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Passenger in girl scout hit and run is sentenced as families continue calls for justice

John Stender is taken into custody to begin three year prison sentence.
John Stender is taken into custody to begin three year prison sentence.(WEAU)
Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 11:20 PM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - John Stender will serve time for his role in the hit and run crash that killed four people in November 2018.

Stender was in the passenger seat when Colten Treu drove into a girl scout troop that was cleaning up trash along County Highway P in Lake Hallie killing three girl scouts, Jayna Kelly, Autumn Helgeson, Haylee Hickle and her mom Sara Schneider. Another girl, Madalyn Zwiefelhofer, was left with life-altering injuries.

On Thursday, Judge James Isaacson sentenced Stender to three years in prison and three years of extended supervision after a three hour hearing in Chippewa County court. Stender had previously been found guilty for harboring and aiding a felon for helping Treu hide the truck on the day of the crash.

Authorities say the crash happened while both men were high after huffing aerosol inhalants they had purchased at Walmart. They drove into the girl scout troop, hid the truck and carried on with their day.

In handing down his sentencing, Judge James Isaacson said it was notable that Stender waited several hours before telling police what happened.

About a dozen family members of the victims spoke about the massive impact the crash has had on their lives and the tragic way they lost their loved ones.

“He should spend some time thinking about and regretting his actions. I have to think about losing my beautiful, amazing daughter every day,” said Robin Kelley, Jayna’s mom.

She was one of the several family members calling on Judge Isaacson to hand down the maximum sentence of five years in prison and five years of extended supervision.

“About the time these two were hiding the truck that crashed into my daughter, I was desperately trying to do CPR on Jayna, screaming for paramedics to help,” said Brian Kelley.

Several family members said in court they are haunted by seeing the black truck speed away after the crash instead of stopping to help.

“It’s not a crime to be a coward but hiding a felon is,” said Kim Helgeson, Autumn’s mom.

Judy Schneider, Sara’s mom and Haylee’s grandma said she had just moved into a bigger house where the three of them would live with Haylee’s brother.

“You cannot imagine how my life was shattered on Nov. 3, 2018,” she said. “The behaviors of Colten Treu and John Stender will forever be part of the nightmares I have for the rest of my life.”

After listening to the families of the victims, Stender offered a tearful apology.

“I know the victims’ families want justice from me and I’m sure they are all sick and angry inside having to say goodbye to their family and friends. I can’t imagine. There’s not a day that goes by that I wish I could trade places with them. The children were too young to have this happen,” he said.

Since the crash, Stender said he has turned his life around, sought out counseling, held a job and got married. The other side of the courtroom was packed with his friends and family including his pregnant wife.

Stender’s attorney, Harry Hertel said he was disappointed Stender would serve time in prison, pointing out despite the emotional testimony from the victims’ families, Stender was only charged for helping hide the truck, not the homicides.

“The victims truly suffered horribly for what happened. I’m not sure that’s the crime he was convicted for in the sense the punishment came because of what occurred, not when he pulled his car out of the garage to have a truck be hidden but what happened out on the road while Colten Treu was driving and he was a passenger,” Hertel said.

Chippewa County District Attorney Wade Newell was hoping for at least four years in prison and five years of extended supervision but said he was satisfied with the sentencing.

“I’m happy his actions have consequences beyond probation and jail and prison shows when something serious happens covering it up is never the right solution but there will be consequences if you try and cover up a serious crime,” Newell said.

As part of his sentencing, Judge Isaacson recommends Stender watch police body camera video responding to the scene of the crash every year on its anniversary, Nov. 3. He also recommends part of his community service include picking up trash along County Highway P, just as the victims were doing when they were killed.

Stender was taken into custody to begin his sentence immediately after the hearing.

Treu is serving a 54 year prison sentence for the four deaths.

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