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NICHOLS COLUMN: This serial killer comes in a bottle
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NICHOLS COLUMN: This serial killer comes in a bottle

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Adam Bradley is like a whole bunch of other young volunteers in La Crosse. He has spent many of his late nights and early mornings patrolling the banks of the Mississippi River between the bars and the thin ice that has somehow drawn surprising numbers of young, intoxicated men over the years.

In 2011 “alone, 1,297 people were turned away from (Riverside) Park between 11 and 3 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights,” said Adam, a University of Wisconsin-La Crosse student who is the director of Operation: River Watch, a program set up in response to a spate of late-night drownings. “We’re not saying that they were all intoxicated or at risk,” but some were.

As were many who, over the years, died.

Nine young men died in the river between 1997 and 2010. Now there are two more who’ve met the same fate elsewhere in Wisconsin. Michael Philbin, son of former Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, drowned in the Fox River near the UW-Oshkosh early on a Sunday morning in January. He had a blood-alcohol level of 0.176 and was smoking pot before he died, according to toxicology tests. Eric Duffey drowned in the Wisconsin River early on the morning on March 3, a Saturday, after leaving a bar frequented by UW-Stevens Point kids. Both were 21.

As a father of three children who will go off to college in the coming years, I dread these sorts of stories. Duffey, from all accounts and appearances, was a nice, talented kid who should be remembered for so much more than how he perished.

Duffey told people that “he wanted to go home and get a good night’s sleep so he could see his parents the next day,” according to Stevens Point Assistant Chief Brian Kudronowicz. Instead, he somehow wandered about in a “U-shaped walk” and ended up in the river. There’s absolutely no evidence of foul play.

A couple student government leaders at Stevens Point told me most people see what happened as an anomaly due to over-drinking, and nothing else.

In La Crosse, many people wanted so badly to believe the culprit was something less common that they convinced themselves there was a serial killer at large — an urban legend that has also cropped up repeatedly on Facebook in reaction to stories referencing Stevens Point in recent days. People from as far away as Minnesota and West Virginia have called the Stevens Point Police Department, talking about a string of college kids who have drowned and advising police “to check our videos and make sure there is not a stalker among us,” said Kudronowicz.

Kim Vogt, a La Crosse sociology professor, says there is a reason the plainly misguided belief in a fictitious serial killer became extremely common in La Crosse.

“People don’t want to see their own behavior as something that puts them at risk,” she said.

It does. La Crosse police have said that volunteers there have saved more than 50 people either in the water or on the verge of going in since Operation: River Watch began in 2006. Bradley adds that they’ve blocked people at the river’s edge pointing at lights across the Mississippi, insisting they live over there near 16th and Market streets.

Sixteenth and Market, he says, is “10 blocks in the opposite direction.”

There are well-worn lessons I hope some college kid someplace will stick on his refrigerator and see when he opens it to grab a few beers before heading to the bar for more of the same. Know your limit, and keep a close eye on whatever buddy doesn’t know his.

Realize, too, that the only serial killer in these cases is the one that comes in a bottle.

Mike Nichols is an author, syndicated columnist and fellow at the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. He spent 18 years at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writing about Wisconsin. This column represents only his personal opinion. He can be reached at MRNichols@wi.rr.com.

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