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Judge orders trial in triple homicide (UPDATE)

Roy Korte, of the Wisconsin Department of Justice, seats Jaren Kuester at the defendant's table in Lafayette County Court in Darlington on Friday. (AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, M.P. King)

Associated Press

DARLINGTON, Wis. (AP) — A judge ordered a Milwaukee man accused of killing three members of a southwestern Wisconsin family to stand trial Monday after an investigator testified the man confessed to the slayings.

Jaren Kuester, 31, is charged with three counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the killings last month of 70-year-old Gary Thoreson, his 66-year-old wife, Chloe Thoreson, and his 76-year-old brother, Dean Thoreson, at the couple’s farmhouse near Wiota in Lafayette County. He also faces one count of burglary and one count of car theft.

Sheriff’s Det. Sgt. Joe Thompson was the only witness at Monday’s preliminary hearing, which was held to decide whether there’s enough evidence to warrant a trial. Thompson told District Attorney Katherine Findley that Kuester confessed to the killings the day after he was arrested.

“This evidence is sufficient to meet the burden of probable cause a felony was committed and was committed by Mr. Kuester,” Lafayette County Circuit Judge William Johnston said.

Johnston set Kuester’s arraignment date for June 3. At that point, he’ll enter a plea, but his attorney, public defender Guy Taylor, has said he’s considering entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.

Kuester, his hands cuffed and ankles shackled, sat at the defense table in an orange jail jumpsuit and bulletproof vest Monday. He kept his head bowed and curled even tighter into himself as the proceeding went on until he was almost doubled over in his chair. Taylor left the courthouse without speaking with reporters.

According to a criminal complaint, Kuester drove from his father’s Waukesha apartment to the Green County countryside on April 26. He abandoned his SUV, took off his clothes and ran through the woods into neighboring Lafayette County. He came upon the Thoresons’ farmhouse, broke a window and went inside, the complaint said.

Dean Thoreson arrived at the home on April 27 to prepare it for Gary and Chloe Thoreson’s return from a vacation later that evening. Kuester attacked him with a fireplace poker.

When Gary and Chloe Thoreson arrived Kuester beat them with the poker and stabbed Chloe Thoreson, the complaint said. He then drove Dean Thoreson’s F-150 back to his father’s apartment in Waukesha. Police tracked the vehicle there and arrested him on April 28.

Thompson testified that he saw Kuester in Waukesha that day and noticed his hands were bloody, his forehead was scratched and he had a lump on the side of his head. Kuester didn’t want to talk then, Thompson said, but he changed his mind the next day and confessed to the slayings during an interview.

“Jaren told me he had killed three people,” Thompson said.

Thompson’s testimony largely mirrored details laid out in the criminal complaint. The detective said Kuester told him he decided to abandon his SUV and run through the woods with no clothes on because he was convinced someone was following him. He swam across two rivers before he came upon the Thoresons’ barn.

He hid in the barn, but grew cold. Seeing no movement in the home, he broke a window and entered through it.

Thompson said Kuester told him that he beat all three victims with the poker and stabbed Chloe Thoreson with a knife. Kuester then gathered up items from the house and drove the F-150 back to his father’s apartment.

Thompson said Kuester was confused about dates and times but that autopsies performed on the three victims corroborate Kuester’s story.

Taylor maneuvered Thompson into acknowledging he wasn’t aware that investigators had recovered a knife or other sharp object, although Thompson said evidence was still being processed at the state crime lab.

Taylor didn’t call any witnesses and declined to make any closing remarks on his client’s behalf before Johnston ruled. Preliminary hearings are typically formalities; the burden of proof for prosecutors to show a defendant probably committed a crime is low at that point in the legal process.

Kuester’s parents have said they repeatedly asked authorities to have him committed, and warned them days before the killings that he was delusional and possibly dangerous, and needed help.

On April 26, the day he took off through the woods, Jaren Kuester was bailed out of jail for allegedly threatening Waukesha County animal shelter workers after they told him they couldn’t return a dead dog he had dropped off weeks earlier, but now wanted back alive.

Peter Schuler, the head of Waukesha County’s mental health system, has said he stands by an April 25 assessment by one of his most experienced crisis managers, Robert Walker, that Kuester didn’t meet the criteria under state law that would have allowed the county to hold him.

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