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Tom Reuter, 27 years later
Tom Reuter
Deputy Sheriff Tom Reuter - photo by Grant County Sheriff's Office

Platteville Journal editor Steve Prestegard spoke at the Grant County Law Enforcement Memorial program in Lancaster May 17.

Good morning. I am very honored to be here today. Sheriff Dreckman’s invitation to speak today is in fact one of the biggest honors I’ve ever gotten in a quarter-century or so in my line of work.

I will tell you before I begin that what you’re going to hear is in a sense reporting — what people told me, what I heard people say, and what people said in legal documents in the six months after March 18th, 1990. That is what reporters do; we repeat what other people had to say. Sometimes we throw in our own opinions — perhaps too often — and you may get a few of those in the next few minutes too.

The story of the death of Grant County Deputy Sheriff Tom Reuter started for me Monday morning, March 19th, 1990 at 6:30 a.m. I was the reporter for the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster, with duties including courts and police. My clock radio came on, and I heard the hard-to-believe words that a sheriff’s deputy had been shot to death in Grant County. At least that’s what I thought I heard, but I wasn’t really awake enough to be sure. That was the sort of thing you’d hear about happening in Milwaukee or some other large city. Not in Grant County.

I encountered Tom Reuter professionally twice in the almost two years I’d been working in Lancaster. There was a day when the remnants of a hurricane had blown through the area and knocked down a power pole on Highway 35 west of Lancaster. So I went out and got a photo of a power line on the road and a squad car on the side of the road. For whatever reason I remember that Tom’s squad car, which was gold and unit 13 on the radio, wasn’t a police-spec car.

The other time was when he came to our office to get some documents, and I believe he waited patiently for up to an hour. That was when we made news in a way we didn’t want to, when an employee of ours was arrested for stealing from us.

In those days before the Internet and email and C-CAP, my job included, on Tuesday afternoons, going to the Clerk of Courts office on the second floor of the courthouse. Then and now the Herald Independent office is on the southwest side of the square here in Lancaster. In the Clerk of Courts office was a file cabinet with a drawer that had the previous week’s concluded criminal court cases, everything from disorderly conduct citations to felonies. My job was to take notes and write stories based on those court files. And then on Wednesday mornings, I’d go to the Sheriff’s Department, as it was called in those days, and the dispatcher would hand over a folder that included car crashes, drunk driving arrests, other kinds of arrests, and the other things deputies had done over the previous week.

I went to the Sheriff’s Department that Monday morning to speak to Chief Deputy Lloyd Runde about what had happened about 10 hours before. The Herald Independent story I wrote quoted Lloyd as calling Tom an “excellent” deputy, and about how he had started with the department part-time, and how Tom wanted to go full-time because he was interested in law enforcement.

I asked Lloyd how the officers of the department felt about what had happened, and he said, “I don’t know if there is a description” for that. And that’s when he got emotional. And there’s really no training for how to handle that in journalism school. That was the point where I realized that this wasn’t just a big story for me; this was a story of unspeakable human tragedy in a place where you’re not supposed to have something like this happen.

It also showed to me what a former colleague of Tom’s and then a Wisconsin State Patrol trooper, Brett Hubbard, called “the most exclusive fraternity in existence,” officers who have “a ringside seat at the greatest show on earth.” I’ve gone on a couple of police ride-alongs since then, and I now know what Brett meant.

Again, in those days before email and digital cameras I couldn’t call up the Sheriff’s Department and get a mug shot of someone. In this case, that’s because the man arrested, Gregory Coulthard, wasn’t there; he was in the Richland County Jail, and every time he had a court appearance they had to bring him to Lancaster. I had one chance to get a photo of him for that week’s newspaper, and that was a photo of him escorted by Richland County’s sheriff and chief deputy coming into the courthouse for his first court appearance the next day.

When I learned Coulthard’s name, I remember thinking that the name seemed familiar, but I wasn’t sure why. So I looked in previous newspapers and found that he had been placed on probation on a criminal damage to property charge for stealing a radio from a car and slashing that car’s tires the previous July, and that he also had been convicted of drunk driving and hit-and-run.

Two days after his first court appearance, I went to St. Mary’s in Platteville for Tom’s funeral. St. Mary’s was chosen in part because Tom grew up outside Platteville and graduated from Platteville High School, and in part because it was the largest church in the county. And it was full. I had never witnessed a police funeral before that day. I will never forget the sight of a church full of officers — 1,245 by one count, from five states, 119 municipalities, 39 sheriff’s departments, three federal agencies and two military police units — in dress uniforms, and the 14-mile-long procession of 272 police cars from the church to Rock Church Cemetery.

At the funeral Tom’s uncle Arnold noted that Tom “loved and treasured guns, and yet a gun took his life. He taught gun safety at area schools; yet an act with a gun took his life. He was for law and order, yet a lawless act took his life.”

The next few months were about that lawless act. Our criminal justice system guarantees a fair trial and the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. And so Greg Coulthard had a preliminary hearing to determine probable cause to indict him for first-degree intentional homicide. He got a chance to change his plea — from not guilty to not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, and back to not guilty. His attorneys were public defenders. The judge wasn’t from Grant County, and neither was the jury, both at the request of Coulthard’s attorneys.

The trial, with Iowa County Circuit Judge James Fielder presiding, took place over five days in July 1990, beginning with the jurors, who were from Waukesha County, being driven to the murder scene. Coulthard’s attorneys admitted what had happened, though their goal was a verdict on first-degree reckless homicide; their claim was that the shooting wasn’t an intentional act.

