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.


1957 vs. 1982 vs. 2011

Last week, around the time the Brewers won the first two games of the National League Division Series, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Michael Hunt asked the question of which championship team was better, the 1982 American League champion Brewers, or the 2011 National League Central Division champion Brewers.

Some posters chose option 3, the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, which defeated the (hated) New York Yankees 4 games to 3 to win the World Series.

I bring up this comparison now because the 2011 Brewers’ season might end today with game 5 of the NLDS scheduled for late afternoon. The Brewers are one of the best home teams in baseball, but in a one-game playoff, to dust off my Greatest Sports Clichés book, anything can happen.

If the Brewers fail to get to the World Series, they will of course drop to third in any comparison of these three teams. The Braves won the World Series in 1957, got to the World Series in 1958, and were contenders for the National League pennant in 1956 and 1959 (when they lost a playoff to the Dodgers). The early ’80s Brewers got to the 1982 World Series, won the American League East second-half title in the strike year of 1981, and were a contender every season from 1978 to 1983.

Some of the choices are obvious. Ryan Braun (who batted .332 with 33 home runs, 111 RBI and an OPS of .994) is a Most Valuable Player candidate, Henry Aaron (.322, 44 HR, 132 RBI, .978 OPS in 1957) was the 1957 National League Most Valuable Player, and Robin Yount (.331, 29 HR, 114 RBI, .957 OPS) was the 1982 American League MVP.

(Before we go on, for older baseball fans: OPS stands for On-Base (Average) Plus Slugging (Percentage), a statistic in which .700 to .767 is average and anyone better than .900 is one of the best offensive players in the league.)

Other positions are fun to debate. Cecil Cooper (.313, 32 HR, 121 RBI, .870 OPS) was one of the most underrated players of his day. In 1980, Cooper batted .352, but the Royals’ George Brett batted .390. In 1982, Cooper batted .313, but Yount batted .331 and just missed the batting title. It seemed as though every season Cooper had the second or third best offensive stats on the Brewers. It’s hard to imagine the ’82 Brewers without Cooper, but it’s impossible to imagine the ’11 Brewers without Prince Fielder (.299, 38 HR, 120 RBI, .981 OPS in ’11).

Third base gives you your pick of offensive style. Eddie Mathews (.292, 34 HR, 87 RBI, .927 OPS in ’57) was to Aaron what Fielder is to Braun — a feared left-handed power hitter backing up the best all-around hitter in the lineup. Paul Molitor (.302, 19 HR, 71 RBI, 41 stolen bases, .816 OPS), for whom third base was his fifth different position (he came up as a shortstop, played second when he came to the Brewers, was moved to center field and then right in 1981, then went to third in 1982) was known as “the Igniter” because he was as complete a leadoff hitter as baseball had in those days — ability to reach base, base-stealing ability, and a little power too.

Some positions show how baseball has changed over the decades. Del Crandall was one of the best defensive catchers in baseball and at least an effective hitter. Ted Simmons was one of the best offensive catchers in baseball, although he was acquired as much for his ability to work with pitchers. Jonathan Lucroy has a lot of career ahead of him.

There’s also the effect of the midseason addition to consider. Red Schoendienst (.309, 15 HR, 65 RBI, .795 OPS) was acquired in a trade midway through the ’57 season for, among others, Bobby Thomson of “The Giants win the pennant!” fame. (Thomson’s broken leg in 1954 paved the way for Aaron to come to Milwaukee.) Don Sutton came to Milwaukee in late August 1982 (after which he was 4–1 with a 3.29 ERA); had Sutton been with the Brewers longer, perhaps they would not have nearly collapsed in the last week of the season and needed the final-game win over Baltimore to win the division.

Some players’ contributions are not quantified by statistics. Gorman Thomas was a below-average fielder and an all-or-nothing hitter (“all” meaning an average of 30 home runs per season, “nothing” meaning an average of 151 strikeouts per season) who was one of the Brewers’ clubhouse leaders. Similar things could be said of Jim Gantner (.295, 4 home runs, 43 RBI, .704).

There is one huge what-if here, in the bullpen poll. Rollie Fingers was the AL MVP in 1981, and was pitching reasonably well (5–6, 29 saves, 2.60 ERA) until his arm injury in August 1982. One wonders how the Brewers would have finished with a healthy Fingers closing games instead of Pete Ladd, who was 1–3, though with three saves, and an ERA of 4.00 after Fingers’ injury. (For that matter, Ladd pitched perfectly, as in an ERA of 0.00, in the 1982 ALCS. However, he pitched only once in the World Series, giving up a hit and two walks to four batters.)

But that’s not the only what-if. Billy Bruton played only half the season for the ’57 Braves due to injury. Rickie Weeks (.269, 20 HR, 49 RBI, .818 OPS) missed part of this season due to injury and could only pinch-hit in the 2008 playoffs due to injury.

