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Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes says he'll resign in August


Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes plans to resign in August as fire protection agreements between the cities of Janesville and Milton remain unresolved.

In a letter of resignation from Rhodes to Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag that The Gazette obtained Monday, Rhodes told Freitag he plans to resign Aug. 18—a decision Rhodes said “saddens” him after being at the helm of Janesville’s fire department for about 2½ years.

Rhodes' letter doesn’t give any specific reasons for his resignation, and it wasn’t clear on Monday if he’s taken a new job elsewhere.

“I have been extremely pleased to have served with Chief Rhodes,” Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag said in a press release. “Chief Rhodes was absolutely the right person in the right place at the right time."

Rhodes’ became Janesville’s fire chief in February 2019. He also heads up the Milton fire department.

Rhodes’ notice comes as the city of Janesville, the city and town Milton and a handful of other towns in Rock County are hashing out fire protection agreements with the Janesville Fire Department. Those talks have been fraught as the towns wrestle with a shortage of paid volunteer firefighters and medics and a mounting volume of calls for ambulance services in the municipalities and towns.

Under Rhodes, the cities of Milton and Janesville struck a “functional merger” which was viewed to further galvanize a shared operating agreement between the two fire departments that’s been active since 2017.

In the letter to Freitag, Rhodes indicated that Freitag had been aware Rhodes was contemplating resigning. Rhodes wrote that he and his spouse decided it would “be best for me to resign.”

Rhodes called it a “tough decision” to resign, saying he’d enjoyed working at the fire department and that he’d “made good changes” there.

“There is still much to do, and it saddens me to leave,” Rhodes wrote. “This was never in my plan.”

The resignation letter doesn’t say anything about Rhodes’ future plans.

In an email thread obtained by The Gazette, Freitag on Monday announced Rhodes’s departure, saying the fire chief’s resignation was not a surprise to city administration.

In the press release, Freitag said Rhodes showed leadership on a city task force during the city's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freitag is recommending Janesville Deputy Fire Chief Jim Ponkauskas be named as interim fire chief. Ponkauskas was a finalist for the position when Rhodes was hired in 2019.

Rhodes’ resignation comes amid uncertainty over Milton and Janesville’s fire agreement, with a possible dissolution of the partnership on the table.

Up to now, the two departments have discussed the viability of maintaining their partnership. However, town of Milton officials have indicated they're looking to at the the possibility of splitting with Milton and pairing up with another fire department, namely Edgerton’s.

On June 18, the city of Janesville sent the city of Milton and the town of Milton a letter saying the shared operating agreement between the three would dissolve by the end of this year.

City of Milton officials have urged the fire departments to keep talking, but Janesville’s decision would press Milton and put a referendum before voters asking for approval of a new, potentially more costly, fire protection contract.

Meanwhile, in late June, the Janesville Fire Department told the towns of Harmony and Janesville that the city of Janesville plans over a three-year period to end what officials call a taxpayer subsidy of fire protection services that Janesville provides to the towns. The subsidy has been in place since 2012.

Last month, Freitag said he believed it’s now time for the towns to shoulder their burden of the cost of fire protection.

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Tallman House tree, believed alive since Lincoln's visit, lost some limbs


One of Janesville’s biggest, oldest, and arguably most historic oak trees is losing limbs, and the Rock County Historical Society is trying to figure out why—and how to save the tree.

Officials said that during an otherwise windless and quiet night on Saturday, the giant bur oak tree on the northwest side of the historical society’s Lincoln-Tallman Restorations grounds shed an enormous set of limbs. They snapped off and fell to the ground.

The oak tree, known locally as the "Witness Tree," has stood at the Tallman House property since at least the 1850s. The tree is believed to have been living when former President Abraham Lincoln visited the Tallman House in October 1859.

