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Inquiry Into Fatal Wis. Boat Crash May Take Months

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(credit: Chippewa County Sheriff's Office)

(credit: Chippewa County Sheriff’s Office)

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LAKE HALLIE, Wis. (AP) – Investigating a high-speed boat collision that killed four people, including three groomsmen celebrating a weekend wedding, could take several months, authorities said Monday.

A deck boat with six people aboard slammed into a smaller speedboat carrying two people Friday night on the Chippewa River, killing the three wedding attendants and a man in the second boat, and injuring the groom-to-be.

Preliminary information suggests both boats were traveling swiftly when the accident was reported about 9:45 p.m., even though they should have slowed down after nightfall, authorities said.

“This was a very high-speed collision,” Chippewa County Undersheriff Eugene Gutsch said.

He said state officials would work to reconstruct the collision, which occurred between the Town of Wheaton on one side and the Village of Lake Hallie on the other. The process could take six months or more. Authorities said it’s too early to know whether alcohol was a factor in the collision.

The driver of the larger boat, a 56-year-old Eau Claire man, was arrested briefly on suspicion of driving under the influence. His passengers included the groom-to-be, Leo Pohl of Buffalo, Minn., who was briefly hospitalized and released Saturday.

Gutsch said that as far as he knew the wedding, planned for Saturday, did not take place.

Three passengers on the larger boat were killed. Matthew Overhulser, 28, of Eau Claire, was found dead Friday night, while the bodies of Luke Pohl, 25, of Elk River, Minn., and Matthew Simonson, 28, of Brooklyn Park, Minn., were found Sunday morning.

The driver of the smaller boat was also killed. He was identified as Mark Michels, 50, of Eau Claire. Online records show that a man with the same name, age and hometown had multiple alcohol-related convictions, including a no-contest plea in 2004 to a seventh offense of operating while under the influence.

Michels’ passenger, 49-year-old Carol Oller of Hayward, was hospitalized at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire. A hospital spokesman said she was upgraded Monday from fair to good condition.

Autopsies were being conducted Monday on three of the men who were killed, with a final report expected within about two months pending blood-test results, Chippewa County coroner Ronald Patten said. No autopsy was being performed on Overhulser because severe head trauma was the clear cause of death, he said.

The prosecutor was awaiting results from state investigators before deciding whether to file any charges against the surviving boat driver. District attorney Jon Theisen said preliminary information from witnesses conflicted, reflecting how difficult it can be to investigate a nighttime collision.

“Even eyewitnesses at the scene had discrepancies. One person said it happened way upstream and someone else standing a few feet away said it happened downstream,” Theisen said. “When you’re out there it can be difficult to judge distances and sounds.”

Theisen noted that the only lights available would have been a few small ones on the boats, along with others on the shoreline and lights reflected in the water.

Even so, he said, the damage to the boats suggested that one or both were speeding.

Gutsch said on that part of the river, which he estimated to be about 100 yards wide, residents have increasingly complained of speeding boaters.

“People who live along the river were telling us it was just a matter of time” before a severe collision occurred, he said. “Just sitting in their homes they can hear the high-speed boats going by.”

Theisen said the accident has cast a pall over the community.

“It’s sickeningly tragic. It’s damaging to the community psyche to have such a tragic incident at a place we use for fun and relaxation,” he said. “Four deaths. That’s going to be difficult to overcome.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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