Series of Deaths Rattles a City

Fellow students and friends of Lucas G. Homan reacted to news of his death, the latest apparent drowning, last month in La Crosse, Wis.
Fellow students and friends of Lucas G. Homan reacted to news of his death, the latest apparent drowning, last month in La Crosse, Wis. (By Peter Thomson -- La Crosse Tribune Via Associated Press)

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By Robert Gutsche Jr.
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

LA CROSSE, Wis. -- At night the Mississippi River here is black like pavement. Lights brighten the shoreline, where walkways end with a steep drop at the river's edge. There is no railing. Even to a familiar eye, the river looks like an empty parking lot.

This is where eight young men have apparently drowned in the past nine years, just blocks from the busy downtown bar district where many victims had been reported seen last. The latest victim was found in October.

Officials from the city and the three colleges and universities here -- as well as a group of vocal college students -- say the men became intoxicated and accidentally fell into the river.

Yet as the number of fatalities grows, so does the idea that a serial killer could be loose.

"There just ain't no people who want to walk by the water at night," said Yulonda St. Junious, 34, a hotel worker. "That makes you think someone else has had something to do with it."

All of the victims were young, athletic, and either visiting La Crosse or attending college in the city. Toxicology results have indicated that almost all had high levels of alcohol in their systems when they died.

Still, the similarities among the apparent drowning victims have many concerned that the students are being stalked -- lured into the black waters by a female posing as a police officer or a man wielding a gun, locals say.

"They must have been following someone they trusted," said resident Rusty Paar, 39, who is sure these deaths are murders.

While the idea of a serial killer is gaining credence in some quarters of La Crosse, other residents say the explanation is merely a way to deflect attention from the criticism that city and college officials are not working hard enough to crack down on underage drinking or to secure the waterline from accidental drownings.

"People would rather blame a serial killer than take responsibility," said Drew Gavrilos, a community services police officer who acts as a liaison between the police and the universities.

The idea among residents and some officials that a serial killer could be lurking in La Crosse and the Upper Midwest is not new.

For decades, this city of 50,000 has turned to that theory to explain missing persons and the few murders that happen, with many saying the river and bluffs along the city's borders are dumping zones for bodies.


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