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Heartbroken community gathers to mourn Wisconsin Girl Scouts and a mother

November 8, 2018

CHIPPEWA FALLS, WIS. Austin Yetter clutched the picture of a Furby that his best friend drew. Its now laminated because he wants it to be a forever reminder of his pal, 10-year-old Haylee Hickle.

She never finished it, the seven-year-old said Thursday. She was a good friend. She was nice to me.

As the boy spoke, the reality that his friend was gone took hold, and he buried his head into his mothers coat.

Austin and hundreds of mourners from this heartbroken northwestern Wisconsin community paused Thursday morning to remember Haylee and her mother, Sara 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 intoxicated driver plowed into them as they picked up trash along a rural road as part of a community service project.

Inside the Chippewa Valley Bible Church, mourners filed past tables filled with childrens 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 two other Scouts who were killed.

As relatives and friends and classmates gathered in the churchs 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.

Its 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 dont get the chance to do the things that they wanted to grow up to do, she said.

As the service began and the sounds of Amazing Grace faded, Rev. Jim Woldhuis stood behind the microphone to speak of the unfathomable loss.

No hugs. No flowers or acts of kindness will fully embrace 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 would set up the church for a visitation for 10-year-old Jayna Kelley, whose funeral service will be held there Friday.

Across town at Our Saviours Lutheran Church, the Rev. Jeanne Warner was planning a Thursday evening service for 10-year-old Autumn Helgeson.

Many in this city of 14,000 people 95 miles east of the Twin Cities were expected to attend all the visitations and services.

Everybody you talk to is connected somehow to each of them. Its just like one giant spider web, said Sue Yetter, as she cradled her sons head, still buried against her as he held onto the Furby drawing.

We cant 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 were not going to get the answers we want.

Its just is.

Saying goodbye

Together, Woldhuis and others teachers, Girls Scouts, family and friends said final goodbyes.

Early in the day, 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, a free spirit who didnt care what others thought. She was artistic and loved life, pouring herself into her two children.

Later, they would gather 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 hunted with a bow.

It will never be the same, Warner said of life without the four. Their presence will be missed. But in time, the pain will become less acute.

For now, however, the anguish is still raw.

The fourth-grade girls and 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.

It takes the air right out of you, said Justin Crawford, of nearby New Auburn, who was boyhood friends with Schneiders brother and watched Sara grow up.

It digs deeper into your heart. The families are now missing a part of themselves.

Mary Lynn Smith 612-673-4788

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