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Virulent flu bug blamed in 4 Wisconsin deaths, 113 cases so far; students at flooded school pitch-in to clean up; tourism sector hosts clothing drive; more briefs

Even though the flu season is already underway, state health officials say it's not too late to benefit from a vaccination.

Four Wisconsinites have died from the flu, in what's become the nation's deadliest start to the flu season in about 35 years.

State health officials now say they've seen 113 confirmed cases of influenza this fall compared to just seven at this time a year ago. Twenty-six Wisconsin residents were recently hospitalized with the flu.

State epidemiologist Tom Haupt said there had been no flu-related hospitalizations before January in the last two to three years. This year, at least four flu patients were pregnant women who did not get flu shots.

State officials have been encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, and they say it's not too late - even though it takes a couple weeks after a shot to start getting the full protection. Officials are not sure why there's been an increase in hospitalizations.

Paul Biedrzycki of the Milwaukee Health Department says the dominant strain so far was a good match for the vaccine that people have been getting, but he says a mutation in the flu virus can happen at any time.

According to Biedrzycki, scientists are studying a possible mutation of the genes in the seasonal A-H-3-N-2 flu - thus creating a disease that can spread easier, and is not covered as much by vaccines that were developed six to eight months ago.

Six firms that never repaid job creation loans now bankrupt

Six companies that never repaid job creation loans from Wisconsin taxpayers are now bankrupt.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said the firms owed almost $500,000 and they're among the 67 loans that were not tracked for over a year by state economic development officials. Those loans total over $12 million and at last word, the businesses that received the tax assistance were $2.5 million behind in their payments. Most of the loans were made by the former Commerce Department, the state agency that was replaced in the summer of 2011 by the public-private Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation.

Ryan Murray, the agency's chief operating officer, said some of the loans from the bankrupt firms were supposed to be written off years ago - but the word never got to the agency's central offices. The Journal Sentinel says there's a chance that millions of dollars loaned by taxpayers to create new jobs will never be repaid.

Flambeau River Bio-fuels, one of the firms which are behind on their payments, is not expected to pay back around $2 million it owes.

Valley Lutheran students pitch in to clean flooded school

MOSINEE -- Students at a Lutheran high school in Mosinee could have stayed home Monday but instead, almost 50 of the 60 students at Wisconsin Valley Lutheran showed up to remove items from classrooms damaged by a broken water line during the weekend.

Administrator Dave Beringer said books, shelves, desks, and other items had to be cleared out of the damaged classrooms and thanks to the student volunteers, the job was all done by noon.

Computer towers were among the items that cannot be salvaged, along with a number of textbooks and teaching materials. Ceilings fell in, and walks and carpets were soaked by the spilled water. Several inches of water were standing - and cleaners have been working to remove as much of it as possible.

Beringer says an insurance adjuster has inspected the damage, and some of it will not be covered.

Wisconsin Valley Lutheran is taking donations for things like teaching materials. The cost of the clean-up is not certain yet.

Prisoner who sued over 'gender identity' brings new action

A prisoner who sued for the right to have a sex-change operation now claims the state is not living up to the promises it made in settling that lawsuit.

Scott Konitzer, 48, has filed a new lawsuit in federal court, accusing the state Corrections Department of falsely inducing him to settle the suit he brought in 2003. Konitzer has gender identity disorder - and as part of the settlement, he dropped his demand for a sex-change operation in exchange for continuing non-surgical therapy.

He said the state also promised to consider other therapies that experts might recommend for his disorder but now, Konitzer said the state never intended to explore those other therapies and they've limited his previous treatments which made him go bald and to consider suicide.

Konitzer is serving 123 years at the state prison in Portage for multiple armed robberies and for stabbing another prisoner. He changed his name to Donna - and once Republican legislators caught wind of that, they passed a law banning hormone treatments and tax-funded sex-change surgeries for prisoners.

Konitzer and two other inmates sued and a federal appeals court threw out the state law, saying it violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

Corrections' officials have not commented on Konitzer's new lawsuit.

Families affected by gasoline spill file suit

About 150 families in Washington County have sued the owners of a nearby pipeline that spilled almost 55,000 gallons of gasoline in mid-July.

The landowners say they've suffered emotional problems and health effects like diarrhea and nausea, while their property values have gone down. Attorneys in Milwaukee and Baltimore are representing the families, who want a jury trial.

Among other things, they want a medical monitoring fund to screen residents for cancer. And they want the West Shore Pipeline Company and Buckeye Partners to pay punitive damages for not doing more to prevent the spill.

Attorney Dan Rottier said the government warned as early as 1988 that pipelines like the one at Jackson used welding techniques that needed careful inspections, because they were subject to seam failures. He says the law firm will be asking for the companies' maintenance records.

Patrick Hodgins of Buckeye Partners says they're still working on cleaning up the spill, and talking with local officials on a long-term alternative to providing water to residents. As of Monday, West Shore said excessive levels of benzene were still in 17 of 29 private water wells near Jackson, close to where the pipeline broke.

The company worked immediately to fix problems with the water system, supplied bottled water, and paid for hotels for those who couldn't use their drinking water.

UW Madison's research dollars drop slightly

MADISON -- UW Madison has dropped from third to fourth in the country in what it spent on research in the last fiscal year.

