Relatives of a Girl Scout and her mother who were killed in a hit-and-run crash in Wisconsin that also claimed the lives of two other girls struggled Monday to come to terms with their sudden, heartbreaking loss, saying "we all expect them to come back."
Sara Jo Schneider, 32, and her 10-year-old daughter Haylee Hickle were among a group of adults and children who were picking up trash in the ditches of a rural highway when a pickup truck that veered off the road struck them Saturday morning, said police in Lake Hallie, a town about 95 miles east of Minneapolis. The truck driver later told authorities he was inhaling chemical vapors before the crash.
Schneider's mother, Judy Schneider said her daughter and granddaughter's deaths are "still not real for any of us," and her 6-year-old grandson, Jasper, can't grasp what happened.
"He doesn't understand," Schneider said. "He said, 'If the doctors work real hard, sometimes God lets them come back.'"
Lake Hallie police said the 21-year-old pickup driver, Colten Treu, and a passenger told investigators they had been huffing just before striking the Girl Scout troop. Authorities said Treu sped off after the collision, but surrendered hours later. He is being held in the Chippewa County Jail on $250,000 bond and faces 13 possible charges, including four counts of intoxicated use of a motor vehicle.
Treu made his first court appearance Monday and has another hearing scheduled for Tuesday, when prosecutors are expected to formally charge him.
Schneider said her daughter, granddaughter and grandson moved in with her a couple of years ago and they expected the house in the Town of Lafayette to be their "forever home."
"It was a little piece of heaven," she said. Now, she said, "It's going to be hollow."
Nine-year-old Jayna Kelley and 10-year-old Autum Helgeson, both of Lake Hallie, were also killed. Another 10-year-old girl who was struck was in stable condition at a hospital Monday.
The Girl Scouts out on the highway that day were all fourth-graders at Halmstad and Southview elementary schools in the Chippewa Falls School District. The children and their adult chaperones wore bright green safety vests as they walked along both sides of County Highway P, which they had adopted as a community service project.
Hundreds of community members huddled under umbrellas in the rain Sunday evening for a candlelight vigil outside Halmstad Elementary. Girl Scouts sang songs in memory of the victims, who were members of Troop 3055. A makeshift memorial of teddy bears, balloons and candles was set up on two wooden benches.
Schneider said her daughter's "favorite time with her kids was all in their jammies, curled up to watch a movie."
She said Haylee and her mom "were both exceptional artists" and Haylee dreamed of being an animator. She hated bugs, loved reading "Warrior Cats" books, and could sketch "a wonderful picture in 15 minutes or less," Schneider recalled.
Haylee also enjoyed painting and working on clay pottery with her mother. Haylee's father died when she was 3, Schneider said.
"Haylee would've never made it if she lost her mother," the grandmother said. "And Sara would've never been able to come back from losing Haylee."