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Suspect in fatal Wisconsin Girl Scout crash was 'huffing,' officials say

CHIPPEWA FALLS, WIS. — A western Wisconsin pickup truck driver had been "huffing" chemical vapors shortly before he hit and killed three Girl Scouts and one of their parents as they picked up litter Saturday along a western Wisconsin highway, authorities said Monday.

Colten R. Treu, 21, of Chippewa Falls, appeared in court Monday and remains jailed on at least a dozen charges, including four counts of homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and four more charges related to him fleeing the scene before he surrendered later Saturday.

Also Monday, authorities released the identities of those killed in the crash about 11:40 a.m. along County Road P near the Highway 29 overpass in Lake Hallie.

Police identified the victims as 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, both from Lafayette. Jayna and Autumn attended Halmstad School, and Hickle attended Southview School, a district spokeswoman said.

A 10-year-old girl remains hospitalized in stable condition. Her identity has yet to be disclosed.

Two girls and the mother were dead at the scene. Two other girls were taken by ground and air ambulances to a hospital, where one of them died later Saturday. The other girl was initially reported to be in critical condition and later listed in stable condition.

Treu was speeding north on County Road P in his pickup when it veered over the centerline and into a shallow ditch where some of the fourth-graders and the mother were collecting litter as part of an "Adopt-A-Highway" group of 12 walking along both sides of the road, according to police and witnesses.

District Attorney Wade Newell said during Monday's hearing that Treu and a passenger had bought dusting aerosol cleaner that morning at a nearby Walmart, and Treu "was somewhat out of it."

The passenger noticed the pickup was drifting, started arguing with Treu and grabbed the steering wheel in hope of correcting the vehicle's course, Newell continued.

However, the pickup continued into the ditch and hit the girls and mother, said Newell, who did not specify whether the passenger's hand remained on the wheel at the time of impact.

Both allegedly told police after the crash that they had been "huffing" chemical vapors from the cleaner.

The defense sought bail at $1,000, pointing out that Treu has lifelong roots in the area, is employed and is a father.

Newell argued for a high bail amount, noting that Treu has been "engaging in reckless behavior on a continuing basis." The judge set bail at the higher sum — $250,000 with conditions.

Treu's criminal history in Wisconsin includes a drunken-driving conviction in Chippewa County after authorities measured his blood alcohol content in late 2014 as above the legal limit of 0.08 percent but less than 0.15 percent.

Earlier this fall in nearby Rusk County, Treu was involved in an "eerily similar" incident when he rolled his vehicle, put it away in a garage and went to party with friends, the district attorney said during Monday's hearing. Law enforcement found in the vehicle THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and suspected methamphetamine. That case is pending.

Treu attended the hearing via closed-monitor video. Wearing a dark T-shirt and dark pants, he sat with his head down and his hands folded during the proceeding.

Safety vests on

The Girl Scout group Saturday consisted of seven girls and five parents, and all were in the ditch and had on "highly visible" green safety vests, according to a police statement Monday.

After the crash, a sheriff's deputy "diligently tracked" vehicle fluids from the scene roughly 1¾ miles north to a residence in Chippewa Falls, the statement read.

Law enforcement located the truck in the garage, but Treu and the passenger had already left the house.

Nearly five hours after the crash, Treu turned himself in to police. His passenger, whose identity has yet to be released, surrendered to Eau Claire police Saturday afternoon.

The girls were members of Troop 3055. Counselors and therapy dogs were made available to students and staff when classes resumed Monday. A moment of silence was observed at the start of instruction at the high school.

Halmstad art teacher Robin Kelley is the mother of Jayna, one of the girls who died, district spokeswoman Michelle Golden said Monday. Robin Kelley was among those on the litter detail, Golden said.

In front of Halmstad on Sunday afternoon there were teddy bears, balloons, candles and a bouquet of flowers sat on two wooden benches Sunday afternoon. Inside, dozens of families met with faith leaders and counselors, as they did at Southview.

Hundreds of people gathered Sunday night in the rain outside Halmstad to remember the Girl Scouts and the mother who were struck while making their community a better place to live.

"It was heartbreaking," Tabatha Kolve, 18, a Girl Scout and a troop leader who helped her fourth-graders assemble 150 candles for the vigil. She drove in from Eleva-Strum, 30 minutes away. "There isn't much to say because it was so upsetting."

Star Tribune staff writer Erin Adler contributed to this report.

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