Police: Slaying Suspect Stole from La Crosse Camera Shop

Updated: 10/11/2012 7:37 PM KSTP.com By: Leslie Dyste

A Minnesota man charged with killing a father and son at their La Crosse photography store stole $16,000 in camera equipment, police said Thursday.

Prosecutors have charged 39-year-old Jeffrey Lepsch, of Dakota, Minn., with two counts of first-degree intentional homicide, one count of armed robbery and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

A Minnesota judge set bail Thursday for Lepsch at $10 million cash or bond. Lepsch could have waived extradition to Wisconsin, but asked to appear with an attorney, Assistant Winona County Attorney Kevin O'Laughlin said.

District Judge Nancy Buytendorp appointed a public defender for Lepsch and set his next court appearance for Oct. 18. Lepsch remained in the Winona County Jail on Thursday.

Investigators believe Lepsch walked into the downtown La Crosse shop on Sept. 15 and killed 56-year-old Paul Petras and his 19-year-old son, A.J. Petras.

La Crosse Police Chief Ron Tischer told reporters at a news conference Thursday the elder Petras was found in the shop's bathroom and his son was found in front of an open safe. Another safe in the shop had been shot twice but wasn't opened, Tischer said. The gunman used a .22 caliber pistol, Tischer said.

Surveillance video from surrounding businesses showed a man in a hooded sweatshirt and carrying a backpack enter the shop and walk out with four bags. He climbed into a blue van and drove off.

Police eventually traced the van to Lepsch's home in Dakota, where they found 14 pieces of stolen equipment from the Petras' shop on Wednesday, Tischer said. Lepsch ran an online camera equipment business, the chief said.

Investigators wrote in a criminal complaint that Lepsch told them he had only one piece of equipment linked the Petras' shop and he bought it through Craigslist three months ago. He denied being in the store on the day of the slayings, and said he stopped at Best Buy that afternoon and spent the rest of the afternoon with his family.

Online court records show Lepsch was sentenced to a year in jail in 2004 on a felony theft charge. The La Crosse Tribune reported that Lepsch admitted to stealing about $8,000 worth of merchandise in 2003 when he worked in loss prevention at Ace Hardware's distribution center on French Island.

Online court records didn't show an attorney for Lepsch in the homicide case. His attorney in the theft case, James Kroner, Jr., didn't immediately respond to a phone message Thursday seeking comment.

Jeff Baenen contributed to this report from Minneapolis.

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