CHIPPEWA FALLS — The trial for a man accused of huffing while driving and striking a group of Girl Scouts, killing four people, will remain in Chippewa County, despite objections from his attorneys.
Judge James Isaacson determined Friday at a motion hearing that the trial for 22-year-old Colten Treu will not be moved to a different venue, nor will a jury from a different county be brought in.
Isaacson pointed to precedents that said a juror doesn’t have to be ignorant or unaware of the facts of the case to be neutral and sit on the jury. Isaacson said Chippewa County has “an educated public,” and ruled the case would stay here.
Treu’s defense team sought the change of venue. Defense attorney Travis Satorius told Isaacson how social media, particularly Facebook, has increased “the inflammatory nature of the publicity” of the case against Treu. Satorius read from multiple comments posted on local TV stations’ Facebook pages that suggested violent acts be done to Treu.
“I can’t think of anything that could be more inflammatory,” Satorius said.
Satorius also pointed to news articles that showed images from funerals, and mentioned some inaccuracies shared in some media sources, saying they could cause Treu to not receive a fair trial. He noted the crash happened just over one year ago, which led to renewed news stories.
“Those jurors are potentially tuning into their TV and watching 1,000 people turning out for a memorial,” Satorius said. “The pressure they must feel.”
Satorius pointed to questionnaires sent to a pool of potential jurors that indicated most of them know a significant amount about the case, saying that will make it difficult to select a jury. Perhaps 50% to 80% of potential jurors indicated they didn’t think they could be impartial in this case, he added.
Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell referenced a precedent case that states a jury will make its ruling, not on what they heard in the media, but what evidence they were given during the trial.
“Everywhere in the state is going to know about this,” Newell told Isaacson.
However, Satorius claims that people in Chippewa County have “direct, daily involvement in the outcome of the case,” unlike a jury that would come from a different county. He said it is a case “ripe for appellant review.”
“This is a unique case; this rises to a level above a normal case,” Satorius said.
Newell said the memorials at the one-year anniversary of the crash mourned the loss of life; they weren’t a rally against Treu.
Newell referenced the 2005 bus crash, where five people from Chippewa Falls were killed near Osseo as an example of how a jury from that area can hear the case. However, Isaacson pointed out to Newell that case actually was moved to St. Croix County.
After Isaacson’s ruling, Satorius requested a “bench trial,” rather than a “jury trial.” However, Newell said the state still wants it to be a jury trial. Isaacson said he would make a ruling on that request at a later date.
Treu, 22, 1060 Joseph St., is charged in Chippewa County Court with four counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle, four counts of hit and run-involving death, and one count each of hit and run-causing great bodily harm, intentionally abusing hazardous materials and bail jumping.
Treu is accused of huffing from an aerosol canister on Nov. 3, 2018, then crashing his pickup truck into members of Girl Scout Troop 3055 as they were picking up trash along Highway P in Lake Hallie, south of the Highway 29 overpass. The crash occurred at about 11 a.m.
Officers had followed a fresh fluid trail from the damaged pickup truck at the crash scene 1.8 miles to Treu’s home. The truck, parked inside the garage, had “significant front-end damage, with weeds observed stuck in the front bumper,” the criminal complaint states. However, Treu was not home. He turned himself in shortly before 5 p.m.
Treu claims that his passenger, John Stender, grabbed the steering wheel of his pickup truck, causing the vehicle to swerve and strike the Girl Scouts. Stender has not been charged.
The homicide trial is to begin Jan. 21 and could last two weeks.
According to the criminal complaint, Treu and Stender had just left a Walmart store in Lake Hallie, and had started huffing from a computer cleaning aerosol can, when Treu’s truck crashed into the Girl Scouts, crossing the center line of Highway P.
A test from the Wisconsin State Lab of Hygiene didn’t detect any chemicals or drugs in Treu’s blood sample. However, because Treu didn’t stay at the scene, a blood draw couldn’t be immediately taken. Treu turned himself in to authorities at 4:33 p.m. that day — about five hours after the crash occurred. The blood draw was taken after 7 p.m.
Earlier this year, Lake Hallie police officer Adam Meyers testified that Treu’s phone indicated he had looked up information on how long the huffing chemicals could remain in his blood stream.
Treu, who appeared in court Friday, remains incarcerated on a $250,000 cash bond.
The four people killed in the crash were Jayna S. Kelley, 9, Autum A. Helgeson, 10, both of Lake Hallie, Haylee J. Hickle, 10, and her mother, Sara Jo Schneider, 32, both of the town of Lafayette.
The fifth person injured was Madalyn Zwiefelhofer; she was hospitalized for three weeks.
The girls attended Southview Elementary and Halmstad Elementary in Chippewa Falls.
Treu has one drunken-driving conviction from 2014, plus a Sept. 30, 2018, incident in Rusk County where is accused of driving while impaired, causing a rollover crash.
Colten Treu, 22, is accused of huffing from an aerosol canister on Nov. 3, 2018, then crashing his pickup truck into members of Girl Scout Troop 3055.