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Testimony resumes for a third day today in the LaCrosse, Wisconsin murder trial of Todd Kendhammer. Prosecutors allege he killed his wife, Barbara, then made up a story about a freak car accident to explain his wife’s injuries. The defendant told authorities that a pipe fell off a truck, crashed through the windshield of the car he was driving, and that his wife, who was in the passenger seat, was struck by the pipe, flailed around, and was severely injured. Barbara Kendhammer later died at the hospital.
On Wednesday, the state’s key witness, medical examiner Dr. Kathleen McCubbin, testified that the victim died of blunt impact injuries which she believes would not have been caused by the chain of events outlined in the husband’s story to police.
McCubbin said the victim had contusions on her neck and calf, bruises and contusions on her thigh, contusions on her shin, and a scrape on her left leg. The victim also had various abrasions and bruises on her hands, some of which were in the process of healing when she died. The victim’s skull was fractured and there were multiple fracture lines, McCubbin testified. The victim had “raccooning” around her eyes and forehead, which can be caused by hemorrhaging tissue. There were signs of intense pressure against her lips, which were pushed up against her teeth. McCubbin said that she took the defendant’s story into account and testified that she did not think the victim’s injuries were consistent with a single blow from a pipe. Had a pipe struck the victim, the pipe would have torn tissue off of her scalp rather than creating three different lacerations, McCubbin testified.
On cross-examination, McCubbin said she hasn’t been trained in physics or incident reconstruction, and that she only once had been involved with a case where an object came through a windshield. The medical examiner said some of the victim’s contusions could have been caused by or during transport to the hospital, the administration of CPR, or by a nearby stone. The victim’s husband gave her CPR after the purported crash on the side of the road under the direction of 911 operators.
McCubbin agreed that though the victim’s contusions were “recent,” she couldn’t say when the contusions occurred. When the defense pointed out that the victim worked as a cook in a local school cafeteria and handled 50-pound sacks of sugar, the medical examiner said that wouldn’t aid in determining how her fingernails were broken. (Later, the victim’s supervisor, Cheri Elliot, said broken fingernails were frequent while working in the school kitchen, and that she herself oftentimes had multiple broken fingernails due to the work.) McCubbin said it was also possible that the victim was holding or drinking from a cup found inside the vehicle during the impact and that is why her lip was forced against her teeth. A piece of the cup had broken off and was later found by investigators, they testified yesterday. McCubbin further testified that scratches on the victim’s neck could have been caused by the victim herself trying to get free, assuming the pipe really did crash through the windshield.
McCubbin further testified, though, that she had never seen injuries such as those visible on Barbara Kendhammer being caused by a spray of shards of broken glass, that the injuries on the victim’s hands could have been consistent with defensive wounds, and that the abrasions on and the internal trauma to the victim’s neck could have been consistent with strangulation.
There was no impact wound from the pipe itself, McCubbin testified. The pipe did not impale the victim.
Retired Sgt. Mark Yehle testified that he spoke with Kendhammer about the purported incident. The defendant told Yehle where the incident happened and said an older flatbed-type truck, dark green or dark blue in color, was involved. The defendat said he didn’t look hard at the truck; he was talking, looked up, and saw an object coming toward the windshield. At first, he said he couldn’t tell what it was and assumed it might have been a bird. The defendant said his wife started flailing. He hit reverse and ended up in the ditch; his wife was bleeding from the nose and mouth. The defendant said he tried to do CPR himself but wasn’t sure he could because of the blood. He then called 911. He said he did not see what the truck was hauling. The defendant said he was going to a guy’s house whose truck needed a windshield repair. He also said he went to the guy’s house last night, but he wasn’t around. He told the detective that the guy didn’t know that he would be coming. Kendhammer confirmed that the truck which was carrying the pipe was not maroon or red. He also said that his hands were injured when he lunged at the object which was heading for the windshield in an attempt to deflect it.
Justin Heim, the defendant’s co-worker, testified that he had a friend whose truck windshield needed repair. The friend who needed the repair eventually told Heim that he didn’t want to have the windshield repaired and that Kendhammer said he no longer had the requisite new windshield for the truck, anyway. Heim had no clue why Kendhammer would be going on the date of the incident to see the friend who needed, but didn’t want, the repair. Heim claimed not to have even spoken to Kendhammer for weeks or months before the incident occurred because he and the defendant worked different shifts. The defense pressed Heim for details on the conversation, including where it occurred and whether anyone else was present, but Heim could only say further that the conversation happened at a lunchroom at work.
Randall Erler testified he was driving a 2004 Chevrolet Silverado truck past the scene where the defendant’s vehicle was teetering off the road. He passed the scene before first responders arrived. He didn’t see anyone present but arrived late to a job site by a few minutes on account. Erler testified that he looked at the vehicle’s windshield but did not see any sign that it was broken. He said that if it was broken, he would have stopped to investigate further. Erler said it wasn’t raining the day he saw the car in the ditch and that police were the ones who contacted him about the incident. Detectives testified previously that it was raining at the time.
A series of the victim’s co-workers testified during the afternoon. Cynthia Larson was the first on the stand. Cheri Elliot, the victim’s supervisor, testified that injuries in the kitchen were discussed almost every day due to the nature of the work. Someone was always getting a bruise or a cut, she said. Elliot testified she wasn’t sure if Barbara Kendhammer complained of any injuries before she died.
Elliot testified on cross-examination by the defense that sometimes the victim would call ahead of time if she was going to be late and that such calls would occur the night before or sometime the morning the victim was scheduled to report for work at 8:00 a.m. Elliot explained that a “flex time” system at work allowed people to flex their shifts a bit, so long as the jobs got done. Elliot further testified that the victim was excited about and had talked frequently about an upcoming festival. Elliot said the victim planned to have the defendant pick her up immediately after work on the day she died that that the two planned to go straight to the festival, where the Kendhammers were said to planning to meet other members of their family. Elliot added that the defendant would call his wife every day on her 10:30 a.m. break to talk to her. Finally, Elliot viewed autopsy photos of the victim’s hands and confirmed that the injuries to her hands were consistent with the injuries suffered frequently by the entire kitchen staff where the victim worked.
On re-direct, Elliot confirmed that a cup or mug found in the vehicle the morning she died was Barbara Kendhammer’s. She also confirmed that Kendhammer and others would sometimes run late and that Kendhammer sometimes ran late due to pet care issues.
Carrie Niedfeldt, who was the next manager above Cheri Elliot, testified that there was no flex time system at work and that employees were not allowed to come in late. She also presented computerized time records of when Barbara Kendhammer showed up at work. Kendhammer’s work location was in the basement of the local middle school.
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