Otter Creek residents concerned sex offender house “uninhabitable” and too close to children

Scott Ellis

Scott Ellis

By LeAnn R. Ralph

TOWN OF OTTER CREEK   —  Town of Otter Creek residents who attended a public meeting about Chapter 980 sex offenders being placed in the township said they are concerned the house is “uninhabitable” and too close to neighboring children.

The Dunn County Sheriff’s Department held a public meeting at the Otter Creek Town Hall Monday evening, March 4, about two registered sex offenders committed under the state’s Chapter 980 law as “sexually violent” who have been placed on supervised release in a house on 570th Street.

About 20 people attended the three-hour meeting.

Jamie Lane Stephenson was placed on supervised release in December, and Scott Ellis was scheduled to be placed in the house before Thursday, March 9.

State law now requires Chapter 980 placements to be returned to their “home county.” Stephenson is from Dunn County, but Ellis is from Marathon County.

Wisconsin Act 184, which, among other provisions, requires placement in the Chapter 980 placement’s home county, went into effect March 30, 2018, and Ellis was committed under Chapter 980 on March 29, 2018.

Dunn County Sheriff Kevin Bygd said he had decided on the “highest level of notification” with a public meeting at the town hall and wanted to make sure the public received information and answers to their questions.

Those on hand to answer questions included Sarah Aho, a sex offender registry specialist with the state of Wisconsin; Alicia Boehme, Supervised Release Program Section Chief with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services; and Michael (Mick) Chase, a contract specialist with the supervised release program who is assigned to Stephenson and Ellis.

According to a Dunn County Sheriff’s Department news release, Ellis was convicted in Marathon County on March 9, 2010, of three counts of third degree sexual assault; was convicted on April 7, 1996, of two counts of sex with a child age 16 or older; and was convicted on April 7, 1996, of two counts of disorderly conduct.

Stephenson was convicted on one felony count of second degree sexual assault of a child while one felony count of third degree sexual assault of a child was dismissed in Dunn County in September of 2009. In Pierce County in May of 2009, sentence was withheld, and Stephenson pleaded guilty to a sex offender registry violation.

In Pierce County in August of 2004, two felony counts of second degree sexual assault of a child were dismissed but read into the record for sentencing, and in a separate case, Stephenson pleaded no contest and was found guilty of two misdemeanor counts of fourth degree sexual assault.

At issue is whether the house on 570th Street is fit for habitation, whether Dunn County’s 980 Committee gave adequate notice of the meetings to find a residence where Stephenson and Ellis could be placed on supervised release and whether the location of the residence violates state law in regard to being too close to other nearby residences where minor children are living, said Mark Warner, chair of the Town of Otter Creek.

Registry

All together, Wisconsin has nearly 25,000 registered sex offenders, Aho said.

Nearly 6,200 of the sex offenders are currently incarcerated; about 6,000 of them are on supervision; and about 13,000 are on the sex offender registry but are not on supervision, she said.

In Dunn County, there are currently 94 sex offenders, with 32 of them on active supervision and 62 not on supervision, Aho said.

Supervision, she noted, “puts more restrictive rules in place.”

Registered sex offenders are required to report a variety of information, including their address, the kind of vehicle they drive, what they use as Internet identification and where they are employed, Aho said.

Registered sex offenders are required to verify their information with the sex offender registry on an annual basis, and failure to comply is a Class H felony, she said.

Chapter 980

Wisconsin’s Chapter 980 is an involuntary civil commitment for offenders with a history of sexual offense, and the civil commitment occurs after they have served their time in prison, Chase said.

If the offenders meet certain criteria, following court proceedings, they are admitted for in-patient treatment at the Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, he said.

When they have reached the point in their treatment that they can be released to the community, there are two options: supervised release or direct discharge into the community. Stephenson and Ellis are on supervised release, Chase explained.

When Chapter 980 sex offenders are ready to be released into the community, the county where they are to be released is required to form a committee to find housing. After housing is located, a circuit court judge approves the supervised release plan.

DHS does not propose the housing, and the entire process is court ordered, Chase said.

“This has all come from the court system. This is a court-driven process,” he said.

Reintegration

A community reintegration team from DHS, which includes the supervised release supervisor, a probation/parole officer and a case manager, supervise those who are placed on supervised release, Boehme said.

The sex offenders go for treatment one time per week, and the team meets to discuss their progress, any concerns and to adjust supervision where needed, she said.

