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Hotel fire displaces 30 at Wausau; Walker grabs brief spotlight on 'Meet the Press'; more state news

WAUSAU -- Up to 30 long-term residents lost their homes in a weekend fire at the Wausau Days Inn, located north of the fairgrounds on the city's northwest side.

Officials said Sunday that the blaze started in a plumbing-and-electrical space between two rooms at the Days Inn on Wausau's west side.

Investigators are still trying to find out why. The fire began just after 8 p.m., Saturday. Within an hour, it spread through the back portion of the 120-room facility.

Hotel guests were sent to the nearby Plaza Hotel, where the Red Cross helped them find other places to stay.

Several hotel guests were treated for smoke inhalation. One person was taken to a hospital with minor injuries. Firefighters remained on the scene Sunday to guard against flare-ups. Officials said most of the damage was limited to the back portion of the hotel, thanks to concrete "fire stop" barriers designed to help prevent fires from spreading within a building. The rest of the structure had mainly smoke and water damage.

See video from the scene here ...

Walker says Washington needs a governor to mend fences

WASHINGTON D.C. -- Gov. Scott Walker gave kudos to his fellow Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan on national TV Sunday.

Walker went on NBC's "Meet the Press" and stood by the House budget chairman from Janesville, for helping craft a federal budget compromise that many conservatives have blasted. Ryan also appeared on the same show, and basically repeated that you don't get everything you want in a divided government and he wanted to find a way to make it work.

Walker and Ryan are both speculated to be GOP White House candidates in 2016.

Walker has said that the party needs a governor to clean up the mess in Washington. He said Sunday that Ryan, "is one of those rare people in Washington who's acting more like a governor than just a member of Congress."

Walker said the GOP has 30 governorships who are pushing for reforms, and not just austerity measures. Hard-line conservatives said too many of the $85 billion in spending cuts in the new budget are scheduled over a decade, and many won't become a reality if a future Congress drops them. Ryan's compromise was endorsed by all four of Wisconsin's other Republican House members, along with two of three Democrats.

Senate Democratic budget chair Patty Murray said the deal assures there were will be no more federal government shutdowns over the next two years.

Bitter cold giving way to freezing rain in southern Wisconsin

SULLIVAN -- It's still bitterly cold throughout Wisconsin -- but some places are 10 degrees warmer than they were at 3 a.m, Monday.

Land O'Lakes in Vilas County jumped from 24-below to minus-15 by 7 a.m.

The National Weather Service said a low pressure system brought cloud cover to much of the Badger State -- and it warmed things up just a little. Prairie du Chien was the state's warm spot at 7 a.m., with nine degrees.

Forecasters say two bands of low pressure will move through Wisconsin by the end of Monday -- and it'll produce quick bursts of light snow. No significant accumulations are expected. Once it all clears, drier and warmer weather will be in the offing at least through Wednesday.

Highs are expected to rise to around the normal readings for this date, in the mid-20's. It could be warm enough for southern Wisconsin to have freezing rain by Thursday.

Meanwhile, the cold weather has been a boon for ice-fishing lovers but authorities still urge caution.

At Stoddard in southwest Wisconsin, a car fell through the ice Sunday morning as the driver headed onto the Mississippi River to go ice fishing. Authorities said the driver escaped injury by leaving the rear of the auto. Firefighters later learned that the ice was only two-inches thick -- not nearly enough to support a vehicle.

Authorities urge ice fishers to test the surface before going out.

Lawmakers will hear more about recent hunting season

MADISON -- State lawmakers will take a closer look at the recent deer hunt on Wednesday -- plus the deer czar's recommendations and the effort against chronic wasting disease.

Wisconsin lawmakers will take a closer look at this year's deer hunt on Wednesday. The Assembly Natural Resources Committee will hear from DNR officials about the recent nine-day gun season, in which the harvest was down 7 percent.

The panel will also be updated on the efforts to implement the recommendations from "deer czar" James Kroll, which were streamlined by four DNR action teams earlier this year.

Lawmakers will also get an update on the state's effort to fight chronic wasting disease in the deer herd.

United Sportsmen still haven't proven tax-free status

MILWAUKEE -- The sportsmen's group that lost a $500,000 state grant this summer has still not corrected its federal tax forms, as the group had promised three months ago.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted the United Sportsmen's attorneys as saying they're still working on the proper filings -- and everything will be submitted when the review is complete. A timetable has not been set.

Republican lawmakers were accused by Democrats of greasing the skids for the United Sportsmen to receive a half-million-dollar grant to encourage young people and others to go hunting and fishing.

The new state budget had banned some other groups from applying, and a state panel awarded the grant to the United Sportsmen in August.

Then came questions about the group's tax status. There were conflicting reports about whether the group was legally a non-profit, and Gov. Scott Walker ended up withdrawing the grant.

The group hired attorneys three months ago to sort everything out.

Vets, students get Honor Flight care packages

Thousands of Wisconsin veterans and school students are getting holiday care packages from the Honor Flight program.

They're also getting videos of the documentary "Honor Flight -- One Last Mission." It's the story of four older veterans who took a one-day flight to Washington to see their war memorials before they died. That's the same trip which many of Wisconsin's older veterans have taken, thanks to donations from local residents.

The care packages are provided by the California group "Operation Gratitude," which gets its own donations. Jim Campbell of the Central Wisconsin Honor Flight program says he and other volunteers are handing out the videos and care packages to schools in 49 area districts -- plus over 2,200 veterans.

