Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Only Serial Killer in La Crosse is Binge Drinking

The October 2nd discovery of UW-La Crosse (UW-L) student Luke Homan’s body in the Mississippi River - the eighth body found there since 1997 - has reignited old rumors of a serial killer preying on drunken male students in La Crosse.

All facts considered - the only serial killer in La Crosse is binge drinking, which is defined as having five or more drinks in a couple hours.

As a former student of UW-L, I know the severity and frequency of binge drinking is outrageous in La Crosse. The city’s biggest annual festival is Oktoberfest, which is basically a city-wide drinking celebration.

I was in La Crosse for the first weekend of Oktoberfest this year – the same weekend Homan disappeared. The city was so over-crowded that it was difficult to find your way even if you were sober and have lived in La Crosse for years.

Never have I tasted drinks so strong that I’ve questioned whether or not the bartender forgot to put the Coke in my rum and Coke than during this visit.

With the combination of exceedingly strong drinks, over-crowded bars with bartenders catering to several people at once, and a having a cold, swift river literally only blocks away from the bars and nightclubs, it’s no wonder how even a man Homan’s size – 6’3, 205 lbs – got so intoxicated that he lost his way, wandered to the river, and drowned.

The same follows with the other drowning deaths. Although they did not occur during Oktoberfest weekend, every victim was last seen drinking and partying downtown before they disappeared.

Homan’s death and the seven preceding deaths are the work of intoxication, not a serial killer.

Those who believe the rumors are ignoring the cold, hard facts. Police have found absolutely no evidence to suggest a serial killer is behind the drownings in La Crosse. In each case, there are no markers of foul play or pre-death trauma.

What is present in every case though is a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .20 and above. Wisconsin defines legal intoxication for purposes of driving as having a BAC of 0.08 or greater, in most cases. Even a BAC of 0.05 may impair driving.

Homan’s preliminary BAC was .32 – four times the legal standard of intoxication. The last victim before Homan, 21-year-old UW-L student Jared Dion, had a BAC of .289 when his body was recovered from the river in 2004.

While even acknowledging the consistency of highly elevated blood alcohol levels in each victim, supporters of the serial killer theory say that the physical similarities are more than just a coincidence.

In an online Facebook group, “La Crosse ‘drownings’…Time to Take Action,” a student cited some similarities between the victims as “all amazing athletes, built, and truly amazing guys.”

This evidence is in no way condemning. UW-L is known for athletics. Almost everyone I met while attending UW-L was an athlete or participated in sports in some way. The fact that the victims were all athletes isn’t surprising.

The group’s creator, Stacey Semler, who personally knew Dion, does not believe that the victims would be “stupid” enough to wander off and fall into the river.

“We’ve all experienced the college life,” Semler said. “…drinking til we don’t remember what we did all night…but we’re not stupid…and neither were they.”

The question is not whether the victims were “stupid.” No matter how intelligent a person is, a BAC of .20 or higher greatly impairs judgment, movement, and sense of direction, among other things. A sober person wouldn’t just fall into the river unless they were extremely clumsy, but a very drunk person easily could.

Semler’s argument only proves the point that college students drink excessively, even to the point where they “don’t remember” what they did all night. If “we’ve all” experienced this, then it is very likely that the victims drank so much that they too were in a state of not knowing what they were doing.

Just last week, police found a 22-year-old UW-L student with a BAC of .19 in Riverside Park, according to an article published in the La Crosse Tribune. The man told police he was going home and was intoxicated enough to say that he lived north of the park, when he actually lived east.

The eight drowning victims all had a BAC higher than this man, proving that even if they were familiar with the town, their sense of direction would be blurred, just as his was. Riverside Park is only a small walk from downtown La Crosse night life, so ending up there after a night of heavy drinking is understandable when you’re so intoxicated you don’t know where you’re going.

While occurrences of drowning are more prevalent in La Crosse than other college towns with large bodies of water, like Madison, there is one great difference between the cities that explains this.

As UW-L professors Betsy Morgan and Kim Vogt pointed out in an open letter to students following Dion’s death in 2004, Madison has a lake, La Crosse has a flowing river.

When you jump into a lake from the shore, you hit the sandy bottom. When you jump into the Mississippi River, you’re jumping into 18 feet of water.

The real problem in La Crosse is not a serial killer but rather the community’s denial that it has a drinking problem. It’s easier to place blame on someone else, than it is to place blame on yourself.

College kids will drink. There is no stopping that. But until La Crosse “sobers up” a bit and admits the fact that it has a serious drinking problem instead of blaming tragedies on a non-existent serial killer, students will continue to face the dangers of binge drinking near a deadly river.

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