CHIPPEWA FALLS, WIS. – Austin Yetter clutched the picture of a Furby that his best friend drew. It’s now laminated because he wants it to be a forever reminder of his pal, 10-year-old Haylee Hickle.
“She never finished it,” the 7-year-old said Thursday. “She was a good friend. She was nice to me.”
As the boy spoke, the reality that Haylee was gone took hold, and he buried his head in his mother’s coat.
Austin and hundreds of mourners from this heartbroken northwestern Wisconsin community paused Thursday morning to remember Haylee and her mother, Sara Jo Schneider, and lay them to rest. It was the beginning of grief-filled day that paid tribute to three Girl Scouts and a young mother who were killed Saturday when an allegedly intoxicated driver plowed into them as they picked up litter along a rural road as part of a community service project.
Inside the Chippewa Valley Bible Church, mourners filed past tables filled with children’s drawings and easels holding posters featuring photos of a grinning child and a devoted mother. Many would attend services later Thursday and Friday for the other Scouts who were killed — Jayna Kelley, 9, and Autumn Helgeson, 10.
As relatives, friends and classmates gathered in the church’s foyer, they embraced, holding on to one another a bit tighter and longer than usual. A few stood silently, shaking their heads in sorrow, anger or disbelief.
They would be burying children who were still young enough to be enchanted by unicorns but old enough to talk about the dreams they had when they grew up.
“It’s not really fair,” said 16-year-old Jorie Reitan, whose mother babysat Haylee and her brother, Jasper. They were all too young, Jorie said, her eyes filling with tears. “They don’t get the chance to do the things that they wanted to grow up to do.”
As the service began and the sounds of “Amazing Grace” faded, Rev. Jim Woldhuis stood behind the microphone and spoke of the unfathomable loss.
“No hugs. No flowers or acts of kindness … will fully erase your pain,” he said. “Your world has been crushed. Your joy stolen. Your sense of peace destroyed. My heart and our collective hearts break with you.”
Later Thursday, Woldhuis set up the church for a visitation for Jayna, whose funeral service will be held there Friday. So many came — Girls Scouts, teachers, first responders at the Saturday crash, close friends and even strangers — to pay their respects that a steady line stretched through the church and around tables filled with art, softball gear and photographs.
Across town at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, the Rev. Jeanne Warner presided over a Thursday evening service for Autumn. There, too, mourners queued up, patiently waiting in the November chill to wind their way into the church.
Many in this city of 14,000 people 95 miles east of the Twin Cities planned to attend all the visitations and services.
“Everybody you talk to is connected somehow to each of them. It’s just like one giant spider web,” said Sue Yetter, as she cradled her son’s head, still buried against her as he held onto the Furby drawing.
“We can’t make sense of it,” Woldhuis had said earlier this week as he prepared for the services. “We can ask all the whys in the world, but we’re not going to get the answers we want.
“It just is.”
All they could do is say goodbye.
Early Thursday, they remembered Haylee, who liked to sketch, paint and craft and dreamed of growing up to be an animator. She loved rainbows, unicorns, a cat named Kitten and her dog, Rory.
They honored her mother, Sara, 32, a free spirit who didn’t care what others thought. She was artistic and loved life, pouring herself into her two children. Sara and Haylee were buried in the same casket.
Later, mourners gathered to pay tribute to Jayna, who lived to dance, play softball in the summer and football with the boys at school. She loved her rescue pets, Kirby the dog and Rico the cat, adored children and wanted to be a kindergarten teacher someday.
And they would remember Autumn, a gentle soul who loved to draw, paint and knit. In the fall, she often sat in a tree stand next to her father as he hunted with a bow.
“It will never be the same,” Warner said this week about life without the four. “Their presence will be missed. But in time, the pain will become less acute.”
‘Takes the air out of you’
For now, however, the anguish is still raw.
The fourth-grade girls, other members of their Girl Scout Troop 3055 and their chaperones were walking along County Road P near the Hwy. 29 overpass in Lake Hallie Saturday, collecting litter as part of the Adopt-A-Highway program, when a black pickup truck veered off the highway and struck them.
According to a criminal complaint, the driver, Colten R. Treu, 21, of Chippewa Falls, and his roommate and passenger, John Stender Jr., had been inhaling a computer keyboard cleaner to get high shortly before the truck struck the Scouts and Schneider. Treu has since been charged with 11 criminal counts, including homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and hit and run. He is being held in the Chippewa County jail on $250,000 bail.
A fourth Girl Scout who was hit, 10-year-old Madalyn Zwiefelhofer, remains hospitalized at Mayo Clinic in Rochester after suffering severe injuries that included an aortic rupture and injuries to her spleen, kidney and brain.
When news of the tragedy first spread across Chippewa Falls and neighboring towns, people’s hearts sank, said Justin Crawford, of nearby New Auburn. “It takes the air right out of you,” he said.
When the names of the victims were posted on social media, it became personal for many, including Crawford, who was boyhood friends with Schneider’s brother and watched her grow up.
“It digs deeper into your heart,” he said. “The families are now missing a part of themselves.”