Looking back at top local stories of 2012 -- Part 1

Published On: Dec 31 2012 06:16:05 PM CST   Updated On: Dec 31 2012 06:31:27 PM CST
LA CROSSE, Wis. -

Four people murdered in La Crosse

In a city where one homicide in a year's time is rare, four murders sent shock waves through the La Crosse community.

The first was in March, when Kristen Rodgers was found face-down in a north-side parking lot, strangled to death.

She was a mother of three and recovering drug addict.

In September, Rodgers' mother Kathy Tabbert sat in the courtroom just feet away from her daughter's killer, Izelia Golatt.

Tabbert said there was so much more to her daughter's life than her struggle with addiction.

"I'm going to miss her. Her kids are going to miss her. She was so much more than her drug problem," said Tabbert.

Later that month, 20-year-old Western Technical College student Sara Hougom was fatally shot in her La Crosse apartment.

She called 911 for help, and later died in the hospital.

Gang members Kong Vue and Pao Choua Vue were arrested in May.

Kong Vue told police he entered Hougom's apartment to steal a purse and, when he saw her on the couch, he fired in her direction and fled.

The two men plead guilty in August.

At their sentencing in September, Hougom's family and friends voiced their grief and anger over her senseless death.

"They never took the purse they said they were there after, sped off, had every opportunity to make a 911 call and save her life. Every second was precious and they knew it,” said the victim’s father, Michael Hougom.

Then in September, on a busy Saturday afternoon in downtown La Crosse, the owner of May's Photo, Paul Petras, and his 19-year-old son, AJ Petras, were gunned down in their shop.

"No, this can't be happening. This has to be a nightmare. Someone please wake me up,” said AJ Petras’ girlfriend Alycia Weigel.

Police arrested Jeffrey Lepsch in October and found 14 pieces of camera equipment stolen from May's Photo in his home.

The arrest was welcome news for Paul Petras' best friend.

"Not to get mushy, but I'd tell Paul I still love him, and AJ too. If I had a son, that's who he'd be,” said Paul Petras’ best friend, Ted Withey. “I'd say, ‘Hey, we got him and we're going to go on with life like you'd want us to.'”

Lepsch's trial is set for May 2013.

Eric Koula found guilty of killing his parents

After three weeks of testimony and nearly two full days of deliberation, a jury found Eric Koula guilty on all three counts -- killing his father Dennis Koula, killing his mother Merna Koula, and forging a $50,000 check in his father's name.

In August, he was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.

But with an appeal on the horizon, it's far from the end of the road for Koula.

"I will not quit. Who is responsible for this is still out there. I'm not giving up. I'm going to fight, and fight and bring this person or people forward that did this. Because I did not," said Koula at his sentencing.

Heroin floods La Crosse

In the courts and on the streets, the La Crosse Police Department waged a war on heroin in every corner of the city in 2012.

Because of new regulations, people who abused painkillers are finding the pills more expensive and harder to get. Many of them switch to heroin looking for a more extreme high, for a lot less money.

The difference is a buyer never knows how pure the heroin is until they use it.

"It literally is like playing Russian roulette. You don't know how potent it is, how pure it is. You just don't know. And some users will try that heroin and, depending upon the purity of it, that could be their last time," said La Crosse police Detective Sgt. Dan Kloss.

Many of the ones who do survive end up in the emergency room.

"Roughly, we probably see five patients in a week's time who have some form of overdose of heroin," said Gundersen Lutheran emergency physician Robert Zink.

New La Crosse Police Chief Ron Tischer said striking back against the dealers is one of his top priorities.

"We want to create the atmosphere that they're not welcome here. And the Police Department is going to continue to work hard to make sure that that's the message we send to the drug dealers and the people who want to come to La Crosse and commit a crime,” said Tischer.