Police: Money drove La Crosse area man to kill his parents

2010-07-31T00:00:00Z Police: Money drove La Crosse area man to kill his parentsBy ANNE JUNGEN ajungen@lacrossetribune.com Winona Daily News

Eric Koula picked up a plant as a gift for his wife May 21 only minutes after fatally shooting his parents in their town of Barre home, authorities said.

He'd celebrate their 16th wedding anniversary that evening by dining out, then having champagne with friends.

The next morning, the financially struggling West Salem day trader deposited a forged $50,000 check from his father's investment account, according to the complaint filed Friday in La Crosse County Circuit Court.

Koula, 40, was charged Friday with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the deaths of Dennis and Merna Koula, 68 and 65. He also is charged with forgery.

"We are satisfied to have made an arrest in this case, but there is no cause for celebration," La Crosse County Sheriff Steve Helgeson said. "Dennis and Merna Koula had their lives taken from them by their own son."

Eric Koula has denied the killings, the complaint states.

Circuit Judge Todd Bjerke jailed Eric Koula on a $1 million cash bond and ordered a competency exam after attorney James Koby questioned whether his client understands the court proceedings. A status conference will be Aug. 10.

Eric Koula reported discovering his parents' bodies inside N3071 Fox Hollow Drive at 8:49 a.m. May 24, after his mother had failed to show for a substitute teaching assignment at West Salem Middle School.

He later told a sergeant at the home the events had disrupted his online day trading business, which was doing "very well," the complaint states.

Investigators found Dennis Koula's body in the kitchen, car keys still in his hand, and Merna Koula slumped in a chair at their office computer, her head on the desk, according to the complaint.

Merna Koula's last recorded keyboard stroke was 5:41 p.m. Dennis Koula was killed only minutes later, authorities said, as he returned from his Black River Falls pharmacy shift.

Both had been shot in the head with a .22 caliber rifle, she to the back of the head.

Dennis Koula had a .22 caliber rifle and box of ammunition, with several rounds missing, in an upstairs closet where Eric Koula said he'd hung a lightweight jacket while helping his mother fold laundry in the days before the shooting, investigators said. Eric Koula also admitted owning a .22 caliber rifle and ammunition.

Authorities found open dresser drawers in the home, but nothing valuable had been taken. Dennis Koula still had a wallet and money clip in his pocket; Merna Koula's purse remained on a dining room table, according to the complaint.

Eric Koula told investigators he spent the morning of May 21 trading, calling his father about noon to discuss the stock market. He helped a friend with tile work at a Loomis Street home on La Crosse's North Side that afternoon until about 5:30 p.m., he said, when he stopped at the Bridgeview Plaza Shopko to buy his wife a hanging plant.

But he didn't like the selection, he said, so drove to Shopko on Hwy. 16 in Onalaska. He had a receipt showing a 6:15 p.m. purchase, according to the complaint.

Surveillance video from the North Side Shopko parking lot did not show Eric Koula or his vehicle, the complaint stated.

Investigators determined it would take 14 minutes to drive from Loomis Street to Dennis and Merna Koula's home and about 10 minutes from there to Onalaska Shopko.

Eric Koula's wife said he called about 5:30 p.m., saying he needed to buy an anniversary gift, and arrived home an hour later with the plant. He showered before they left about 7 p.m. for Wason's Supper Club in Galesville.

The couple finished the night with close friend Joe Breier and his wife at their home. Eric Koula acted normal, Breier said Friday.

Eric Koula said he mowed his lawn that Saturday, left a message thanking his parents for their anniversary gift and later called again to invite them to a cookout he hosted with the Breiers. Sunday, he golfed in Black River Falls with Breier and helped a friend work on a boathouse.

"Was there anything different about him that weekend? There really wasn't ... That's what I can't figure this out," Breier said. "If you're really guilty, how could someone so behave normally?"

A financial expert determined Eric Koula owed thousands in credit card bills and mortgage payments, according to the complaint. An investment company told him during a 12:08 p.m. May 21 phone call he had only $12.39 in his account.

His bank account had only $729 before he deposited the forged $50,000 check, dated May 21, the complaint stated.

Eric Koula told investigators Thursday he didn't think it was important to mention the $50,000 check.

The 2008 tax records seized from Eric Koula's home show a $600,000 loss, La Crosse County District Attorney Tim Gruenke said in court Friday.

Eric Koula also had already spent $100,000 his father gave him in October.

Eric Koula reported finding a letter in his mail when he returned from cleaning his parent's home a week after the killings, saying only "fixed u."

"He stated it was difficult receiving what he had received in the mail," the complaint stated.

He started a fire that same day in his backyard, while it was 84 degrees outside.

The letter's envelope had a unique defect identical to two envelopes found during Thursday's search of his home, according to the complaint.

The two-month investigation consumed thousands of hours, with assistance from the state Department of Justice and the State Crime Laboratory, Helgeson said.

"Their resources, their expertise is incredible. We're not used to homicide investigations and the complex matters that a homicide investigation deals with," the sheriff said. "Whatever we needed, they provided us."

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