Driver in Tainter accident that killed girlfriend charged with homicide

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE —  A 19-year-old Elk Mound man who was the driver in a car accident in the Town of Tainter last September that killed his girlfriend and injured another passenger has now been charged with homicide.

Gunnar D. Zurek, along with his attorney, Michael Cohen, appeared in Dunn County Circuit Court February 16 before Judge James Peterson.

Zurek waived his right to a preliminary hearing on charges stemming from the September 23 accident that include four felonies and five misdemeanors.

Vannessa N. Marsh, 18, of Elk Mound, was ejected from the vehicle Zurek was driving and was pronounced dead at the scene.

According to a news release from the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department, a one-vehicle crash was reported at 11:11 p.m. September 23 in the 7500 block of 770th Avenue in the Town of Tainter.

When law enforcement officers arrived, they found two men outside of the car who were injured and a woman lying in the ditch not far from the overturned car, who was already deceased.

One of the men was identified as 34-year-old Joseph Thalacker of Augusta.

Thalacker told officers that he had been in the car with his cousin and his cousin’s girlfriend. He identified his cousin as “Gunnar” and his cousin’s girlfriend as Vannessa Marsh.

Zurek is charged with felony counts of knowingly operating a vehicle with a suspended driver’s license causing death, knowingly operating a vehicle with a suspended driver’s license causing great bodily harm, homicide by operating a vehicle after using a controlled substance, and homicide by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle.

He is charged with misdemeanor counts of possessing marijuana, possessing drug paraphernalia, bail jumping, and causing injury by operating a vehicle while using a controlled substance.

After receiving reports from the state crime lab and the state patrol, Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf filed an amended complaint that included the three additional felonies of causing great bodily harm and homicide and the misdemeanor count of causing injury.

The Wisconsin Crime Laboratory analyzed blood samples from Zurek and found opiates, marijuana and other restricted controlled substances, according to the amended complaint.

According to an accident reconstruction completed by Trooper Derrek Hanson of the Wisconsin State Patrol, the analysis concluded that the “crash sequence” started 595 feet west of the final resting place of the 2001 Dodge that Zurek was driving and that the car had rolled for 138 feet.

Trooper Hanson estimated that Zurek was traveling between 73 mph and 89 mph at the time of accident.

The Dodge went off the south side of the road, veered back onto the roadway and headed toward the north ditch. Zurek steered to the right, the car started oscillating, and then went into the south ditch again, rotating counterclockwise, with the passenger side wheels digging into the ground. When the Dodge was at a 50-degree angle to the roadway, it overturned and came to a rest 138 feet away.

Marsh was ejected from the vehicle during the rollover, along with other items that were inside the vehicle, according to the accident reconstruction report.

Kadinger’s

Zurek also was scheduled to be arraigned on felony burglary charges and misdemeanor charges February 16 based on thefts that occurred from July 1, 2014, through August 31, 2014, from Kadinger’s Inc. near Downing.

Zurek’s attorney asked that the arraignment be postponed until the time of the arraignment for the charges associated with the September accident.

Zurek, who is charged as a party to the crimes, told investigators that he had driven a Jeep into the field behind Kadinger’s several times and that others had gone into the facility and had brought out items that they loaded into the back of the Jeep and a van.

On one occasion, the Jeep was full and the van was half full. A variety of items had been taken from Kadinger’s such as catalytic converters, copper and copper wire and aluminum radiators.

The first time they went, Zurek said that Jason Schmitz, Tim Stabenow, Travis Westaby and Vannessa Marsh had gone to Kadinger’s as well but that Marsh had never gotten out of the vehicle.

Zurek said they had taken the stolen items to “Toys” although one time they took items to “Cooley’s” but did not get enough money. He said the account at Toys should be under his name, although he believed one might be under Marsh’s name. Zurek told investigators his portion of the proceeds was a little over $100, according to the complaint.

The investigator also interviewed Marsh on September 18, only five days before she died. Marsh said that she, Westaby, Schmitz, Stabenow and Zurek went to Kadinger’s and would park in the field near the bus.

Marsh said Westaby and Schmitz would go in while the rest stayed in the vehicle. She said Stabenow and Zurek would load the vehicles. On one occasion, Marsh said, the items were put in her name at Toys and that she believed the check was for about $350, according to the complaint.

Schmitz, 31, of Spring Valley, has been charged in Dunn County as a party to a crime with two felony counts of burglary, four misdemeanor counts of theft of moveable property worth less than $2,500, and one misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property.

Stabenow, 22, of Wheeler, has been charged in Dunn County as a party to a crime with one felony count of burglary, three misdemeanor counts of theft of moveable property worth less than $2,500, and one misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property.

A jury trial for Stabenow is scheduled in Dunn County Circuit Court March 10.

Westaby, 22, of  Colfax, is charged with three felony counts of burglary, one felony count of criminal damage to property, seven felony counts of bail jumping, seven misdemeanor counts of theft of items worth less than $2,500, two misdemeanor counts of criminal damage to property, one misdemeanor count of obstructing an officer and one misdemeanor count of possessing drug paraphernalia.

Westaby has been ordered by the court to have no contact with a residence at E6244 Highway 170.

Underage

In addition to the felony burglary and homicide charges, Zurek is charged with three ordinance violations and eight traffic citations.

Charges of disorderly conduct, underage drinking, a minor transporting intoxicants and three charges of operating a vehicle with a suspended driver’s license all occurred prior to the September 23 car accident.

Additional citations in connection with the accident include underage drinking, operating a vehicle with a suspended driver’s license fourth offense, failure to keep a vehicle under control, operating left of centerline and operating with a restricted controlled substance.

Arraignment

Zurek is scheduled to be arraigned in Dunn County Circuit Court on April 13.

A cash bail of $1,000 was set for each of the two felony cases October 1, 2014.

Zurek remained out of custody at the time of the February 16 court hearing.