The oak, which is nearly 100 feet tall and has a trunk big enough that two men can’t reach all the way around its girth, is likely the oldest tree on the Tallman campus. In its long life, the tree has witnessed the coming of Lincoln—but also countless weddings, high school portrait shoots, ice cream socials and, more recently, the annual Tallman Arts Festival. All this and more have played out in the shade beneath the stately tree’s massive spread of limbs.

The grounds below the tree are now slightly less shady after the big branch broke off Saturday.

One local arborist driving past the Tallman House on Sunday saw that the tree had a huge limb down, said Tim Maahs, executive director of the Rock County Historical Society.

njohnson / By Neil Johnson njohnson@gazettextra.com 

Tree service wokers on Monday hauled a huge set of limbs that broke loose over the weekend from the “Witness Tree,” a huge, burr oak tree believed to have been standing at the Tallman House property in Janesville since at least the time when Abraham Lincoln visited the historic house in 1859. The Rock County Historical Society, which manages the Tallman Restorations as a local history museum, believe the tree has a disorder that’s causing it to drop otherwise healthy limbs.

The historical society and two private arborists looked at the tree Monday and said the limb loss is likely due to a common tree malady called “sudden branch drop syndrome”—a disorder in which healthy, living tree limbs suddenly break off and fall from otherwise healthy trees. It often happens at night and for no clear reason.

The disorder is considered common in large oak trees, although arborists aren’t sure exactly why it happens. Some believe branch drop syndrome can be tied to trees being infected over time by bacteria or fungus.

Maahs said the same tree had shed a couple of large, healthy limbs about three decades ago. Another bur oak nearby has become stunted and has lost limbs similarly over the years.

Maahs said arborists viewing old wounds on the trunk suspect the tree may have been afflicted with branch drop disorder for years.

The oak is believed to have earned its moniker, the Witness Tree, because Lincoln supposedly sat under it and had a picnic sometime in early October 1859 when he visited the Tallman House.

Maahs said it's understood that the tree and other bur oaks at the Tallman property did exist at the time of Lincoln’s visit to the Tallman House 162 years ago. But he said the historical society has no documented evidence that Lincoln actually sat under the big tree to dine during his visit to Janesville.

“They didn't appear to have had a meal out here. That's probably one of those stories that just kind of developed over time," he said. "We were never able to confirm that it actually occurred.”

Maahs said that arborists now are working to properly seal the tree’s new wound and to protect its old scars from fungus, bacteria and insects which can cause blight that can threaten such adult oak trees.

He said arborists are considering drilling holes in the big oak that will allow its trunk to drain water from existing cavities left from old wounds. The arborists also plan to re-connect a set of lightning rods that have been anchored to the tree for years to protect it from lightning strikes, Maahs said.

njohnson / By Neil Johnson njohnson@gazettextra.com 

A sign stands next to a circa-1850s burr oak at the Lincoln-Tallman Restorations in Janesville. The sign honors the tree as being a ‘Witness Tree’ that stood at the time of former President Abraham Lincoln’s October 1859 visit to Janesville. The Rock County Historical Society is trying to figure out how to keep the historic tree healthy and alive after it began shedding limbs over the weekend.

Maahs said the historical society considered chipping up the huge, fallen branch, which had bows measuring two or three feet thick. But he said that the group has decided instead to send the limbs off to a local wood drying kiln.

Later, Maahs said, the historical society will commission works of art from the tree’s wood that might be sold to those seeking a unique piece of Lincoln lore.

On Monday, only a few stray leaves from the tree filtered down to the ground, but Maahs pointed out that the big oak has several branches that overhang the Stone House, a mainstay on the north side of the Tallman property.

The building is an old, stone shotgun house that was built as an annex to an original, log home built on St. Lawrence Avenue. Two women commissioned moving the house to the Tallman property in 1965. The Stone House has sat at the site, its front porch overlooking Mineral Point Avenue, ever since.

Maahs said the historical society planned this fall to fund a $100,000 project to rotate the home 180 degrees so its porch faces the Tallman House. The plan is to rehab the old house as space for weddings and other events.

