My biggest story

Earlier this week, while looking for something else, I came upon some of my own work.

(I’m going to write a blog someday called “Things I Found While Looking for Something Else.” This is not that blog.)

The Grant County Sheriff’s Department, in the county where I used to live, has a tribute page to the two officers in county history who died in the line of duty. One is William Loud, a deputy marshal in Cassville, shot to death by two bank robbers in 1912.

The other is Tom Reuter, a Grant County deputy sheriff who was shot to death at the end of his 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift March 18, 1990. Gregory Coulthard, then a 19-year-old farmhand, was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and is serving a life sentence, with his first eligibility for parole on March 18, 2015, just 3½ years from now.

I’ve written a lot over the years. I think this, from my first two years in the full-time journalism world, will go down as the story I remember the most.

For journalists, big stories contain a paradox, which was pointed out in CBS-TV’s interview of Andy Rooney on his last “60 Minutes” Sunday. Morley Safer said something along the line of wars being fun to cover, but really any big story is what a journalist wants to cover — human drama. On the other hand, human drama often involves tragedy, and this certainly was a tragedy for Reuter’s family, and also for Coulthard’s family.

As it happened, I drove past the area a few hours before the shooting. I had been in Madison that weekend to watch the state basketball tournament and see my parents. It was a typical late winter night, with blowing snow making the two-lane roads a bit slick.

The next morning, the first thing I heard was something along the lines of “A sheriff’s deputy was shot to death last night in Grant County.”  The radio station I was listening to had news every half-hour, and I wasn’t sure what I’d heard even though hearing the words “Grant County” woke me up better than a double espresso, so I waited another half-hour to hear the same thing, more awake this time.

(Twenty-one years after I wrote the preceding story, I notice that two paragraphs are duplicated. I regret the error.)

The criminal complaint and the trial revealed what had happened that evening.

Coulthard, who worked and lived on a farm in eastern Grant County, decided to go to Platteville to drink that Sunday night. (Or drink some more; when Coulthard was arrested, his blood alcohol level was past the then-legal limit of 0.10.) The fact he didn’t have a valid driver’s license because of a previous drunk driving conviction posed a dilemma, which he solved by taking one of the farm’s tractors and heading down Wisconsin 80.

About halfway to Platteville, Coulthard apparently concluded he wouldn’t get to Platteville by bar time, and was unhappy about that. Coulthard dealt with his anger by taking the shotgun that was in the tractor cab (intended to shoot varmints that didn’t belong on the farm) and firing at a billboard until he hit its light. He then turned around the tractor and went back to the farm.

Reuter was working the 4-to-midnight shift, one of two deputies patrolling Grant County (which is larger in land area than the state of Rhode Island) that evening. Sheriff’s deputies are allowed to take their cars home with them, so Reuter probably was heading home when he encountered a tractor apparently disabled on the side of the road. It wasn’t made clear why Coulthard was parked on the side of the road; he may have been trying to sneak the tractor back into the farm by a side entrance.

At any rate, when Reuter saw the tractor, which would have been an unexpected sight on a March night before anything was being planted or harvested, he turned on his red and blue lights, radioed in that he was stopped behind a disabled tractor, and got out to investigate. And when he got up to the tractor, he was greeted by a shotgun blast to the chest. He wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest.

I didn’t know Reuter personally, but I’d had a couple of interactions with him. One was when I ran out to get a photo of a downed power line caused by the remnants of a hurricane that had made the trip up the Mississippi River; he was at the scene where the power line crossed the state highway west of Lancaster. The other was when Reuter came over to pick up something tied to the felony theft trial of the newspaper’s former receptionist. (That is a story in itself, but not here.)

As sometimes happens even at a small-town weekly newspaper, whatever I was intending to do the day after the shooting didn’t happen. My first stop after arriving at work was to go to the sheriff’s department to pick up the department’s news release. I had covered trials before, but never a murder.

