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Zurek sentenced to 6+ years in prison, 10 years supervision for death of girlfriend in Tainter crash

By LeAnn R. Ralph

MENOMONIE  —  A 20-year-old Elk Mound man who was the driver in a Town of Tainter car crash in September of 2014 that killed his girlfriend and injured another man has been sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison and ten-and-a-half years of supervision.

Gunnar D. Zurek appeared in Dunn County Circuit Court with his attorney, Michael Cohen, for a sentencing hearing December 21.

In addition to the prison time, extended supervision and probation, Judge James Peterson also sentenced Zurek to spend 24 hours in the county jail on September 23 during each year of his supervision to mark the anniversary of the car crash that killed Vannessa N. Marsh, 18, of Elk Mound.

Marsh 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. in the 7500 block of 770th Avenue south of  Colfax 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.

Friends and relatives

As has been the case with all of the Zurek court hearings, about 30 friends and relatives of Marsh’s attended the sentencing hearing, many of them wearing various items of purple clothing.

As one family member explained to the court, purple was Vannessa’s favorite color.

A number of friends and relatives took the opportunity to make a statement to the court during the sentencing hearing.

Many of them cried or fought back tears while talking about Vannessa Marsh. Some said they had been having trouble sleeping since September 23, 2014, and that they were still grieving for her.

A display was set up at the front of the court room containing photographs of Vannessa Marsh along with some of her favorite items, such as a fishing pole and pair of gold colored high heeled shoes.

According to an accident reconstruction completed by Trooper Derrek Hanson of the Wisconsin State Patrol, Zurek was traveling between 73 mph and 89 mph at the time of accident.

The friends and relatives of Vannessa Marsh described her as a vicious, lively personality with an infectious laugh.

Lisa Marsh, Vannessa’s stepmother, said Vannessa liked fishing, camping and being in 4-H.

Lisa Marsh went on to paint a picture of domestic abuse and said that Zurek had used Vannessa for her money, her vehicle and had charged her credit cards up to the limit.

Stick shift

Lisa Marsh said Zurek had talked Vannessa into buying a manual transmission car, even though Vannessa did not know how to drive a manual transmission, and then had driven the car and left  Vannessa without a vehicle.

Vannessa Marsh’s car was the vehicle Zurek was driving when the crash occurred.

Lisa Marsh said that she and Vannessa’s father, Ted, had to borrow money to pay for Vannessa’s funeral.

After Vannessa’s death, Lisa Marsh said she, Vannessa’s father and their two younger daughters had started to go to counseling to help them deal with the tragedy, but then one of the younger daughters had needed surgery, and they could no longer afford the counseling.

Gerber baby

Ted Marsh also made a statement to the court.

He said taking the witness stand to talk about his daughter and her death was the second hardest thing he’d ever had to do.

Ted Marsh said he had served in the United States Army in Germany in 1993 and that he had brought his wife back to the states with him from Germany.

Vannessa was born January 9, 1996, and her father said he had referred to her as “the Gerber baby.”

Ted Marsh said Vannessa’s mother made a series of poor choices and had left them and that he had obtained custody of Vannessa.

Vannessa originally had driven a Jeep, but when there was a problem with the brakes, Zurek had talked Vannessa buying a manual transmission car that she could not drive, he said.

Zurek controlled the vehicle, he controlled Vannessa’s money and he controlled her actions, Ted Marsh said.

Zurek had no driver’s license at the time of the accident, had no insurance and did not have a job, he said.

All together, Zurek has received more than 70 traffic citations, and “the system is broken,” Ted Marsh said, asking Judge Peterson to make an appropriate judgement and to break the cycle.

No accident

Zurek did not “stumble” and have an “accident,” said Dunn County District Attorney Andrea Nodolf.

At the the time of the accident, he was on his way to pick up Kyle Flatland. Zurek was known to drive the car as fast as 132 miles per hour, at which point, the car would shut off, Nodolf said.

On the night of the crash, the roads were dry. The speed limit on the Town of Tainter road was 45 mph, and Zurek was driving twice the posted legal speed limit, Nodolf noted.

Zurek did not have a driver’s license and had alcohol and marijuana in his system, she said.

Zurek’s attorney, Cohen, has minimized the crash and blamed the victim for getting into the car with Zurek, she said.

