Town mourns as holiday tradition ends in tragedy
By Tom Held and Meg Jones
Knight Ridder Newspapers
RICE LAKE, Wis. -- Deer camps are an institution in Wisconsin -- families, friends and co-workers getting together each year on opening weekend to head into the woods and hunt.
Every year they gather: sons joining their fathers, nephews and nieces joining their uncles, friends joining their hunting buddies -- all making sure their vacation days coincide with the annual nine-day season.
So it was for Bob Crotteau and his son Joey, for Terry Willers and his daughter Jessica, for in-laws Lauren Hesebeck and Denny Drew, for Crotteau's neighbor and fishing buddy Al Laski, and for Mark Roidt, who was joining the deer camp on 400 acres in southern Sawyer County, Wisc., for the first time, a guest of Drew.
They were friends and family coming together for the camaraderie and kinship that spurs more than 600,000 people to head outdoors on the weekend before Thanksgiving. Which is why it's so hard to understand why five are dead and three are now recovering from a hail of bullets fired at them in a dispute over a tree stand.
"When I first heard about it I thought to myself I hope it's not anybody I know," said Dan Lathrop as he shared beers at a local tavern Monday afternoon. "Then it turned out it's everybody I know."
Authorities released the names of the victims Monday, but most in this community and neighboring villages already knew who had been shot. Word quickly spread from tavern to tavern, gas station to grocery store, house to house. Just about everybody either knew the victims or were related to them.
The Crotteaus are a large family in the Rice Lake area. Four of the eight graduated from Rice Lake High School, which two days before the tragedy was playing in the state football championships in Madison, Wisc.
Jessica Willers, 27, lived in Green Bay, Wisc., but returned to her home town to hunt with her dad every year.
Joey Crotteau, 20, the oldest of three kids, worked for his 42-year-old father, who owned R&J; Concrete, pouring driveways and concrete foundations. Terry Willers, 47, worked for Bob Crotteau.
Laski, 43, was manager of United Building Centers in Rice Lake and was a fishing buddy of the elder Crotteau.
Hesebeck, 48, and Drew, 55, sold cars at Link Brothers Ford in Rice Lake.
Roidt had started a new job two months ago installing floors for a Rice Lake firm. He met Denny Drew's brother, Don, a local race car driver and was a member of the pit crew.
"It's just such a senseless crime," said Roidt's mother, Karen. "It's not just the eight victims and the families that are affected, it's so many other families who knew them and liked them."
Roidt, Jessica Willers, Bob and Joey Crotteau and Al Laski were shot to death. Hesebeck, Drew and Terry Willers were wounded in the rampage on Crotteau's hunting property over the lunch hour Sunday.