At first, the chief deputy was composed as I asked him details about what happened. And then from whatever I asked him, his eyes reddened and his voice choked up. And there is nothing in any journalism course that instructs you how to deal with something like that.

The next afternoon, Coulthard made his first appearance in Grant County Circuit Court.

That’s when I figured out why I thought the name sounded familiar. The previous year, I’d written a small item about Coulthard’s probation for criminal damage to property and theft charges. The probation term apparently included a short stay in the Grant County Jail, an experience so unpleasant that Coulthard supposedly vowed to never return to jail.

Two days after that, I was at Reuter’s funeral, held in the Catholic church in Platteville because it was the largest church in the county. (A priest formerly at my family’s church was the pastor. We didn’t have a chance to reconnect.) The funeral was at a rural cemetery near the Reuter home. It was the first police funeral I’d ever witnessed, with a 14-mile-long procession of police cars.

(My personal favorite detail of this case is the identity of the arresting officer. His name was Ivan. He was a Dane County Sheriff’s Department K–9 dog. Ivan went into a haymow, found Coulthard, and brought him out by his face. Coulthard’s first stop on the way to his life sentence was to Lancaster Memorial Hospital to have his facial wounds repaired.)

In addition to this being the first murder trial I’d ever covered,  it was the first trial I’d covered that included numerous other members of the news media. Two TV stations and the Lancaster radio station were there for the trial, along with reporters from the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, La Crosse Tribune and Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, and some of our other Grant County weekly newspaper competition.

I spent much of the spring attending various hearings tied to the trial, including the preliminary hearing (where a judge determines whether or not sufficient evidence exists to bring a case to trial) and the plea hearing. Coulthard first pleaded not guilty, then not guilty by mental disease or defect, then, just before the trial, back to not guilty.

Coulthard’s public defenders’  strategy was to admit that Coulthard did shoot Reuter, but not intentionally — that he made a bad decision out of fear, not out of intent to shoot the cop who had stopped behind him.

The trial began on a Friday, included a Saturday morning session, and wrapped up testimony on Monday, with the closing arguments and jury instructions Tuesday morning. Grant County District Attorney Emil Everix brought out a parade of witnesses to prove every event that had occurred that evening.

When a reporter has reported enough to get that cynical sheen, the reporter realizes that most events are not as exciting as they are portrayed in fiction. There are no “Perry Mason” moments in trials.

Coulthard took the stand in his own defense to reinforce his attorneys’ strategy of claiming a momentary breakdown of judgment. After one of his attorneys examined him, Everix cross-examined him, asking questions about the specific events.

“When the officer came around, that’s when you shot him, is that correct?” asked Everix.

“I shot him when I saw him,” said Coulthard.

Everix immediately decided he had asked enough questions. Coulthard’s attorney tried to repair the damage, but it was like trying to unring a bell. Once a recess was declared, I went up to the court reporter to make sure I’d heard what I thought I had heard. So much for the claim that there are no Perry Mason moments in trials.

The public defender called it a “slick lawyer’s trick” in his closing arguments. Everix countered by saying “That was not a a slip of the tongue, that was the truth finally coming out of his mouth.”

The jury began deliberations around 11 a.m. I was in the clerk of court’s office doing my usual Tuesday dregs-of-mankind courthouse stop when the jury commissioner stuck his head in and said the jury had reached a verdict. That meant that in 90 minutes, the jury had selected a foreman, ate lunch, and decided the verdict.

Coulthard will be eligible for parole on the 25th anniversary of Reuter’s death. Attorneys told me that hardly anyone gets parole on the first application. Coulthard is now 40 years old, which means he outlived Reuter.

The aftermath included a few ironies. Coulthard’s sentencing hearing began with the jury, even though juries usually are not present at sentencings. The reason is that the judge did not poll the jury as apparently was requested, so they had to do that. Coulthard’s attorneys sought a mistrial based on the procedural error or omission. It was denied at all three levels of the state court system.

