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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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Tri-Town Meeting Sparks Move To Change Sex Offender Law

The extent of local opposition to tentative plans by the Wisconsin Department of Health (DOH) to place two male child predator sex offenders into "supervised" community living arrangements in either Pound or Beaver was evident on Friday, March 31.

Approximately 200 local officials and concerned citizens turned out for a meeting at the Pound Community Center to discuss ways to stop the proposed placements, and ways to get the law changed so other communities do not face similar problems in the future.

The joint meeting was called by chairmen Dave Bedora of Beaver, Jerry Heroux of Pound and Ryan Wendt of Brazeau. Wendt is also chair of the Coleman School Board and a supervisor on Oconto County Board. Pound and Beaver are in Marinette County and Town of Brazeau is in Oconto County.

If anyone there had sympathy for the state's problems in trying to find homes for the sex offenders, or for the sex offenders themselves, it was well hidden.

As of press time on Wednesday, April 5 it was not known which, if either, of the two proposed residences has been or will will be approved by the DOH.

A third possibility, a currently vacant residence on County M which apparently has no young children living nearby, was investigated by Marinette County Sheriff's Department and found to meet legal standards, but apparently is no longer being considered by DOH. No reason was given.

Near the end of the long and intense meeting Coleman/Pound Municipal Judge Clifford Patz offered two rays of hope when he cited state laws that make sellers and realtors financially responsible if they sell property for uses they know will devalue neighboring properties. He suggested a suit brought under those considerations could result in significant financial damage awards to neighbors who suffered loss of enjoyment of their homes and of ability to sell them for a reasonable price.

Judge Patz also suggested the towns could hire an attorney to pursue legal remedies because these homes are not being purchased by the unnamed "vendors" as residences in the traditional sense, but as properties to be rented to the state for the business of housing sex offenders under supervised release programs. This argument could put the vendors in a position of violating local zoning ordinances that have nothing specifically to do with the sex offender laws and therefore might be exempt from a state law adopted last year that negates local ordinances regulating settlement of sex offenders.

A suggestion that an expendable island be found where they could all live together was met with loud applause, as was a suggestion that Camp McCoy, no longer used fully for military purposes, should be used as a secure housing facility.

Information gathered prior to the meeting by Sheriff Jerry Sauve showed that in the past the state had come under fire for paying huge rents for sex offender housing, and had considered establishing a consolidated housing facility, but had discarded that idea. Several speakers at the meeting expressed support for taking another look at that plan.

Every speaker during more than two hours of comments objected to one or both of the two proposed locations in Marinette County, or in general to the idea of placing them in any rural community for supervised release.

The meeting concluded with a consensus that everyone needs to work together to keep rural communities safe. There will be a concerted attempt to get the law changed, and to convince Marinette County Judge James Morrison that neither of the properties currently under consideration is suitable under the intent of the law.

The municipalities and affected property owners may decide to hire an attorney to explore the legal remedies suggested by Judge Patz.

After the meeting Bedora declared all 18 towns, four villages and three cities in Marinette County, as well as the County Board should get on board to put these hard core sex offenders somewhere else. They also should all write to Judge Morrison to have their names added to the petition against accepting the proposed release, "and, if we can find a suitable attorney, it would be a good idea for all the towns to contribute."

One of the properties being considered is in a quiet farmland neighborhood on Seventh Road in the Town of Pound, and the other is at the site of the former Golden West Tavern at the junction of Hwy. 64 and County S, in the Town of Beaver, directly across the road from the G3 Up Nort Mobil gas station/convenience store that includes an ice cream shop where neighborhood kids regularly go for treats, and from residential properties in the Town of Brazeau.

The owner of the Up Nort station said they have a gas station, restaurant, postoffice and ice cream shop where children often gather, and often come on bicycle, to visit or to do errands for their parents "and now they want to put these people across the street!".

Mursau suggested wording should at least be added to the law prohibiting placement near any pace that children gather.

In each case, town officials learned of the proposed placements only after sheriff's deputies came to check the possible residences at the request of DOH to be sure they met their legal requirements. There is no legal requirement for notifying local officials.

Heroux called the meeting to order and introduced participants, including his Town of Pound Board and other town representatives. In addition to town officials, meeting participants included State Rep. Jeff Mursau of Crivitz, Sheriff Sauve and Judge Patz. Sauve said Oconto County Sheriff Mike Jansen was unable to attend, "but we will work together."

