Nearly six months have passed since Paul Petras and his son A.J. were gunned down in their family business, May's Photo in downtown La Crosse.
Saturday, about 40 skiers and snowboarders took to the slopes to honor A.J. in the first ever A.J’s Throwdown Rail Jam event.
For anyone who knew A.J., one of the things he loved most was snowboarding.
“We always saw him running around with his afro, and he was just throwing down lots of nice tricks and things,” said Erik Kernozek, one of A.J.’s former teammates.
And if there was anything A.J. loved more than hitting the rails, it was offering support to his fellow teammates and friends.
“I remember he was one of the best guys for cheering everybody on,” said Kernozek. “He was always so happy. He was always smiling.”
Installation of seven new rails for the terrain park at Mount La Crosse started in January.
The rails were made possible by the A.J. Memorial Fund and support from several local businesses.
But the new features serve a much bigger purpose than just giving competitors a new challenge on the slopes.
“I hope that it helps the community heal a little bit,” said Darcie Breidel, marketing director at Mount La Crosse. “Hopefully, if this just offers a little bit of happiness for all the people that were affected by this tragedy, then it’s a good thing.”
“I knew him very well, so it definitely hurt me a lot when that happened,” said Jeremy Dahlby, one of A.J.’s childhood friends.
For Dahlby, the event was a way to find comfort.
“It's uplifting,” said Dahlby. “He would have loved it. If he could be out here to ride, he would have been riding those rails with us in competition.”
But perhaps most of all, the event was a way to remember a friend while doing something they loved.
“It’s just one of those kind of things that you just have to live on, and he's with us in spirit, and that's really all that matters,” said Dahlby.
Organizers hope to expand A.J.'s Throwdown and hold multiple competitions throughout the year.
Jeffrey Lepsch, the man charged with the Petras murders, is scheduled to go on trial in May.