Reuter’s squad car was later used by another sheriff’s deputy. But not for long — a couple years later, a deputy was driving the car north of Dubuque when the car got hung up on railroad tracks. The deputy radioed in that he was disabled, and then heard a train whistle. To make a long story short, the deputy survived, but the squad car did not.

Coulthard is lucky in a sense. He’s lucky he wasn’t living one state to the south, where, had he done what he did, he would probably have been executed a few years ago. He has, however, spent more than half his life behind bars. That’s a grim thought for anyone who has even visited a prison. (I visited the Supermax prison in Boscobel before it opened.)

Two years later, I was the owner of Coulthard’s hometown newspaper, the Tri-County Press. Although I don’t think I’ve ever met his parents, my office manager did tell me his mother was in one day to renew his subscription, to a post office box in Green Bay.

The Tri-County Press’ previous owner reran a story from the La Crosse Tribune about Coulthard ‘s spending his birthday in the Richland County Jail, where he stayed from arrest until his sentencing. That struck me at the time as being incredibly bad judgment (the story included Coulthard’s jail address so readers could send him birthday cards), and the story struck me as glorifying a cop-killer. (There was no other possible perpetrator, and as previously noted the defense made no effort to deny that Coulthard had shot Reuter.)

I’ve changed my mind slightly about that because I cannot imagine what horror was visited on Coulthard’s parents by the shooting. Everyone in the Tri-State region knew what the Coulthards’ oldest son did. And the Coulthards were active community members in Cuba City, including serving on the Cuba City Area Rescue Squad.

But whatever horror was visited on Coulthard’s parents cannot match the horror visited on the Reuter family. Five children, who were ages 7 to 15 when Reuter was killed, grew up without a father. I don’t know if Diane Reuter has remarried or not, but she suddenly and unwillingly became a single parent. My extended family is proof that can happen to anyone (I have a grandfather who died at 47, a grandmother who died at 49, and an uncle who died at 44), but I doubt that’s the same.

During the debate over public employee collective bargaining rights earlier this year, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett asked why police officers and firefighters were allowed to keep their collective bargaining rights while most other public employees weren’t. Independent of the political games being played (to coin a phrase, endorsements have consequences), there is one substantial difference between police officers and firefighters and other government employees — the first group’s job duties include the possibility that they could die in the performance of their job. We all got a reminder of that Sept. 11, 2001. Neither Tom Reuter nor the hundreds of New York police officers and firefighters thought when they went to work that day that that would be their last day on earth.

I would think about the trial every time I drove past the Green Bay Correctional Institution, on Wisconsin 172. One thing that came to mind is that there seems to be absolutely no one to blame except Coulthard himself. I’m sure his parents blamed themselves for what he did, but no evidence came out about his having a bad childhood or any other excuse. Poor judgment under alcohol appears to have been a recurring theme despite his inability to legally drink (as in one drunk driving conviction and the charges for which he was on probation). Despite being legally drunk, Coulthard was sober enough to kill someone with one shot from a shotgun.

Coulthard didn’t set out from his farm intending to shoot a cop that night. But when he picked up the shotgun and pointed it at Deputy Reuter, that was all the intent the law requires and the jury needed for a first-degree intentional homicide conviction and a life sentence. And because he didn’t want to go back to jail, he ended one life, irreparably damaged two families’ lives, and threw away his own life.

The last irony is that I ended up knowing a lot of people who were principals in the case. The sheriff’s captain who executed the search warrant at Coulthard’s house became my brother-in-law, because her sister-in-law, having nothing else to do since her return from the Peace Corps, came to the trial with her mother. And there, she saw, for about the fourth time that week, the reporter who interviewed her upon her return from Guatemala. And he told her about the high school baseball playoff game later the day the verdict was reached. (Lancaster 20, Platteville 3.) Which led to another baseball playoff game (Gale–Ettrick–Trempealeau 8, Lancaster 7 in 12 innings). Which led to a date. Which leads to our 19th anniversary Oct. 24. And, other than justice being done, that may have been the best thing that came out of it all.

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