Even given that admission, the district attorney, Emil Everix, still took the jury through every event that happened that night. Emil’s contention was that after his criminal damage to property conviction, Coulthard had vowed that he wasn’t going to go back to jail.

Coulthard was working at the Lynden Grove Farm between Livingston and Arthur, and after drinking he decided to take a tractor — because his driver’s license had been revoked — to see his girlfriend in Platteville. On the way he apparently decided he couldn’t get to Platteville, and so out of frustration he took the shotgun he had in the tractor, fired four shots at a lighted billboard and turned around back for his house.

Around 11:20 p.m., Tom was heading home after his shift. One thing I’ve learned in observing police is that officers are trained to notice the unusual — something they see that doesn’t belong there or doesn’t seem right. And a tractor on the road at night in mid-March must not have seemed right, and so he radioed in at 11:24 p.m. that he was stopping for a disabled vehicle on New California Road.

I assume all of you here heard of the “Perry Mason” TV series, in which every episode ended with a dramatic moment in the courtroom. This was my first murder trial, but I had covered enough trials to know that Perry Mason moments don’t actually occur in trials.

Coulthard took the stand in his own defense to reinforce his attorneys’ claim of a momentary breakdown of judgment. (According to the state Parole Commission his attorneys told Coulthard that self-defense is not a defense for killing a police officer, so he went with the “I was surprised” defense.)

After one of his attorneys examined him on direct, Emil Everix cross-examined him asked questions about the specific events.

At one point he asked, “When the officer came around, that’s when you shot him, is that correct?”

The response he got was: “I shot him when I saw him.”

That immediately concluded Everix’s questions. Coulthard’s attorney tried to repair the damage, but it was like trying to unring a bell. Once a recess was declared, I went up to the court reporter to make sure I’d heard what I thought I had heard.

During closing arguments Coulthard’s attorney called that moment “a slick lawyer’s trick.” After the trial Emil said “That wasn’t a slip of the tongue, that was the truth finally coming out of his mouth.”

The jury began deliberations around 11 a.m. I was in the clerk of court’s office doing my usual Tuesday courthouse stop when the jury commissioner stuck his head in and said the jury had reached a verdict. That meant that in 90 minutes, the jury had selected a foreman, ate lunch, and decided the verdict.

The law in those days required judges to set a date of first parole eligibility. Judge Fielder set the date of first parole eligibility at March 19th, 2015. I have to admit that I probably sat there and thought about how long away that was, that I would be 50 years old then.

Well … 25 years and several job and life changes later, I was in my office at The Platteville Journal, and I got an email about a petition drive to deny Coulthard parole. Two months after that, Coulthard’s parole was denied, and he’s not eligible for parole consideration again until 2021.

I predict that he’s not going to get parole, then or ever. The Parole Commission report two years ago stated that he believes he’s being treated differently because of who the victim was. Whether or not his judgment was impaired due to alcohol, and whether or not he was 18 at the time of the crime, the fact remains that he committed a crime against society by killing a representative of law and order in our society.

As time has gone by I’ve had the chance to rethink what happened and all its impacts since 1990. On one hand, Greg Coulthard has spent more than half of his life in prison. His act denied his own family his presence in their lives, with the exception, I suppose, of trips to see him in prison in New Lisbon. Greg Coulthard is now 45; he has outlived Tom Reuter by seven years.

Tom and Diane Reuter had five children, who were ages 7 to 15 at the time of Tom’s death. That means all their children spent most of their lives without a father. That didn’t mean a lot to a single, unattached reporter. It means more to a father of three kids around that age range now. It also means more when one of your sons is considering a law enforcement career. Tom didn’t get to grow old with his wife and enjoy grandchildren. He also died before his own parents, LaVern and Frances, and all parents know that’s not supposed to happen either.

In the Herald Independent the week of Tom’s death we wrote an editorial that said that we hoped it was “some consolation to Tom’s family that he sacrificed his life protecting all of us and doing something he obviously enjoyed.”

Dick Brockman, who was the publisher of The Platteville Journal in 1990, wrote that same week that “Violence to a police officer is simply something that we can’t tolerate in a civilized society. The police officer is the only thing that separates us from chaos, from the anarchy of living without any laws, any rules at all.”

I think Americans are optimists at heart, and so you try to find something good that came out of this horrible tragedy. In those days I don’t recall any officers in this area wearing bulletproof vests. Maybe Tom’s death prompted purchasing and wearing of bulletproof vests. Tom’s death may also have prompted officers in small agencies in rural areas to be a little more careful about their safety at work, because Tom’s death was proof that something you don’t think can happen here can.

Since Sept, 11, 2001 and that day’s loss of life of 71 police officers, I think we’ve grown to have more respect for the job law enforcement does. Law enforcement is one of the few lines of work where an officer may not survive his or her day at work.

Unfortunately, in the past few years, that respect has been waning again, and that’s the result of armchair judgments over what happened in places like Ferguson, Mo., New York City, Baltimore, Milwaukee and Madison. We elect people to create law and determine what the law should be, and we employ police officers to enforce that law and keep us safe from those without respect for the law.

Tom was one of 162 law enforcement officers to die in 1990. Last year, 143 officers died in the fourth consecutive year in which police deaths increased from the previous year. So far this year, there have been 51 police deaths, including two in Wisconsin; one year ago at this time there were 36.

Thank you for the invitation again. Thank you for your service. And in the words of one of TV’s favorite police sergeants, Phil Esterhaus of “Hill Street Blues,” let’s be careful out there. I will be very happy if I never have to cover a story like this again. Thanks.