The trial for a Wisconsin 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 that the case would stay there.
Defense attorney Travis Satorius told Isaacson how social media, particularly Facebook, have 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.
He also noted the crash happened just over one year ago, which led to renewed news stories, and pointed to questionnaires sent to a pool of potential jurors that indicated most of them know a significant amount about the case. 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 members of a jury will make a ruling not on what they heard in the media, but on what evidence they were given during the trial.
“Everywhere in the state is going to know about this,” Newell told Isaacson.
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, of Chippewa Falls, is charged 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 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 in lieu of $250,000 cash bail.
The four people killed in the crash were Jayna S. Kelley, 9, and Autumn A. Helgeson, 10, both of Lake Hallie; and Haylee J. Hickle, 10, and her mother, Sara Jo Schneider, 32, of the town of Lafayette.
The fifth person injured was Madalyn Zwiefelhofer; she was hospitalized for three weeks.
The deceased 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 he is accused of driving while impaired, causing a rollover crash.