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House fire claims life of retired music teacher; Council of Churches press for prisoner releases; Walker writing a book, more state news

Superior Firefighters fight a house fire at 54 Billings Drive, a short distance from Saint Louis Bay on Lake Superior Monday morning on the city's west side. Photo courtesy of Jed Carlson, Superior Telegram.

SUPERIOR -- An investigation continues into a house fire that killed a retired high school music teacher in Superior.

Fire officials said they couldn't reach 76-year-old Jean Sweeney until the blaze was put out. Her body was found on the home's lower level.

Battalion chief Vern Johnson said it was close to where Sweeney had spent a lot of time. Johnson said the fire was burning for a long while before anyone noticed it.

The lower level and the attic were both in flames by the time fire-fighters arrived late Monday morning.

Johnson said the fire appeared to have started in a basement utility area, but its cause is still unknown.

Sweeney directed the bell choirs at United Presbyterian Church in Superior, and at Pilgrim Lutheran where she was a member.

State has big stake in Supreme Court's same-sex-marriage decision

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriages is essentially on trial in Washington this week.

The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments Tuesday on California's same-sex marriage ban. And Wednesday, the justices will consider a challenge to the National Defense of Marriage Act, which prevents legally-married same-sex couples from getting a host of benefits given to straight couples.

It's the first time in a decade that the nation's highest court is examining gay rights.

Julaine Appling of the Wisconsin Family Council says her group is quote, "cautiously optimistic" that the two measures will be ruled constitutional. She said the justices need to consider a "prudent, rule-of-law standing, and understand that people in our state have a right to make laws that are applicable to their people."

The pro-family group helped convince 59 percent of Wisconsin voters to approve a constitutional amendment in 2006 that banned gay-marriages and civil unions in Wisconsin - declaring that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The group also tried to claim that the amendment made the 2009 same-sex partner registry illegal, in which gay couples could claim about a fifth of the benefits of married couples.

The Wisconsin courts have refused to strike down the registry.

Incumbents' campaign coffers swell as Election Day nears

MADISON -- State Supreme Court Justice Pat Roggensack has raised more campaign money than her opponent over the last month-and-a-half. She has a slight financial edge going into the final week of her contest against Ed Fallone.

New campaign reports filed Monday show that Roggensack had $164,000 dollars in the bank as of last Monday. Fallone, a Marquette law professor, had $125,000. Roggensack raised $296,000 from Feb. 5th through March 18th, compared to $234,000 for Fallone.

Roggensack's donations included $25,000 from the state GOP and Republican committees, while Fallone's biggest donors were unions.

Meanwhile, state public school Superintendent Tony Evers has a big money edge over his opponent Don Pridemore. Evers raised $129,000 in the last six weeks to $22,000 for Pridemore, an Assembly Republican from Hartford.

Evers has $43,000 on hand going into next Tuesday's elections. Pridemore had just $1,300 in the bank. He has put $68,000 of his own money into the campaign.

In comments made to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the upcoming race, fellow Justice Ann Walsh Bradley says she doubts that Roggensack could resolve the fallout from the 2011 confrontation between Bradley and Justice David Prosser. In a debate last Friday, Roggensack said that if voters re-elected her next week, she'd find a resolution to the conflict.

Prosser still faces ethics charges filed over a year ago by the state's Judicial Commission but the case has been held up, because Roggensack and three other justices withdrew from having to make a potential final decision on Prosser's fate.

The justices said they were direct witnesses to an incident in which Prosser allegedly put a chokehold on Bradley during an argument - and therefore, they could not be impartial.

Bradley told the newspaper that if Roggensack could not rule on the Judicial Commission's charges, there's no way she could fairly come up with "her own contrived solution."

Roggensack says she finds fault with both Bradley's and Prosser's behavior in the incident. She says voters should not judge her for what others have done.

Religious lobby targets reducing prison census

MADISON -- Religious groups say their biggest lobbying priority in the state Legislature is to reduce the prison population by half.

The Wisconsin Council of Churches has been pushing a plan called "11-by-15" - with the goal of using drug courts and alternative treatment programs to reduce the prison population to 11,000 by 2015.

It was the main topic when religious activists and leaders met in Madison this month to set their lobbying priorities for the new session. The group also wants the state to spend $75 million on the new programs - something majority Republicans have resisted in the past.

Second-term Assembly Republican Scott Krug of Wisconsin Rapids says the prevailing thought in the Legislature is to continue to be "tough on crime instead of smart on crime."

Krug says it could be 2017 or '19 before the prison population could be sizably cut.

"We have to be realistic that the will of the Legislature takes some time to change," he said.

Police union leader: public pressure hastening officer memorial decision

WAUWATOSA -- The head of the Wisconsin police officers' union says it's tremendous that a panel will decide next week whether to include a slain Wauwatosa officer on a national police memorial.

The memorial board's said last week it needed more information - and it would take a year to decide whether to add Jennifer Sebena's name. But Monday, the board announced it has moved up its consideration to next Wednesday.