The National Science Foundation said the UW spent $1.1 billion on research in fiscal 2011, less than Johns Hopkins and the universities of Michigan and Washington.

Madison has been among the nation's five largest research schools - both public and private - for the last two decades.

Vice chancellor Martin Cadwallader says the UW's overall research numbers are still heading in the right direction. That's because Madison's total for research spending grew by over $100 million in the year ending last September. That includes studies in science and engineering, among other fields.

The UW's research funding comes mainly from competitive federal grants from agencies like the Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA.

Madison received around $600 million in federal research dollars last year, including $52 million from the Obama stimulus package.

Tourism industry collecting used clothing for needy

Wisconsin's tourism industry is starting to collect used winter clothing to help the needy in a program it calls the "Big Bundle Up".

The state Tourism Department is also involved. Folks can log onto to find a list of 80 sites around the Badger State which are collecting used hats, gloves, coats, and other winter items.

They'll be donated to charities throughout Wisconsin. Packer fans can drop off warm clothing at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, when the Packers play the Detroit Lions.

In western Wisconsin, drop-off sites include Chamber of Commerce offices at Hudson, Menomonie and Chippewa Falls as well as the Visitor Information Center at St. Croix Falls.

Judge tosses lawsuit calling for carp barriers

CHICAGO -- A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit by Wisconsin and four other states that called for permanent barriers near Chicago to keep the invasive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes.

Judge John Tharp said federal law requires shipping channels to be open between Lake Michigan and the nearby Des Plaines River and new dams are prohibited with the approval of Congress but the judge said he was still alarmed by the potential damage the bloated carp could create if it infiltrates the Great Lakes.

He said the proper way for the states to set up the needed barriers is to get approval from Congress. But Judge Tharp left the door open to other court action. He said it's possible that the states could find grounds for a nuisance claim without asking any other government to violate laws. In other words, the judge said "There may be room in which the states can still maneuver." Michigan is the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit and a spokeswoman in the Michigan Justice Department says the states' next step will be determined once Wisconsin and the other states in the legal action are consulted.

The other three states are Minnesota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

Wausau area couple appeals conviction they neglected ailing daughter

MADISON -- A Wausau area couple was to ask the State Supreme Court Tuesday to throw out their homicide convictions for praying instead of getting medical care for their dying daughter.

The justices will hear oral arguments, before deciding for the first time whether religious freedom protects parents from being criminally liable if their faith-healing leads to their children's deaths.

Dale and Leilani Neumann of Weston were convicted of second-degree reckless homicide in 2009, after they prayed that God would heal their 11-year-old daughter Kara of an undiagnosed but treatable form of diabetes.

That didn't happen, and the girl died on Easter Sunday, 2008. A judge sentenced each parent to serve one month a year in jail for six years - one each March and one in September. They also received 10 years of probation. The sentences were delayed, pending the Neumanns' appeals.

Wisconsin is among 18 states that give parents some type of legal protection for healing their kids through faith instead of the medical system but there have been questions of how far the exemptions go.

The Neumanns' attorneys say Wisconsin laws do not indicate a point of severity in which faith-healing parents are open to criminal charges but the state Justice Department says homicide laws trump prayer exemptions when a child dies.

Danbury area 'car-surfing' case moves to courtroom

GRANTSBURG -- A 21-year-old St. Paul man is scheduled to make his first court appearance Dec. 19th in a car-surfing death of an acquaintance in northwest Wisconsin.

Cole Fohrenkamm faces three felony charges and two traffic counts in the death of 21-year-old Shawn Swanson, also of St. Paul. The incident happened Aug. 11th on a rural road in Burnett County.

Prosecutors said several people were riding in a vehicle when they stopped, Swanson and another man climbed on the outside and then Fohrenkamm drove up to 40 miles per hour and weaved back and forth see if the two could stay aboard.

Swanson fell and hit the back of his head and officials said the group drove him to a casino in nearby Danbury to get help. Fohrenkamm allegedly had a blood alcohol level of .16, almost twice the legal level of intoxication.

Authorities said the driver also had the main ingredient of marijuana in his system at the time.

Fohrenkamm was just recently charged with three felony counts of drunk and negligent driving, and reckless endangerment - plus traffic counts of reckless driving, and driving a person who was riding illegally.

Media reports say car-surfing has become more common as more young people see it on social media and YouTube.

In 2008, a teen was killed in Sussex in southeast Wisconsin while riding on the hood of a car that slammed into a tree.

Man found dead after RV fire

RACINE -- A 48-year-old man was found dead in Racine early Tuesday following a fire in a recreational vehicle.

The blaze was reported just after midnight. Once the fire was put out, firefighters found the man's body.

A cause is being determined.

Deceased rabbits were award-winners

SOMERSET -- Some award-winning show rabbits were among 120 killed in a barn fire last Friday.

The rabbits were owned by Dan Hall and his sister DeAnn Ray. Hall told WQOW-TV in Eau Claire that some of the rabbits had won national competitions, and were worth $500 each. All told, the value of the rabbits was $10,000 to $20,000.

Hall and Ray also lost numerous trophies and ribbons in the fire and they said the barn was over 100 years old.

Ray told WQOW that her daughter was checking out the damage when a rabbit hopped up to her. The animal appears to be the only survivor of the blaze - and its new name is "Very Lucky."