Stephenson and Ellis are required by the court system to be in this particular house. They also are required to wear a GPS monitoring bracelet and have 70 rules they must follow, Boehme said.

The rules include no Internet access, no cell phones that can connect to the Internet, no Facebook accounts, and they must have a “monitor,” which is a person who must be within arm’s length, whenever they are outside of the residence, she said.

Monitors accompany them to their treatment, grocery shopping, doctor’s appointments — even when they are outside shoveling snow or mowing the lawn. Without a monitor to accompany them, they are required to be inside the house, Boehme said.

Announced and unannounced visits are made to the home at all hours of the day and night, she said.

The supervised release can be revoked if they are not following the rules. If the supervised release is revoked, the sex offender would return to Sand Ridge and would then have to petition the court again for supervised release, Boehme said.

Currently, there are 52 sex offenders in the program across the state of Wisconsin, and 35 are waiting to be placed because they have been approved for supervised release, she said.

Over the history of the Chapter 980 program, there have been 152 participants, but only three have been convicted of new crimes, Boehme said.

And those who were convicted of additional crimes knew their victims from before they were incarcerated for their initial convictions, Chase said.

Location

The house meets the criteria for serious child sex offenders, Chase said.

State law requires the living quarters to be at least 1,500 feet away from a residence with children, and while a nearby house with three minor children is less than half that distance away, the house “qualifies” because of a 33-foot strip, so the two properties are not actually adjacent, he said.

State law says 1,500 feet without regard to a public or private road, and the 33-foot strip is an access road, Warner noted.

Neighbors of the residence said they were upset they did not receive notification about the Chapter 980 placements being located in the house.

Several people said they had only learned about the meeting at the town hall because of a Facebook posting by the sheriff’s department or because someone had called them.

State law does not require any direct notification of neighbors within a certain distance of a house that has been selected as a location for Chapter 980 placement.

One person said he was disappointed to learn that the state was relying on a loophole of 35 feet, and that if he had bought the house himself, he would not have been able to rent it out until it had “massive renovation.”

“Due diligence” was not done on the house, said Kelley Hayes, who lives across the road from the residence.

Septic 

Several people in the audience said the septic system was not functioning and that the house has mold problems.

Chase said the inside of the house has been painted and that new appliances had been installed.

Chase also said they are working with the person who purchased the house and who has assured DHS the septic would be taken care of and that it was inspected prior to purchase.

The septic system was inspected and failed the inspection, Warner said.

When asked if any copies of inspection reports had been provided to DHS, the DHS representatives said they had been told verbally that it had passed inspection but that they did not have copies of any of the reports.

State law does not require hard copies of inspection reports to be provided to DHS or to the court before a house is approved for a Chapter 980 placement.

Chase and Boehme asked Warner to forward any information to them concerning inspections on the house.

“We had a verbal report by the vendor,” Chase said.

“How is it legal when it’s verbal?” asked one person in the audience.

Warner noted that during the December 3 court hearing in Dunn County before Judge Rod Smeltzer when Stephenson’s supervised release plan was under consideration, he was not allowed to give any information about the house.

“This does not reflect well on the program or on the county … the errors should be corrected,” Warner said.

Chase noted that he and the other people from the state had attended the meeting at the Otter Creek Town Hall to give people the information they needed for community safety and child safety.

“The court is putting our children in danger,” said one person in the audience.

The contract for leasing the house is between the owner of the house and the state, and tenant laws must be followed, Boehme said.

The contract is a 12-month lease, and Stephenson and Ellis would need approval from the court to move out of the house and would then need an updated supervised release plan, Chase said.

As the entity leasing the house, “we want to know the issues,” Boehme said.

The state should be “held to a higher standard,” said one person in the audience.

When taxpayer money is being spent, information should not be by “word of mouth,” said another person.

The purchaser of the house is receiving $2,600 per month in rent, Warner noted.

The rent of $2,600 is cheaper than treatment at Sand Ridge, Chase pointed out.

“Who made the decision when the house is not worth $300 (per month)?” asked one person.

The DHS representatives reiterated that they would like any inspection reports concerning the house on 570th Street to be forwarded to them.

Judge Smeltzer is expected to make a decision on the Town of Otter Creek’s request to intervene in the case at a circuit court hearing April 26 at 11:30 a.m.

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