On anniversary of Waukesha Christmas Parade attack, community will remember victims

'We have thousands upon thousands of heroes who have been helping the community heal,' said Mayor Shawn Reilly

A sign on a glass door says "Waukesha Strong" with a heart.
A sign is displayed outside of a business in downtown Waukesha on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Angela Major/WPR

One year after a man killed six people and injured dozens by driving his SUV through the route of the Waukesha Christmas parade, the community will hold a remembrance ceremony Monday for those who died.

The observance comes only days after the driver was sentenced to six consecutive life terms and hundreds of years of additional prison time for his crimes.

Residents will gather at 4:39 p.m. Monday at the city’s Cutler Park to mark the anniversary. That was the time when the first call was made to police reporting the incident.

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In the wake of the attack, the community raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the victims, and messages proclaiming “Waukesha Strong” were repeated at a community vigil for the victims, displayed in storefronts and in a new downtown mural. In a show of solidarity, community members lit blue light bulbs outside their homes, something Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly has encouraged residents to do again on Monday.

“That was a symbol of unity in the community,” Reilly said at a press conference Thursday. “But there are actually thousands of things that were done by individuals. … We have thousands upon thousands of heroes who have been helping the community heal.”

The city has also begun fundraising for permanent memorials to be placed on Main Street, near the site of the attack, and in the city’s Grede Park.

Darrell Brooks Jr. of Milwaukee was arrested and charged shortly after the parade. There was no serious doubt about the outcome of his trial. He was convicted in October of six counts of first-degree homicide and around 70 other charges relating to those injured in the attack. Brooks, who was found mentally competent to stand trial, represented himself in court and spent the four-week trial making outbursts and frequently being removed from the courtroom. His own monologues in court were rambling and frequently self-pitying.

A woman is surrounded by other victims families and law enforcement as she speaks at a podium.
Amber Kohnke, the mother of one of the victims, speaks during a press conference Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, at the Waukesha County Courthouse in Waukesha, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

In court last week, some victims or family members of victims said seeing Brooks convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment helped them feel a sense of closure about last year’s events.

“I have found my peace,” said Amber Kohnke, whose daughter Jessalyn Torres has undergone 18 surgeries since she suffered broken bones and lacerated organs when Brooks hit her with his vehicle. “This man may have been able to turn my life upside-down and almost take my daughter from me, take time away from my other children, create such heartache, pain and mental turmoil — but the one thing he was not successful at was taking my strength.”

Gov. Tony Evers ordered flags be flown at half-staff on Monday in recognition of the anniversary.

“As we remember this tragic event,” Evers said in a statement, “we also reflect on the first responders, community leaders, and neighbors who ran toward danger to help; every person who responded in the days and months that followed with kindness, empathy and compassion; and the extraordinary faith, strength and resilience the Waukesha community has shown over the last year.”

In a joint statement, Reilly and Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow said the anniversary is another step in the community’s journey toward healing and peace.

The community will hold its annual Christmas parade on Dec. 4, with enhanced security and new safety measures.

Those killed on Nov. 21, 2021, were:

  • Virginia Sorenson, 79 years old
  • LeAnna Owen, 71 years old
  • Tamara Durand, 52 years old
  • Jane Kulich, 52 years old
  • Wilhelm Hospel, 81 years old
  • Jackson Sparks, 8 years old