Autopsy results revealed that there were no drugs or alcohol in Vannessa Marsh’s system at the time of her death, Nodolf said.

Along with others, Zurek committed burglaries at Kadinger’s near Downing. In another case on which he was being sentenced for criminal damage to property, Zurek, along with Kyle Flatland, had destroyed another person’s vehicle, she said.

Zurek told the author of the pre-sentence investigation that he had used alcohol, marijuana and methamphetamine daily, Nodolf said.

Zurek’s teachers described him as “sneaky” and “cunning”; he is an individual who does not follow the rules and who ignores the law, she said.

Nodolf said she was disappointed with the sentencing recommendation in the PSI and that it would be a “slap in the face to this family.”

Nodolf asked Judge Peterson to sentence Zurek to the maximum and to make the sentences consecutive.


Cohen, Zurek’s attorney, said Zurek was “the most volatile” defendant he has had in 25 years.

The court has listened to more than two hours of emotion from the family members and friends, but the court cannot sentence based on emotion, he said.

Nothing in the law says a judge can base sentencing on emotions, Cohen said.

The law cannot fix the fact that Vannessa Marsh is dead, he said.

Cohen described the crash as a tragic accident that was avoidable but not intentional.

Sentencing Zurek to prison means that he will “come out worse” than he went in, and he needs supervision and help, Cohen said.


Zurek took the opportunity to address the court and apologized to Vannessa’s family and friends for the grief he had caused them.

“No words will ever be good enough,” he said, adding that if he could trade places with Vannessa, he would.

Zurek described Vannessa Marsh as “the love of his life” — which elicited quiet expressions of derision from the side of the courtroom filled with her family and friends.

Zurek went on to say he was truly sorry, that he takes “full responsibility” for what happened, and noted that he has addictions to drugs and alcohol.

The structure of the prison system to provide counseling and programs for drug and alcohol addiction will help, Zurek told the court.


Over the past 30 years, in the time since he became an attorney, sentencing has changed for homicide by the intoxicated use of a motor vehicle, Judge Peterson said.

Years ago, the maximum sentence was 40 years in prison and 20 years of extended supervision, he said.

Now the maximum sentence is 15 years of initial confinement and ten years of extended supervision, Judge Peterson said.

“I can’t imagine anything worse than losing a child,” he said.

Zurek, who had a history of driving after his driver’s license has been suspended, was guilty of driving with “reckless abandon” and was guilty of “over the top negligence,” Judge Peterson said.

Judge Peterson said he was shocked that after Zurek had been released on bond in connection with a crash where someone had died that he would continue driving without a license and that he would drive recklessly in Eau Claire

According to the criminal complaint, Zurek was charged with felony bail jumping in March of this year after 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.

Judge Peterson described Zurek as “a crash looking for a place to happen” and said he hoped that he would use the time in prison “to grow up.”


Judge Peterson sentenced Zurek to five years in prison and three years of extended supervision on the felony charge of homicide by the negligent operation of a motor vehicle, and to 18 months in prison and 18 months of extended supervision, to be served consecutively to the homicide charge but concurrently with each other, on two felony counts of knowingly operating a vehicle while suspended causing death and knowingly operating a vehicle while suspended causing great bodily harm.

In addition, Zurek was sentenced to six years of probation on a felony burglary charge and nine months in jail, to be served concurrently, on two misdemeanor charges of theft and criminal damage to property.

Zurek also was ordered to pay $16,669 in restitution and $2,500 in court costs.

Judge Peterson granted 284 days credit for time already served.

Restitution is to be paid from any prison wages Zurek earns, said Judge Peterson, who also ordered Zurek to complete all treatment programs required by the prison and not to consume or possess alcohol.

Judge Peterson ordered that Zurek have no contact with Kyle Flatland (Wheeler), Timothy Stabenow (Wheeler), Eric Affolter (Elmwood); Travis Westaby (Colfax); Jason Schmitz (Spring Valley); Lou Woods or residence or immediate family (Wheeler); Ted or Lisa Marsh or their residence.


Zurek’s 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.

Schmitz (Spring Valley), Stabenow (Wheeler), and 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 with items taken from Kadinger’s.

On one occasion, Marsh said, the items were put in her name at salvage business called Toys and that she believed the check was for about $350, according to the criminal complaint.