Around 7 a.m., 21-year-old Cullen Fortney "walked into Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center sodden and caked with mud, wearing no coat and no shoes." He told hospital staff that he had fallen in to the river "but didn’t know where or how it happened."
Fortney, a student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, had been visiting friends in downtown La Crosse. He and his buddies took a cab that evening from a home in the 400 block of South 20th Street to the downtown bars where he spent the evening drinking beer and mixed drinks. (There is some speculation this may have been John's Bar where Jared Dion also disappeared.)
According to police reports, Fortney said he left the downtown bars about 1:45 a.m. when he became separated from his friends Jay Larson and Jay Hoffland. He remembers very little after that until he found himself in the river, fighting a strong current that was rapidly carrying him downstream. After an estimated 15 minutes, he was able to grab onto a tall concrete structure and pull himself out. Later, he awoke on a rocky bank near Gundersen Lutheran, with the sound of traffic over his left shoulder. He told police he had likely passed out. He still had his wallet, but he had lost his hat, coat, shoes, cell phone and $20 in cash. The man’s blood-alcohol concentration was 0.043 about 9 a.m. Sunday, which means it would have been 0.163 about 1:30 a.m.
According to Roger Putnam, Fortney’s uncle and family spokesman, a full toxicology report revealed no suspicious substances in Fortney’s system. This supports La Crosse police’s earlier conclusion that foul play was not involved, Putnam said.“(The family) continues to believe the La Crosse Police Department did an outstanding job on the investigation,” he said.
On January 13, investigators concluded that Fortney had fallen into the river, thought to be about 32 degrees that night, but did not go under water. After Fortney narrowed down where he might have gone in, police found some of his personal items near the river’s edge.
An Odd Twist
La Crosse police Capt. Rob Abraham said the investigation has been suspended, though it is not considered closed. The case of a truck reported stolen that same night by a companion of Fortney’s has been cleared, police said. Nick Thompson, 25, also of Viroqua, turned up the same morning as Fortney at the same hospital, passed out in the lobby, police said. He told police he didn’t know how he got there, and his pickup truck, which he had parked in the Wettstein’s lot, was missing. The vehicle was found in the 900 block of King Street. Video footage from the Wettstein’s lot showed a man with keys entering the truck about 3 a.m. and driving away, Abraham said. While the footage isn’t sharp, the man is thought to be Thompson, Abraham said. Police do not believe the truck was stolen, Abraham said, and the investigation has ended.
Name/age: Cullen Fortney, 21, LaCrosse, WI
Hometown: Viroqua, Wis.,
College: University of Wisconsin-Madison student
Last Seen: 1/8/06 1:45 a.m.
Recovered alive: 1/8/06 7:00 a.m.
River temperature: 32 degrees