They include those who've been on Honor Flights, plus veterans in nursing homes throughout central Wisconsin. That includes almost 850 residents of the State Veterans' Home in Waupaca County. Campbell said many of the schools are familiar with the Honor Flight program, as many have helped raise money to help local veterans make the trip to Washington.

Operation Gratitude distributed its one-millionth free care package on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7th.

-- Larry Lee, WSAU, Wausau

Man jailed after break-in at ex-sheriff's home

BEAVER DAM -- A man accused of breaking into the home of former sheriff Todd Nehls is jailed under a $300,000 bond.

Circuit Judge Steven Bauer ordered the high bond for 45-year-old Scott Schonitzer of Beaver Dam, even though it's his first criminal case. He was charged Friday with felony counts of armed burglary and theft, plus misdemeanor theft.

The charges are all connected with last week's break-in at Nehls' home in Fox Lake, but District Attorney Kurt Klomberg told the judge that other break-ins may be tied to Schonitzer.

There's been a rash of daytime burglaries at homes in the area. One occurred at a rental unit owned by former sheriff Nehls on the same day his home was entered.

A review and motions' hearing is set for Wednesday. A preliminary hearing is scheduled Thursday, where a judge will decide if there's enough evidence to order a trial.

Authorities said Schonitzer was caught in the act by Nehls' son, a Dodge County deputy. Online court records show no previous criminal charges against Schonitzer. Several financial judgments were listed, including four state tax warrants for up to 29,000 in unpaid taxes. They were paid in full.

The former sheriff, meanwhile, said he used to wonder why people got so worked up when property was stolen from them. Now, Nehls says he understands the feeling of being violated -- and it might take a long time for his family to recover emotionally.

-- Craig Warmbold, WBEV-WXRO, Beaver Dam

Illegal ginseng-digging was subject of many citations Over 100 diggers were ticketed this fall for illegally harvesting ginseng in Wisconsin since 2007.

The DNR's Courtney Ripp started a year-long investigation, after she noticed quirks in the harvesting records that the diggers submit to her agency. The state issues about 1,000 licenses each year for people to dig ginseng in the wild in September and October.

Digging is separate from the farming of ginseng -- which, in Wisconsin, is centered mainly in Marathon County. The crop has been popular for years in Asia, where people use its apparent medicinal qualities to cure some serious conditions like memory loss and erectile dysfunction.

Ripp said she noticed diggers selling large amounts of ginseng in short periods of time -- a sign that they might have been selling for other people. Also, diggers sold large amounts of ginseng the same day they bought licenses -- which means they could have harvested the plants before being allowed to do so.

Last year, Ripp started analyzing records which raised questions about 400 diggers. The DNR sent out teams to question the diggers in September.

It resulted in 109 citations against 65 diggers, plus 185 verbal warnings. Most violations were for trespassing, leaving stems in the woods, harvesting out-of-season, and digging on public lands which is illegal.

Teen driver twice hits squad before he's collared

TREMPEALEAU -- A 19-year-old western Wisconsin man is facing possible charges, for a high-speed chase in which he allegedly struck the pursuing officer's squad car twice.

It happened late Saturday night in Trempealeau. Police said they tried stopping the driver for traffic violations, and he drove off.

A pursuit ensued, reaching speeds up to 100 miles an hour. Three passengers in the vehicle jumped out during the incident.

The driver ended up stopping voluntarily. No injuries were reported. The 19-year-old was arrested and taken to jail.

The incident remains under investigation.

Biting incident results in arrest

MADISON -- A driver in Madison was not about to be a chauffeur for an intruder who jumped into the person's vehicle -- and the driver got bit in the arm for refusing to go along.

Police said a 23-year-old man entered the driver's car on a street around 11 p.m., Saturday. He did not brandish a weapon, or make any threats. He just told the driver to go where he wanted.

Police said the driver and a friend tried pushing him out of the car -- and the intruder responded by biting the driver, causing a bruise to an arm.

Police said the man was apparently under the influence of something, because he was "speaking gibberish" when he was arrested.

Officials said he may have also tried to getting into other vehicles on Madison streets late Saturday night.

Former 'Billy Jack' star dead at 82

Tom Laughlin, who developed- and starred as the character Billy Jack in a series of vigilante films, died over the weekend.

Former Wisconsinite Tom Laughlin -- who played the title role in four "Billy Jack" movies -- has died at age 82.

His family said Sunday that Laughlin passed away on Thursday from complications of pneumonia at his home in Thousand Oaks, Calf.

He played football at Milwaukee Washington High School and went to college at UW Madison and Marquette. Laughlin only had $101 in his pocket when he learned acting at Marquette and decided to go off to Hollywood with his wife Delores Taylor.

He played in a number of supporting roles before he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in the Billy Jack series. His wife also starred in the Billy Jack films, which featured a former Green Beret hero with martial arts skills.

The first film, "The Born Losers" was made in 1967 -- and he took on a motorcycle which raped and terrorized people in a small California town.

The last film, "Billy Jack Goes to Washington," had him taking on corruption in the U.S. Senate.

Laughlin, who was also a real-life activist, ran for president three times in 1992, 2004, and '08.

Funeral arrangements for Tom Laughlin have not been announced. The family asks that gifts be made to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, or the Friends of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

Steve Dzubay

Steve Dzubay has been publisher at the River Falls Journal and Hudson Star Observer from 1995-2016. He holds a bachelors degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. He previously worked as a reporter-photographer at small daily newspapers in Minnesota and is past editor of the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal.