- The Washington Times - Monday, October 23, 2006

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) — Searchers combing the Mississippi River this month pulled out the body of basketball player Luke Homan — the eighth college-age man in nine years to disappear from a city tavern and turn up dead in a river.

La Crosse officials have debated for years how to keep drunken students safe, but some say there may be no answer for a town with three colleges, three rivers and $3 pitchers of beer.

“I’m not sure anything we do can prevent a future tragedy,” Mayor Mark Johnsrud said.

The string of deaths began in July 1997, when searchers pulled 19-year-old Richard Hlavaty’s body from the Mississippi River near a park. College wrestler Jared Dion became the seventh drowning in 2004 when his body turned up in the same park.

The community is saturated with thousands of students attending the University of Wisconsin’s La Crosse campus, as well as Viterbo University and Western Wisconsin Technical College. Downtown bars cater to young drinkers, offering booze at dirt-cheap prices.

The Vibe, where Mr. Homan was last seen alive, offers an all-you-can-drink special for $5. Shots are $1. A sign in the bar’s window proclaims: “You’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on.”

Down the street, Brothers offers bottles of beer for a buck on Wednesdays. The Helm boasts 50-cent schnapps and $3 pitchers from midnight to 1:30 a.m.

The city lies where the Black and La Crosse rivers empty into the Mississippi. Hemmed in by rugged bluffs, La Crosse is well-known for its scenery.

But the waterfront can be deadly. Investigators think Mr. Dion fell off a levee that doubles as a pedestrian walkway and a dock for visiting paddle-wheel boats. The levee had no railing, allowing him to tumble 10 feet into the frigid Mississippi.

His death brought to a head years of worries that a serial killer was stalking drunks. Police held a town meeting to reassure people, explaining that none of the victims was attacked.

A task force appointed to investigate the drownings made 19 recommendations ranging from building gates to the levee to creating alternative forms of entertainment.

But only a handful of those suggestions were adopted, including police patrols of house parties and an extra police shift to patrol bars.

Students have taken it upon themselves to patrol the park since Mr. Homan’s death, but residents are calling for some kind of barrier.

But the mayor does not want fences or gates to mar Riverside Park’s natural beauty or send a message that La Crosse is a “playground” for binge drinkers.

His solution: Spend $60,000 on motion-activated lights in the park to startle drunks and alert them they are close to the water. The City Council is set to consider the lights in November.

Meanwhile, Mr. Johnsrud said, community groups need to keep warning students about the dangers of binge drinking, he said.

“It’s a behavior issue,” he said. “People are going to do what they want to do.”

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