Zurek pleads guilty to homicide for death of girlfriend in Tainter accident
By LeAnn R. Ralph
MENOMONIE — A 20-year-old Elk Mound man who was the driver in a Town of Tainter car accident last September that killed his girlfriend and injured another man has pleaded guilty.
Gunnar D. Zurek appeared in Dunn County Circuit Court with his attorney, Michael Cohen, September 29.
Zurek pleaded guilty to felony charges of operating a vehicle with a suspended driver’s license causing death, operating a vehicle with a suspended driver’s license causing great bodily harm, homicide by the negligent use of a motor vehicle, and burglary as a party to a crime.
In addition, Zurek pleaded guilty to charges of misdemeanor theft as a party to a crime and misdemeanor criminal damage to property.
A felony bail jumping charge was dismissed but will be read into the record for sentencing.
A variety of other felony and misdemeanor charges were dismissed, along with traffic citations and ordinance violations, but those dismissed charges also will be read into the record for sentencing.
All together, Zurek faces a possible sentence of up to $90,000 in fines and up to 33 years in prison.
Vannessa N. Marsh, 18, of Elk Mound, was ejected from the vehicle Zurek was driving September 23, 2014, 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.
The felony charge of bail jumping was in connection with an incident that occurred in Eau Claire in March of this year.
According to the criminal complaint, an off-duty Eau Claire police officer observed a red Dodge truck driving very closely to a vehicle behind her on South Hastings Way just south of Eddy Lane.
The truck accelerated rapidly and then slammed on its brakes to avoid hitting the car in front of it, the officer said.
The driver of the truck was identified as Zurek, who had posted a $1,000 cash bond in Dunn County after he was charged with the felonies related to the car accident in which Marsh was killed. As a condition of bail, Zurek was ordered not to drive a motor vehicle without a valid driver’s license.
On the date of the incident in Eau Claire, March 7, Zurek did not have a valid driver’s license, and the Dunn County bond was still in effect.
The felony burglary charge as a party to a crime was related to thefts that occurred from July 1, 2014, through August 31, 2014, from Kadinger’s Inc. near Downing.
Misdemeanor theft charges were related to items stolen from the Whitetail Golf Course south of Colfax during that same time period.
A charge of criminal damage to property was related to a 2001 Ford Excursion that was damaged in the Village of Colfax in September of last year.
Jason Schmitz (Spring Valley), Tim Stabenow (Wheeler), and Travis Westaby (Colfax) also were charged in connection with items stolen from Kadinger’s.
When investigators interviewed Marsh on September 18, 2014, 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.
Zurek 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.
A variety of items had been taken from Kadinger’s such as catalytic converters, copper and copper wire and aluminum radiators.
In August, Judge Peterson sentenced Schmitz to four years in prison and four years of extended supervision.
Stabenow is scheduled for a sentencing hearing October 9.
Westaby is scheduled for two separate jury trials in December and January in Dunn County Circuit Court.
During the September 29 plea hearing, Judge Peterson ordered a pre-sentence investigation in the Zurek case.
A sentencing hearing is scheduled for December 21 at 8 a.m.
One-half of the courtroom was filled with Marsh’s friends and relatives during the Zurek plea hearing.
In spite of a variety of scheduling conflicts that made it difficult to find a date for sentencing yet this year, Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf said she believed it was important for Marsh’s friends and relatives to have Zurek’s sentencing hearing scheduled before Christmas.
Zurek was being held in the Dunn County jail on a $10,000 cash bond.
Judge Peterson revoked the bond for Zurek and ordered that he remain in custody until the sentencing hearing in December.