Senators Tom Tiffany and Dave Hansen and Rep. John Nygren also had been invited but were unable to attend.

Heroux said representatives of the State DOH had been invited, but declined. Heroux said he had invited Cram and assured him that "although we are very angered up here, we are very civil people," and no harm would come to him. He said Cram told him he saw no reason to be there, since he is following the law.

"Before we leave, we need to address what needs to be changed in the law," Wendt declared. He urged everyone to get on board, and work together. "It may not be your problem today, but it will be in the future if the law is not changed," he warned. At both of the residences being considered, young children live closer than 1,500 feet, but the properties are not adjacent. Noting the law's requirements for at least 1,500 feet from schools and churches, whether the properties are adjacent or not, Wendt asked, "Shouldn't the child's home, the place where he should feel safest, be just as protected?"

Before the meeting adjourned, there was general agreement on changes that will be sought in the law, and a pledge from Mursau to help make them happen.

"I'll be calling you every day," Wendt assured him.

The changes agreed upon, as proposed by Wendt, are:

1) The law would clarify that any child's home within 1,500 feet of the placement home would disqualify the residence, whether adjacent or not;

2) DOH would be required to notify local municipalities before a decision is made on a location;

3) DOH would host a public hearing to notify the community on details of serious sex offenders moving into the residence;

4) DOH would provide evidence that progress has occurred in the individuals' mental treatment process, and

5) mandatory sentencing will be increased for individuals who have committed crimes against children.

What may be a glitch in the current law allows the sex offender residence to be less than 1,500 feet from the residence of a child provided the properties do not share a property line.

Heroux said in doing research for the Town of Pound meeting two weeks earlier he had learned that Act 156, which passed the legislature in 2016, gave the DOH "almost unlimited authority to place these people without local input." He said DOH Supervised Release Program Manager Jason Cram heads the program. Cram told him a judge has already authorized him to place both the men - Jeffrey Butler, 63, and Jerome Litscher, 74, in either Marinette or Oconto County. It will be up to the local judges, Morrison in Marinette County and Judge in Oconto County, to decide if placement in the home Cram selects meets legal requirements.

Under current practice, once a home has been selected, and placement has been approved by a judge, it will be purchased by an unnamed vendor who contracts with the state and will be paid up to $2,500 rent per month, far above the going rental rate for similar properties in either location.

The men will be wearing ankle bracelets, and according to DOH, will be forbidden to leave the home unaccompanied, at least for the first year. Those at the meeting were told the men will occasionally need to be transported to Mendota for mental evaluations, and to other places for shopping, medical appointments, etc.

Consensus at the meeting was that if located in rural areas there will be a longer response time should an offender violate or remove his bracelet, and expenses paid by taxpayers could be reduced if the placements were near the mental hospital, or at least near a city where they could get the other services they need.

Each of the two sex offenders being considered for placement in rural Marinette County spent 10 years at Sandridge Treatment Center in Mauston, a part of the state mental hospital, after serving prison terms for sex crimes against children. In each case, there had been multiple charges brought, but convictions on only one charge, apparently due to plea bargaining.

The designation "violent child sex offender" is used in Wisconsin to define persons who have been convicted of felony sex offenses against children and who, due to mental problems, are considered likely to re-offend. Each of the men being considered for placement in Marinette County meets that definition, and neither has family roots in the county. However, the DOH goal appears to to be placement of the offenders in the county where their most recent sex offense occurred. One of the men came from Dickinson County in Michigan, but was convicted of a crime in Marinette County. The other man was convicted in Outagamie County, and charged in Oconto County, but for unspecified reasons is being recommended for placement in Marinette County.

Sheriff Sauve had collected an impressive packet of information regarding placement of dangerous sex offenders under supervised release, and shared it with the media and town officials.

Sauve referred to some of the information he had collected as "alarming "if you follow the money trail, you find out just how lucrative it is!" He said the vendors make huge profits, and several of the few the state contracts with have numerous properties that they rent to the state at huge profits.

As to who supervises the released offenders, Sauve said the ankle bracelet is monitored from somewhere else, and his department is notified if they violate by leaving the residence or somehow removing the device, and then an officer will respond.

