LA CROSSE, WIS.
It was the Saturday night before Oktoberfest, and this old brewery town's legendary drinking culture was limbering up for the marathon to come.
One of the 50 bars downtown offered booze by the fishbowl. Another covered pool tables so students could platform-dance to pulsating rap while splats of beer jumped from their cups. Nearby, 50 young people partied so hard in a second-story apartment that the floor caved in, sending three to the hospital.
But in Riverside Park along the Mississippi, college students Adam Bradley and Matt Krueger, both sober as judges, made what they called another "interception."
There, where nine inebriated young men have drowned in 15 years, the Operation River Watch volunteers gently confronted a 26-year-old who had wandered into the park so wrecked he couldn't remember what town he was in.
The volunteers patiently helped the wasted wanderer recall where he'd planned to sleep, and then they put him in a cab to take him there. "We'll never know if it saved his life, but at least we got him away from the river," said Bradley, 22.
One drunk at a time, La Crosse is trying to freeze a death toll that hangs on the city like a shroud. Meanwhile, officials, educators and even organizers of the Oktoberfest that started Friday and runs through Oct. 6 are working to change a culture they say is the root cause of the deaths.
This city of 51,000 about 140 miles southeast of the Twin Cities has lived to party since 1858, when Gottlieb Heileman picked the picturesque confluence of three rivers to brew beer.
The brewery's six outdoor storage tanks were painted to become "The World's Largest Six-Pack." The town has 22 annual festivals, led by Oktoberfest, which attracts 150,000 to 200,000 visitors and beer-bongs $6 million down the gullet of the local economy.
"It's all part of our rich, strong history of alcohol," said Brenda Rooney, an epidemiologist for Gundersen Lutheran Health System. Add a throng of students from three colleges, and you have a place practiced in pounding 'em.
The fest grew so raucous by the 1980s that the county held criminal court on Saturdays, remembers La Crosse Tribune editor Chris Hardie: "In those days, you'd come out literally soaked in beer. Police had to put on riot gear and use tear gas."
Said 49-year-old police Sgt. Randy Rank: "To a kid, it was scary. Suddenly there'd be somebody across the hood of your car."
Killer on the loose
Maybe, said Hardie, drunk drownings also happened in the old days but nobody figured it out. Before medical examiners and automatic autopsies, who was to say victims hadn't soberly committed suicide?
But by the time 28-year-old Charles Blatz and 19-year-old Anthony Skifton drowned during the 1997 fest, toxicology tests were standard. Blatz's blood-alcohol (BA) concentration came back at .31 percent, Skifton's .23.
And by the time student Jared Dion drowned in April 2004, the string had reached seven, and 500 residents packed a town meeting, many asking why police wouldn't admit a serial killer was at work. Then-Police Chief Edward Kondracki's response is well-documented: The only killer is alcohol abuse.
An FBI review of the cases concluded the same.
Several leaders now believe that meeting was the moment La Crosse resolved to start changing. Police started responsible-server education and went undercover to catch bars serving minors and servers drinking. The city limited keg purchases and imposed keg-registration rules.
They recriminalized public intoxication and offered alcohol-education classes in lieu of fines. They decreased bar density by being choosier about issuing licenses. Meanwhile, the baffling string of deaths periodically continued, each heightening the city's willingness to try anything to make them stop.
After Oktoberfest 2006, when student Luke Homan turned up dead in the river, a fraternity at his college joined with students from the other two schools to start Operation River Watch, which patrols Thursday nights through Sunday mornings with volunteer police reservists.
Two more men drowned outside the area the volunteers patrol, but police credited the effort with keeping at least 50 others from drowning in the first four years. Viterbo University senior Krueger said the volunteers, numbering several dozen at any one time, made just under 1,300 "interceptions or contacts" in 2011 alone. Not all are drunk, and volunteers usually simply inform them that the park closes at 11 p.m.
"I'm an occasional drinker," Krueger, 21, said as he and Bradley walked the riverbank. "I don't do this because I'm anti-drinking. It's solely to improve the safety of the community."
The watchers tried to answer some of the questions that nag everyone. Why no female victims? They speculate it's because women are programmed to stick together and not to put themselves at risk. And why, when victims stumble out of the bars, do they go to the river? "I think it's gravity," said police reservist Brian Wells, "an engineer in my real life." He noted it's slightly downhill. "They're exhausted, and they hope that the easiest way will take them where they want to go."
And what's behind a phenomenon Kondracki and others labeled "aggressive drinking," which they defined as even more deadly than binge drinking?
"There's more drinking just to get drunk," Bradley said. "They're using Red Bull, Four Loko and other energy drinks in order to drink more and stay drunk longer. They're being egged on by MTV and music videos and 'Jersey Shore' ... Some guys will even lift weights at 9 p.m. so that they're dehydrated by the time they party and they can get drunk quicker."
Epidemiologist Rooney lauds the new regulations and patrols, but she has more hopes pinned to altering things "upstream, at the source of the problem."
She's involved in a project called "Changing the Culture of Risky Drinking Behavior," funded by $800,000 in public health grants. It treats the beer-soaked culture as an urgent health issue. Among other things, the initiative is helping make the festivals more family friendly.
In 2007, Oktoberfest got an aid station where partiers can rest, charge cellphones, eat something healthy and write their names and addresses on their arms. This year, for the first time, one of the two main "fest" grounds will be alcohol free for several days.
"We wanted to add some balance," said fest executive director Tina Severson. "We've also worked closely with our security staff, and our incidents have gone down. We don't tolerate beer throwing or anything like that."
Rooney said Wisconsin, in order to stop the real River Killer, needs to go even further upstream.
"It's the environment we've created and the agent itself -- alcohol -- which is cheap here," she said. "The tax on beer in Wisconsin is the second-cheapest in the nation."
Said river watcher Bradley: "We need to realize that we are the problem. Our overindulgence of alcohol and inability to take responsibility for our actions has caused these tragedies."
Larry Oakes • 612-673-1751