At the Grant County Courthouse in Lancaster today, area law enforcement will gather for the annual Police Memorial Day observance.
The service honors the memory of two Grant County police officers. William Loud, a deputy marshal in Cassville, was shot to death by two robbers in 1912.
Anyone who has been in Grant County before 1990, or who has seen the plaque in City Park, knows the other is Tom Reuter, a Grant County deputy sheriff who was shot to death at the end of his 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift March 18, 1990. Gregory Coulthard, then a 19-year-old farmhand who grew up in Cuba City, was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide and is serving a life sentence, with first eligibility for parole 25 years to the day after the shooting.
Newspaper stories starting from the shooting in March to the trial in July to the sentencing in August can be found at www.grantcountysheriffwisconsin.com/Tribute/Tribute.php. You’ll notice many of the stories are from The Journal. You’ll also find stories written by a reporter for the Grant County Herald Independent in Lancaster, who now is the editor of your favorite weekly newspaper.
Coulthard’s first eligibility for parole is March 18, next year. That means that, first, Coulthard has spent more than half of his life in the state prison system. (However, had he committed his crime south of the Wisconsin–Illinois state line, he probably would have been executed several years ago.) That also means that, for someone who covered this story from start to finish two years out of college, that was really early in his career.
More importantly: Tom and Diane Reuter had five children, ages 7 to 15. That means all their children have spent more than half 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 within that age range now.
For about two days, I looked at it as a chance for me to cover a really big story by anyone’s standard. The first hint it wasn’t about my career came the morning after shooting, when I interviewed Chief Deputy Lloyd Runde about the shooting. Runde was composed as I asked him details about what happened. And then from whatever I asked him, his eyes reddened and his voice choked up. And there is nothing in any journalism course that instructs you how to deal with something like that.
Three days later, Reuter’s funeral was held in St. Mary Catholic Church because it’s the largest church in Grant County. (St. Mary’s pastor, Fr. Michael Doro, was a priest at the church I attended in Madison as a child.) One of the attendees was Ivan, the Dane County K-9 dog who you might say made the arrest. After a 14-mile-long procession of more than 100 police cars, Reuter was buried in Rock Church Cemetery in the Town of Clifton. I had never seen a police funeral before. (I’ve seen one since then.) To say it’s an impressive sight is to grossly understate.
I didn’t know Reuter personally, but I’d had a couple of interactions with him. One was when I ran out to get a photo of a downed power line caused by the remnants of a hurricane that had made the trip up the Mississippi River; he was at the scene where the power line crossed the state highway west of Lancaster. The other was when Reuter came over to pick up something at our office.
When a reporter has reported enough to get that cynical sheen, the reporter realizes that most events are not as exciting as they are portrayed in fiction. There are no “Perry Mason” moments in trials. Or so I thought.
Coulthard took the stand in his own defense to reinforce his attorneys’ strategy of claiming a momentary breakdown of judgment. His attorneys sought a verdict on reckless homicide, admitting Coulthard killed Reuter, but without intent to kill him. After one of his attorneys examined him, District Attorney Emil Everix cross-examined him, asking questions about the specific events.
“When the officer came around, that’s when you shot him, is that correct?” asked Everix.
“I shot him when I saw him,” said Coulthard.
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. So much for the claim that there are no Perry Mason moments in trials.
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.
A lot is different today. Reuter wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest, because police officers usually didn’t in those days. They do now. Moreover, since Sept, 11, 2001 and that day’s horrific loss of life of police officers and firefighters, I think we have more respect now 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.