenger, drawing liberal support from around the country. He had nearly $2.3 million in the bank at the end of the first quarter. Janesville teacher Cathy Myers was also running on the Democratic side. The only declared Republican was Paul Nehlen, who was banned from Twitter for a series of posts criticized as racist or anti-Semitic.

In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell praised Ryan's tenure, and the Democratic leader, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, said she hoped Ryan would work constructively on bipartisan goals before he leaves.

While his plans are uncertain once he steps down in January, Ryan has long said being speaker would be his last job in elected office. Others have suggested that an ideal job for the policy wonk could be running a think tank, noting the leader of the conservative American Enterprise Institute recently announced he would be stepping down.

Wisconsin lawmakers also responded to Ryan's announcement. Gov. Scott Walker thanked Ryan for his tenure, while Wisconsin State Rep. David Bowen (D-Milwaukee) called Ryan's decision to retire "an enormous victory for the future of our state and nation," crediting the students who participated in the "50 Miles More" gun violence march to Ryan's town, Janesville. U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin wished Ryan the best, acknowledging their different views yet shared history of representing Wisconsin.

AP reporters Catherine Lucey, Alan Fram, Kevin Freking and Andrew Taylor contributed from Washington. Scott Bauer contributed from Madison, Wisconsin, and Steve Karnowski contributed from Minneapolis. Bill Barrow contributed from Atlanta.