Sauve said he was not happy with the idea of having violent sex offenders living anywhere in Marinette County, but said the law requires him to check out the properties at the DOH request, and report to whether or not they meet the legal requirements set by the state. "Since I am sworn to uphold the law, certainly I must obey it," Sauve told the group. "We have the unenviable task of being the first face of government that you see when you get the bad news.

There apparently is no provision in state law requiring notification of local officials or residents other the county judge who ultimately will be making the decision, and asking the sheriff's department check the legalities.

The judge must rule on the placement, but apparently must make that decision on the basis of legal requirements, perhaps without the option of weighing what is best for the community.

Town officials and neighbors of the two proposed sites in Marinette County only found out about the possibility of sex offender residences being established in the Beaver and Pound sites only when sheriff's deputies from the appropriate county (Marinette or Oconto) knocked on their doors to ask about juvenile residents while they were checking the property being considered in regard to meeting legal distance restrictions.

More bad news is that once placements in a residence are approved, it remains a home for sex offenders indefinitely, with newly released offenders being placed in the vendor-provided houses if previous ones move out.

State law requires that the placement must not be on a property that is adjacent to a home that is the primary residence of a child unless the residences are more than 1,500 feet apart, or in a home that is less than 1,500 feet from a church, school, park, or other place where children regularly gather. In the case of the Pound residence, the homes are less than 700 feet apart, and another child lives across the street, but in neither case are the properties adjacent. What appears to be a glitch in the state law that passed the Wisconsin legislature last year allows placements under those conditions, and it appears DOH is willing to take advantage of that glitch. Petitions signed by hundreds of local residents ask the state and the judges to stop that from happening.

At court proceedings at 2 p.m. Monday, May 1 in Marinette County Circuit Court, Judge Morrison will rule on placement for Butler. Hearing placement for Litscher will be handled by Judge Judge in Oconto County Circuit Court on a date still to be determined. A status conference is scheduled at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 27 in Oconto Circuit Court.

Those opposed to the proposed establishment of sex offender residences in the proposed locations are urged to write letters to the judges and to State Attorney General Brad Schimel seeking a ruling on the 1,500 feet glitch.

Heroux noted the goal is, for the short term, to stop the two proposed placements here, and for the long term, to get laws changed so this sort of thing never happens again, either here or anywhere in Wisconsin.

Heroux said Nygren and Hansen have indicated they are sending letters to Schmiel.

Mursau asked for the wording of the changes Wendt proposed, and said he is sure all four legislators will work together to make the changes a reality. He said he personally prefers a solution that would put all released violent sex offenders in a single location once the mental hospital declares they should be released. There have been 160 offenders placed in supervised residential settings since the law was passed.

Mursau gave a brief history of why the offending law was passed last year, and why he had voted for it.

He explained all the large municipalities were passing zoning ordinances limiting places where known sex offenders could live, and said they could by ordinance pretty much make their entire city off limits for placement of sex offenders. That meant every offender being released under supervision would be placed in a rural community.

He said if they had put the 1,500 feet from any residence of a child it would have pretty much ruled out in every major city, which again would have meant they would all be out in rural areas, the area he represents. Mursau said he did not want that to happen, so he voted for the law.

However, instead of spread out community placements, he personally would prefer to see them all in a single large facility with easy access to stores and services, and pledged to try to get a law passed to make that happen. He expressed hope that other communities that have been impacted would work with the Marinette County legislators to get some changes made. However, he warned it can take a while to get a law through the process, and also warned they must be very careful how the new law or laws are worded to make sure what they do doesn't hurt more than it helps.

He pointed out in Minnesota when placement became too difficult a court ordered the offenders simply released without placement or supervision, and warned, "if they could just leave, it would be devastating!"

There were several comments that at the price of $2,500 per month each, they could build a small community just for sex offenders, and keep them there.

Asked about response time if a bracelet violation occurred, Sauve said that would depend on where officers are at the time. Response could be a matter of minutes, or it could be more than half an hour if the closest officer was in Goodman, for example,

There were questions as to how many offenses have been committed by people released under the program. Mursau did not have the information, but said he would get it on Monday.

"These are the worst of the worst," declared Mrs. Wendt, wife of Ryan Wendt. She said there are only 63 people of this calibre in the entire state.

"I don't want my children living in fear. I don't want to tell them they cannot talk to a neighbor. I don't want to forbid my children from going outside alone. This is completely terrifying to me as a mother!" another woman declared.