On the other hand, the injury-related what-ifs lead to opportunity for others. Ladd is an obvious example. An even better example is Bob “Hurricane” Hazle, who had the half-season of his life (he played just three years in the majors) when the Braves called him up in 1957. Hazle had what might have been a prorated All-Star season — .310, 7 HR, 27 RBI in 41 games, with an insane OPS of 1.126. He finished fourth in the Rookie of the Year balloting based on 41 games.

Pitching probably best reflects the differences in eras, which makes comparing eras difficult. Certainly all three teams had name pitchers. It’s hard to top Warren Spahn (21–11, 2.69 ERA) and Lew Burdette (17–9, 3.72 ERA), even though Burdette had a higher ERA than his career ERA in 1957. (Two words: “Run support.”) The Braves’ third starter, Bob Buhl, picked a good time to have the best year of his career (18–7, 2.74 ERA). Gene Conley, Bob Trowbridge and Juan Pizarro shared the fourth starter spot. The bullpen was where failed starters or rookies went in the ’50s, but in any era, a 1.54 ERA is a 1.54 ERA, so Don McMahon certainly helped the Braves.

The reputation of the 1982 “Harvey’s Wallbangers” Brewers was that they overcame mediocre pitching with their hitting. Pete Vuckovich was to the ’82 Brewers what Burdette was to the ’57 Braves — a relatively high era (3.34) overcome by run support (as shown by his 18–6 record). Mike Caldwell made up for a mediocre regular season (17–13, 3.91 ERA) with a tremendous World Series (2–0, 2.04 ERA). Vuke and Mr. Warmth (as Caldwell’s T-shirt worn under his jersey said, although there was another word on it that rhymes with “tucking”) were the only two Brewers’ starters (over the full season) with ERAs of less than 4.00.  The Brewers plainly would not have won the AL East without Sutton. But the pitcher who really saved the ’82 Brewers was Jim Slaton, who went 10–6 with a 3.29 ERA going between the rotation and the bullpen.

The 2011 Brewers shouldn’t have enough pitching, by statistics, to have one more win than the ’82 Brewers and the ’57 Braves, but they do. As I noted last week, it’s a bit ironic that for all the wheeling and dealing general manager Doug Melvin did to put together a winning pitching staff, their best starter remains home-grown Yovani Gallardo (17–10, 3.52 ERA). Shawn Marcum pitched better statistically than Zack Greinke (3.83 vs. Marcum’s 3.54), but Greinke has the better record (16–6 in 28 starts vs. Marcum’s 13–7 in 33 starts). Interestingly, Randy Wolf (13–10, 3.69 ERA) pitched the most innings as a starter this year, and is sort of 2011’s answer to Caldwell.

The reason the Brewers probably did as well as they did pitching-wise is their bullpen. The Brewers have been able to turn most games into six-inning games, thanks to seventh-inning pitcher LaTroy Hawkins (3–1, 2.42 ERA), eighth-inning pitcher Francisco Rodriguez (4–0, 1.86 ERA since coming to Milwaukee from the Mets) and closer John Axford (2–2, 46 saves, making them perhaps the 2011 equivalent of the 1990 Cincinnati Reds “Nasty Boys” bullpen.

The best way to statistically compare teams is against their competition. This year’s Brewers had the second best record in the National League despite being seventh in ERA and fifth in runs scored (despite, in the latter case, leading the NL in home runs). The 1982 Brewers were first in runs scored and sixth in ERA, an unusual formula for the best record in baseball. The 1957 Braves were best in the NL with the second best ERA and the most runs scored.

By the only measure that really counts, the 1957 Braves are the best baseball team Milwaukee ever produced, since they have a world championship. Where the 2011 Brewers finish depends on where they finish, beginning with today.

Presty the DJ for Oct. 7

Today in 1975, one of the stranger episodes in rock music history ended when John Lennon got permanent resident status, his “green card.” The federal government, at the direction of Richard Nixon, tried to deport Lennon because of his 1968 British arrest for possession of marijuana. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that trying to deport Lennon on the basis of an arrest was “contrary to U.S. ideas of due process and was invalid as a means of banishing the former Beatle from America.”

The number one British single today in 1978 came from that day’s number one album:

The number one album today in 1989 was Tears for Fears’ “Seeds of Love”:

The number one album today in 1995 was Alanis Morrisette’s “Jagged Little Pill” (which should have been difficult to fit into a CD player):

Birthdays start with Colin Cooper of the Climax Blues Band, which …

Tony Sylvester of the Main Ingredient, where …

Dino Valenti of Quicksilver Messenger Service:

Kevin Godley of 10cc and Godley and Creme:

David Hope played bass for Kansas:

Perhaps the biggest Indiana Hoosier football fan you’ll find, John Mellencamp:

Tico Torres of Bon Jovi: