Mother/aunt charged in death of three girls
ELLSWORTH — A 34-year-old woman was charged in Pierce County Circuit Court Friday with three felony counts of homicide by negligent operation/vehicle and one count of misdemeanor reckless driving - cause bodily harm in relation to the deaths of three girls in a car crash Dec. 12, 2013.
Kari Jo Milberg, 34, Centuria, Wisconsin, is the mother of one of the girls and the aunt of the other two girls who died as a result of the accident, which occurred around 3:41 p.m. Thursday Dec. 12, 2013, in the Town of Oak Grove at the intersection of Highway 35 and 468th Avenue.
According to the criminal complaint, phone and Facebook records indicate texting and Facebook messaging may have played a part in why Milberg lost control of her 2005 Saturn Vue.
Facebook records show a Facebook chat session was in progress just minutes before the crash in which Milberg’s SUV collided with a northbound straight truck driven by Jose Mendoza, then 24, of Rockford, Illinois.
Lydia Milberg, 11, of Centuria, died at the scene. Clara Pavek, 5, of Prescott, was pronounced dead at River Falls Area Hospital after being transported from the scene. Laynie Jo Amos, 5, of Amery, Wisconsin, died two days later at Gillette Children’s Hospital in St. Paul.
Records obtained in the investigation show the chat session started around 3:05 p.m. that day. An outbound/sent message from Milberg’s phone was logged at 3:39 p.m. An incoming/received message is shown about 30 seconds later. According to the complaint, “GPS markers show that the phone was moving on STH 35 just prior to the crash and a Facebook Chat message was in progress.”
Milberg’s iPhone was not located until April 11, 2014. It was found among the debris from the crash at the crash location, which had been inaccessible due to waist-deep snow. According to the complaint, the phone suffered minimal damage and evidence in the phone itself indicated a Facebook chat/private messenger session was in progress just before the crash.
A search warrant was also obtained for Milberg’s Facebook records, which took a few months to obtain from the social media organization’s security department.
On Jan. 7, a collision analysis and reconstruction report prepared by the Wisconsin State Patrol listed conclusions as to the alleged reasons for the crash. They include:
•“Milberg was actively sending and receiving Facebook chat messages just prior to the crash” in which she was operating the 2005 Saturn Vue. “It is likely that driver inattention is a significant contributing factor in this collision. Driver distraction may explain why Milberg deviated from her southbound lane of travel to the outside shoulder before losing control.”
•Lab results also indicate a reported therapeutic level of Oxycodone in Milberg’s blood sample after the crash, as well as Midazolam, a benzodiazepine sedative used in minor surgery.
•The low tire tread depths on the Saturn, paired with the slush and snow on the shoulder of Hwy. 35, may have contributed to the loss of control. A mechanical inspection of the vehicle noted the tires of the Saturn were “too worn down to be safe to operate on any road surface that was not completely dry.”
Two witnesses at the scene said Milberg’s vehicle went off the road onto the west shoulder of Highway 35 in the southbound lane, then made an abrupt U-turn into the path of Mendoza’s truck in the northbound lane. Upon impact, Milberg’s SUV spun around and slammed into the guard rail in the northbound lane.
According to an opinion in the state patrol report, “Milberg should have been aware that her operation of a vehicle while texting/chatting on Facebook Messenger created the unreasonable and substantial risk of death or great bodily harm by texting/chatting while driving.”
The three girls, along with Milberg’s then 3-year-old son, Easton, were said to be wearing seat belts and traveling from the Giggle Factory in Hudson to Milberg’s sister’s home (Pavek’s parents) on nearby 435th Avenue. Milberg was not wearing a seat belt, according to the report.
Easton was taken to Regions Hospital in St. Paul by ambulance, while Milberg, who was ejected from the vehicle, was taken to Regions by North Memorial Air Care, where she underwent several surgeries. The driver of the truck and his two passengers were not hurt.
In the days following the accident, Pierce County Sheriff Nancy Hove described the accident as “very traumatic” for the family, the community and the deputies and emergency personnel who responded.
If convicted, each felony count carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison and fines up to $25,000.
Milberg’s first court appearance in Pierce County Circuit Court has not yet been scheduled, according to wcca.wicourts.gov.