Jim Palmer of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association said it was the direct result of outrage over an earlier decision to leave Sebena's name off.

The 30-year-old Sebena was shot to death during her work-shift in Wauwatosa last Christmas Eve. Her husband has pleaded insanity to killing her and the memorial had said Sebena should not be included because she was a victim of domestic violence.

The police union came up with similar cases in which officers were included.

Gov. Scott Walker and the state's attorney general are among those saying Sebena should be honored. Almost 15,000 people have agreed by signing an online petition.

State's Republican caucus launches new web site

MADISON -- Citizens who want to know what Wisconsin Assembly Republicans are up to can surf to a new Web site.

Speaker Robin Vos created the site to provide news on the GOP's majority caucus, which decides what bills get approved with a 20-vote majority over Democrats.

On the site, Vos provides weekly video summaries of key events. Visitors also will find breakdowns of the most important issues, news items, columns and videos from other GOP lawmakers, and more.

Constituents can send comments to the site, and can get electronic updates. Vos says the new site will provide a "great new perspective on the work being done in Madison."

The site's address is

Startled from sleep, man kills girlfriend

A central Wisconsin man has pleaded innocent to reckless homicide, for the killing of his girlfriend after she startled him in bed.

Coleman Dybul, 28, of Adams entered his plea Monday, right after he was ordered to stand trial for an Adams County charge of first-degree reckless homicide. His lawyer also asked for a new judge to replace Charles Pollex.

Toni Voss, 27, also of Adams, was shot to death on March 2nd in their bedroom.

Sheriff's investigator Ryan Greeno testified that the couple was sleeping when Voss got out of bed to get milk for her son, and a glass of water for herself. When she returned, Greeno said Dybul woke up, thought he saw an intruder, grabbed a shotgun by the bed, and shot Voss. When he realized it was her, the officer said Dybul did what he could to help her.

The man later agreed to a blood test, and the deputy said it was positive for drugs. Dybul was also charged with misdemeanor charges of possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia - and he has pleaded guilty to both.

Scott Walker reportedly toiling on book

MADISON -- Scott Walker will become the first Wisconsin governor in 17 years to write a book. The National Review says the idea's been floating among Walker's closest associates for a year.

His co-author will be former George W. Bush speech-writer Marc Thiessen, who has written about Walker for the Washington Post. Walker's office has not confirmed the report.

He's been taking steps to raise his national profile, amid talk that he might run for president in 2016.

Walker would be the first Wisconsin governor to write a book since 1996, when Tommy Thompson wrote "Power to the People."

Rooftop thefts allegedly yield scrap metal for Milwaukee pair

MILWAUKEE -- Two Milwaukee men are due back in court April 15th, for allegedly stealing and damaging business rooftop equipment to get the scrap metal.

Gary Vanpelt, 39, and Kirk Johnson, 48, are facing a total of 14 felony counts for theft and criminal damage.

Police allege the two were in charge of a larger operation in which 150 Milwaukee businesses had rooftop metal items damaged or stolen. The losses totaled $750,000. Vanpelt and Johnson have pleaded innocent, and trial dates could be set at their next court appearances.

The two are accused of taking metals from a dozen businesses. Police said they only got about $100 worth of scrap metal from each incident.

Ronald Oleson had his food store damaged twice and the stolen copper from rooftop condensers caused him to spend $30,000 to replace the equipment, plus claim a $10,000 loss for damaged food.

Milwaukee Police captain Chad Wagner says the thefts create a "rotten effect" on neighborhoods. Businesses suffer not only because of the losses, but also because of higher insurance premiums and a bad reputation to surrounding properties.

Police Captain Terrence Gordon told the Journal-Sentinel newspaper that "Violent crime makes headlines. Property crime is a neighborhood-killer."

'Babe' the pig actor fined for PETA protest at Regents meeting

MADISON -- Actor James Cromwell was fined $263 Monday -- fallout from actions he and another man took to disrupt a UW Board of Regents meeting in February to protest for animal right.

Cromwell, 73, was nominated for an Oscar for the 1995 film "Babe" and he's also been in "L-A Confidential" and "The Green Mile."

Cromwell and Jeremy Beckham, 27, had their attorneys plead no contest in Dane County Circuit Court to disorderly conduct charges.

Both men held up signs at the UW Regents' meeting, while complaining about the treatment of cats in campus research.

Cromwell told a reporter that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recruited him to do the protest.

PETA says the UW starves about 30 cats a year for brain research that doesn't pan out. The UW has said that PETA's claims are false.

Bride accused of snatching rings from reception site

LA CROSSE -- Here comes the bride - to the police station.

An Onalaska woman is accused of stealing 76 rings from the place where her wedding reception was held on Saturday night.

Officers alleged that Connie Sykes, 58, was caught on a surveillance video taking a small case from River Jack's Restaurant and Lounge - and a bra insert was found close to where the case was taken. It was part of a display from an area jeweler.

Police are recommending a theft charge. They said Sykes denied taking the case when officers contacted her on Sunday night even after her husband found it while going through their wedding gifts.

The rings have a total value of about $1,000.