8-year-old Gleason boy dies in Hwy. 17 traffic accident
Merrill man arrested, charged with Homicide by Intoxicated Use of Vehicle with Prior Related Conviction
TINA L. SCOTT
Tragedy struck a Gleason family on Saturday evening, Sept. 17, 2022, at 7:22 p.m. when the 2008 Chevrolet Silverado they were traveling in, northbound on State Hwy. 17 near Sunset Road in the Township of Merrill, was hit head-on by a 2017 Dodge Ram truck that crossed over into their lane.
Leah M. Skaar, 37, of Gleason, a passenger in the family’s Silverado, was flown by Life-Link helicopter to Aspirus Wausau Hospital with critical injuries. As of Monday afternoon and following a Monday-afternoon surgery on her ankle, her condition had been upgraded to serious but stable, according to her husband, Tom.
Thomas J. Skaar, 42, of Merrill, the driver of the family vehicle, was transported to Aspirus Merrill Hospital, along with his 9-year-old daughter, Julia,* with non-life threatening injuries. Both were treated and released.
The couple’s eight-year-old son, Ian Skaar,* who had been seated in the back on the passenger side, was transported to Aspirus Merrill Hospital with the intent to stabilize him and life flight him to a children’s pediatric hospital, but Ian died of injuries sustained in the accident about an hour after arriving at the hospital.
The driver of the second vehicle, a Dodge Ram truck, 41-year-old John James Lahti of Merrill, sustained minor injuries, was treated at Aspirus Merrill Hospital, and was then arrested by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office. Lahti was charged with a felony count of Homicide by Intoxicated Use of Vehicle While Having Prior Intoxicated-Related Conviction and a misdemeanor charge of Cause Injury/Operate While Under the Influence. According to the Criminal Complaint, Lahti was previously convicted of Operating While Intoxicated, first offense, on February 24, 2004.
If convicted of the first charge, Lahti faces a fine of up to $100,000 and up to 40 years in prison, or both, plus revocation of his operating privileges for five years. The penalties, if convicted of the misdemeanor charge, include a fine of not less than $300 or more than $2,000 and not less than 30 days or more than 1 year in county jail.
The Criminal Complaint on record said an eye witness saw Lahti’s vehicle cross the center line to come straight at the Skaar vehicle and said the driver of the Skaar vehicle took evasive action, trying to swerve into the other (oncoming) lane to avoid a crash with the oncoming truck. As a result, the front passenger side of both vehicles took the brunt of the impact. The Complaint said all airbags deployed and all of the passengers in the Skaar vehicle wore seatbelts.
The Complaint said Lahti displayed many signs of being impaired by alcohol use when questioned on site, but declined to participate in standard sobriety testing and at times failed to respond at all. Ultimately, he consented to a preliminary breath test there, registering .290 Breath Alcohol Concentration (BrAC) at 7:55 p.m., which put him at more than three times the legal limit at the time of the crash. A second test taken later registered .223 BrAC at 11:45 p.m. The legal limit in Wisconsin is .08 BrAC or Blood Alcohol Content (BAC).
The Complaint also stated, “In John’s vehicle, Law Enforcement located a 1 liter Korbel Brandy bottle that was slightly over half full. The cap was unsealed and the liquid inside was dark and appeared to be brandy. Law Enforcement unscrewed the cap and smelled the liquor inside and it appeared to be consistent with intoxicating beverages.”
The Wisconsin State Patrol conducted a crash investigation and reconstruction. The Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, Lincoln County Fire & EMS, and Town of Russell Fire Department and First Responders all assisted at the scene.
It was 3:18 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 18, when the area was finally cleared for traffic to resume in the area.
Lahti held on $500,000 cash bond
John James Lahti made his initial appearance from the Lincoln County Jail via video conference before Judge Robert Russell in Lincoln County Court on Monday, Sept. 19, at approximately 1:45 p.m.
One entire half of the courtroom viewing area was packed with family and friends of the Skaar family, with some overflow into the other side of the room.
When Judge Russell asked if the victims in the case were present and wished to make a statement, Tom Skaar and his nine-year-old daughter, Julia, stepped forward. Seated at the microphone with Julia by his side, Tom spoke of the family’s immense grief at the death of his eight-year-old son as a result of the defendant’s decision to drive after drinking and his failure to control his vehicle. He said his wife will never have the mobility she once had. He also said he thought Lahti would have the means and motive to flee prior to standing trial and being held accountable for the actions that took his son’s life. At his side, his daughter broke down, silently sobbing as he spoke.
Attorney Kristopher R. Ellis appeared on behalf of the State of Wisconsin, urging the Judge to set cash bail for Lahti at $500,000 and saying that in light of the penalties for the charges if convicted, that Lahti poses a strong flight risk.
Attorney Nicholas Smith appeared on behalf of Lahti, specially, for this initial appearance, and said Lahti has no prior criminal record, and asked the court to grant Lahti $10,000 cash bail, saying he is not a flight risk, as he has a wife with a job in the community and children in the community and that such a high bail would be punitive which is premature, as Lahti has not yet been convicted of the charges he faces.
Ultimately, Judge Russell sided with the victims and Attorney Ellis and the State of Wisconsin due to the gravity of the matter. Russell set Lahti’s bail at $500,000 cash bond. Additionally, if Lahti is able to post the bond and is released, he is also ordered to have no contact with the victims or their family in any capacity or location, must maintain absolute sobriety, may not enter any place licensed to sell or serve alcohol, may not drive a motor vehicle, and may not leave the state of Wisconsin without the permission of the Court.
As with all pending court cases, the defendant in this case is presumed innocent until convicted of the charges against him.
A grieving family, a grieving community
The Skaar family, their church and school community at St. John Lutheran Church and School in Merrill, and their Gleason community where the family has a farm, are devastated. St. John’s Lutheran School emailed parents on Sunday, advising a student at the school had died, and invited students and parents to a Monday morning prayer service held to pray for the surviving family members and help students and families cope with Ian’s sudden death.
In a brief conversation with Ian and Julia’s father, Tom Skaar, on Monday, Sept. 19, Tom extended thanks to everyone who has reached out in any way to help the family during this time of immense loss, pain, and grief. His wife, Leah, was still hospitalized after having undergone surgery on Monday.
“We appreciate the Town of Russell First Responders, the crew at the Merrill Fire Department, all the medical staff at Aspirus Merrill Hospital, the medical staff at Aspirus Wausau Hospital, the numerous good samaritans that came to our aid at the scene, the Aspirus Medivac crew, the Life-Link helicopter crew, the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, and the Wisconsin State Patrol,” Tom Skaar said late Monday afternoon.
“Thank you to the community members helping keep our family farm going during this very difficult time,” he said.
“Please continue to pray for our family,” Tom said.
*Permission to publish juvenile names granted by parent.