One objector declared the state is protecting the rights of convicted felons who have lost their constitutional rights, at the expense of hundreds of people who deserve to be protected, and declared, "Keep these men where they belong, under constant supervision!"

As to saving costs, Mrs. Wendt had done some research. She found that the men being proposed for Marinette County will have to be transported back to the hospital once a week for treatment, and they still will have rooms there, but the DHR believes it will be cheaper for them to live in the community than to remain full time at the mental facility, even at the $2,500 cost per month.

Heroux suggested trying to get the state to delay judicial rulings until they get some changes in Act 156. Mursau felt the judges might do that, particularly if the ambiguities are pointed out.

There were comments also that although children might not live in some of the neighboring home, they will not be prevented from visiting relatives, including grandparents, who do live nearby.

"If we put our children at risk for this, what does that say about us as a nation?" asked a lady, who said they moved to the rural Beaver area because it was rural and pristine and safe, and so far it has been, but if this goes through, it will not be.

From the audience a man objected that he had heard no one use the word "pedophile," and wished they would use it more to point up the dangerous people they were talking about.

He said in terms of danger they will re-offend, the sex offenders are ranked from zero to 1,000, with 1,000 being the most likely. Hee said Butler is one of those rated at 980, nearly as high as you can get, yet they are considering his release.

"Government's first duty is to protect our freedom and safety,' he declared, and asked why they seem more determined to protect the violators than the general public. "These are the people that need protecting," he declared, pointing to children in the audience.

Wendt congratulated Mursau on having the courage to be there, and to admit he had voted for the law they are now trying to change.

Mursau urged everyone to attend the court hearings, write to the judges and Schmiel, and to keep protesting. "The squeaky wheel gets the grease," he reminded.

Patz said judges are not permitted to discuss their cases in advance, but they do read letters. He urged people to keep writing.

"I give you my word, I will start Monday morning to find a way to stop this and to change the law," Mursau repeated. He again suggested as a total alternate to changing the placement rules, perhaps a vacant state facility could be put to use to house these offenders.

There were doubts they could get the law changed in the 27 days left before the hearing before Judge Morrison, but many thought perhaps a delay would help. Mursau said a new law can take three or four years to get through the system, but he has seen cases where it was changed in three weeks.

He said even if these men are placed before a new law takes effect, the changes can be made retroactive and they would be moved.

He said also the governor does have the right to call a special session of the legislature if necessary to get a law passed, but first the law needs to be written. Meanwhile, Mursau repeated previous advice, "It doesn't hurt to write to everybody we can write to."

Mursau suggested letters to the realtors involved might jolt their consciences, or remind them what the sale will cost.

Judge Patz then came forward with his suggestions for fighting the placements, and mentioned at least one community where a Press Gazette article reporting that a placement had been stopped when a court order upheld the municipality's sex offender ordinance. "This tells me that something can be done," he declared.

"They challenged it and made it stick in Green Bay, and I don't know why the same thing wouldn't work for us," he declared.

He also felt the gray area terms of the intent of the law's 1,500 foot restriction and the letter of the law that gave an out because the properties are not adjacent might be enough to get the necessary judicial delay. He said judges are told at training seminars that if there is a gray area they need to go back and study what the intent was when the law was passed.

Patz offered to help find someone to put all the legal defenses together, "if you're willing to go that route."

His comments were met with loud applause, and from people who said they would be willing to contribute for a legal battle.

As the meeting drew to a close, Wendt again thanked Mursau for attending. "It took a lot of courage to face this, and I do appreciate your coming here tonight and answering questions for us," Wendt declared. "This is a state problem. We're working together"Let's fix this problem so nobody else has to go through this."

Sauve again asked people to contact the judges and everyone they can think of in Madison.

"Let's keep this going and don't stop until we get it fixed,' Wendt urged.

Since the meeting, several town boards have indicated support for changes in the law may be on their agendas, and Bedora has asked that the subject be placed on the agenda for the Marinette County Towns Association meeting tentatively scheduled for Thursday, April 20. Former County Board Chair Claryce Maedke had suggested during the meeting that they should get Wisconsin Towns Association to join the battle, since the sex offender placements in rural areas affects not just the immediate Marinette/Oconto County towns, but every town in the state.


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Peshtigo Times
841 Maple St
PO Box 187
Peshtigo, WI 54157
Phone: 715-582-4541
Email:
News@
PeshtigoTimes.com

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Fax: 715-582-4662
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