After the Lepsch trial: How family and friends move forward

LA CROSSE, Wis. - It's been almost a year since Paul Petras and his son A.J. were gunned down in their family business May's Photo in downtown La Crosse. Even now that the trial is over, family and friends are still feeling the loss.

"Paul and A.J. will always be right here," Petras family friend Ted Withey said, pointing to his heart. "And that's what Sherri told me this morning."

Now that someone is being held responsible in their deaths, Withey said he and others affected by this tragedy, including Paul's wife and AJ's mother, Sherri, can continue moving on.

"Like Paul would say if he was sitting here, ‘You've just get on with life. You never get totally used to it, but life does go on and it goes on sometimes without the ones you love,'" said Withey.

Sherry Hougom has been trying to move forward ever since her 20-year-old daughter Sara was shot and killed in La Crosse about a year and a half ago.

"You wake up every morning knowing your baby, your loved one isn't here, and it's a struggle sometimes to keep your emotions in check," said Hougom.

Kevan Kent also lost a good friend that day.

"It doesn't go away after a trial," said Kent. "Family and friends are still dealing with it."


"Every mom has different emotions, different loss (and) different emptiness," said Hougom. "I guess for me, I really love it when people come up to me and start talking about Sara."

Something that also helps Hougom is finding ways to honor her daughter, including things like bracelets with Sara's name on them and a softball tournament with the proceeds going towards anti-violence efforts.

"I have so much love for Sara, and I don't want any other family to have to go through this, so a lot of it is the education and awareness that other families don't have to go through this," said Hougom.

Since the Petrases deaths, new rails have been added at Mount La Crosse's terrain park in honor of A.J. Scholarships have also been created at Aquinas High School, where both attended.

"A lot of people, especially years from now, will won't know -- ‘who is A.J.?' and ‘who is Paul?' obviously, but it will always be there, and it's worth having somebody who couldn't otherwise go to school, or whatever, have that," said Withey.

Withey said even in these tough times, it's hard not to think of the Lepsch family.

"You have to feel for that other mother," said Withey. "His wife and those three children. They don't deserve that. They didn't ask for this so you have to feel for them as well. I mean, it's just what life is."

And while some days may be easier than others, they know their loved ones are never too far away.

"Nothing will ever bring Paul and A.J. back, but like I said, they'll always be right here," Withey said, pointing to his heart.

Hougom family and friends be holding a small gathering with family and friends at Sara's memorial this weekend.

Hougom said anyone is welcome to come to share stories and light a candle for Sara and for loved ones others have lost. There will also be candles lit for Paul and A.J. Petras.

For more information, head to the RIP Sara Hougom Facebook page.

An endowed scholarship has been created in honor of A.J. Petras at Aquinas High School. The first recipient was a graduating senior this past spring.

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