It would behoove the historical society, Maahs indicated, to try to maintain a tree that looms over the old Stone House and sat on the same part of the Tallman property for decades before that. It’s a tree that’s associated with the whole Tallman property. But moreover, it's known for the spring, summer and fall events that invariably have drawn crowds who nestle in the shade of the massive, well-known oak.

“I still have older people ask, ‘Are you still going to do the ice cream social under the big oak tree?’” Maahs said. “It’s been years since we did the ice cream social.”

Masses of eggs of gypsy moths, invasive insects that defoliate trees, have been spotted in Lustig Park in Janesville.

Collazo's retrial opens Monday


The second trial of a man charged with brutally stabbing a 43-year-old Janesville woman to death got underway Monday with the anticipated weeklong trial set to play out in Rock County Court after a mistrial was declared in 2019.

Julian D. Collazo, 24, is charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the stabbing death of Christine H. Scaccia-Lubeck, who was found dead in her Janesville home Dec. 9, 2017.

Rock County District Attorney David O’Leary with Assistant District Attorney Jerry Urbik are once again attempting to prove Collazo’s guilt and plan to call witnesses including Scaccia-Lubeck’s mother and multiple Janesville Police Department officers and detectives.

A key difference to this week’s trial compared to the previous one is that a woman who was convicted in a related case, Nicole R. Kazar, 27, will testify. Kazar was sentenced in May 2019 for her role in driving a car that belonged to Scaccia-Lubeck as she and Collazo tried to flee the area.

O’Leary said he anticipates Kazar will testify today, July 20.

Collazo and Kazar were arrested together in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, after the homicide. Authorities learned shortly after the murder that the pair were involved in a romantic relationship and that Scaccia-Lubeck was also involved with Collazo.

Authorities have said they did not previously suspect Kazar to be involved in the stabbing, but defense attorney Jeffrey Jensen told jurors Monday he plans to show that it was in fact Kazar who stabbed Scaccia-Lubeck and that Collazo took responsibility to protect his love interest at the time.

Monday’s testimony centered on building a picture of the crime scene for the jury with Diane Somers, Scaccia-Lubeck’s mother who lived next door, described finding her daughter’s body.

“I walked in the dining room and I noticed spots of blood in the dining room and on the floor,” Somers said. “I saw her feet in the doorway of the front bedroom and I called her name. I reached out and touched her. She was cold, and then I called 911. I don’t remember much after that.”

In her testimony, Somers said Scaccia-Lubeck had given kitchen knife sets to family members as gifts, with the prosecution linking a missing green kitchen knife to the case.

Janesville police Sgt. Steven Carpenter was tasked with mapping out the crime scene and describing the home in the 400 block of River Street. Janesville police officer Jeremy Wiley told jurors about Scaccia-Lubeck’s vehicle being missing and about the areas authorities found blood spatter in the home.

The longest testimony given Monday came from recently retired Janesville Det. Ed Van Fossen, who explained various aspects of the case to jurors, from how the department handled its initial evidence gathering to showing the jury various evidence exhibits tied to the case, including shoes allegedly worn by Collazo and clothes collected from Collazo and Kazar when they were arrested.

Key pieces of evidence for the prosecution appear to be a pair of white Air Jordan sneakers worn by Collazo that are allegedly the same shoes that left imprints in the blood stains at the scene of the murder—and a pair of blood-stained pants allegedly worn by Collazo.

Monday’s testimony ended with Janesville Det. Chris Buescher going through phone records containing calls made by Scaccia-Lubeck prior to her death and the messages sent between Collazo and Kazar after the stabbing.

Defendant Julian D. Collazo, 24, left, is seated with defense attorney Jeffrey Jensen on Monday morning in Rock County Court. Collazo is on trial a second time for the murder of a 43-year-old Janesville woman in December 2017.

Christine Scaccia-Lubeck

Nicole Kazar