From big developments to tragic accidents, 2017 was an eventful year for Juneau County. The Star-Times editorial staff picked the biggest stories for 2017. The stories are chosen by what had the greatest local impact and what generated the biggest following online.
10. Mile Bluff tax
Juneau County Circuit Court Judge Paul Curran ruled on Jan. 24 three local municipalities will not have to pay back a large amount of tax money to Mile Bluff Medical Center.
Curran made his decision during a motion hearing at the Juneau County Justice Center in Mauston. Mile Bluff filed a lawsuit early last year claiming the three family medical centers in New Lisbon, the village of Necedah and Elroy – owned and operated by Mile Bluff – are hospitals and should be exempt from paying property taxes.
The medical center sued New Lisbon for $47,525.33, the village of Necedah for $19,200.51, and Elroy for $14,717.25, which is the amount Mile Bluff claimed it overpaid in taxes to each municipality.
Curran cited case law in several other similar cases in Wisconsin before making his decision. The three medical centers serve as satellite branches of the larger hospital in Mauston, but Curran said they do not provide 24-hour emergency care like the Mauston facility.
“There is no evidence that if one of these medical centers closed, the hospital could not go on,” Curran said. “These facilities have not substantially changed since being purchased by the hospital. There isn’t evidence that there’s service provided there that couldn’t be provided at the hospital.”
While all three municipalities were pleased with Friday’s outcome, officials said the medical centers are valuable assets to the communities.
9. Concert at Woodside
With the first Los Dells Festival in the books, Woodside owner Damon Zumwalt is already making plans to bring additional concerts to his sprawling complex east of Mauston.
Zumwalt said Los Dells went “fabulously” when reached by phone Sept. 11 from his office in Los Angeles. He said about 30,000-35,000 fans attended the festival Sept. 2-3, an average of 17,000 per day. The concert event featured several popular Latin music acts, highlighted by Mana and Daddy Yankee.
“It was incredible,” Zumwalt said. “The people who came were families and they were wonderful. I even heard from some of the businesses in town and people came in and used their services and were nice. It was a real family-oriented event. Most of the local people may not have understood the words, but they could see these were great musicians and great bands.”
Overall, the event was run smoothly with no major security incidents. Zumwalt’s large security firm, CSC, ran Los Dells security with help from local law enforcement. He said the efficiency was a testament to the work of everyone who pitched in. The show’s production was also very high, giving the event a large-concert feel.
Zumwalt definitely plans to bring Los Dells back next summer. He said he would like to improve the event’s marketing and ticketing efforts to reach a wider Latino population. Zumwalt said Los Dells was promoted heavily in the Twin Cities, Chicago, Milwaukee and other Midwest hubs.
8. Judge Roemer retires
After Juneau County Judge John P. Roemer retired Governor Scott Walker announced he was seeking applicants for appointment to the Juneau County Circuit Court.
Ultimately, Walker did not appoint any of the recommended individuals, and chose instead to let the seat be filled by election in April 2018.
The decision led to months without a full slate of judges. Juneau County went from two judges to one.
“We have about three regular reserve judges, plus a couple more alternates,” said Mauston attorney Daniel Berkos, who works in the Juneau County Circuit Court. “We’re working with one judge; it can be delaying.”
In May, Walker spokesman Tom Evenson described the process of appointing a judge as taking between eight and 12 weeks with the caveat that the governor also has the right to leave the seat open until the next election.
“Of the three candidates, there was one who was a staunch conservative, another was an in-between and then a female who was probably middle of the road too, so politics didn’t play into it,” Berkos said. “I feel bad for all the court personnel; criminal cases account for about 70 percent of the court. We go for days without a judge.”
As retired judges take their leave of the Midwest, both Juneau and Columbia counties will draw from the same diminished pool of reserve judges.
Although reserve judges can relieve some of the burden from the full-time judge, there are other issues that cannot be temporarily patched, ranging from the personally taxing to the constitutionally problematic.
“From the standpoint of an ‘evil defense attorney,’ you could clog up the court real quick if we start filing speedy trials,” Berkos said.
Although rarely requested, and with even fewer of those requests carried through, every defendant has a right to demand a speedy trial in which a trial is necessary within 60 days of the defendant’s initial appearance, or 90 days for defendants with felony charges.
Whether fast-tracked or otherwise, a full-time judge is required to see a criminal case through.
“It’s like if your plumbing backs up,” Berkos said, “and we all know what happens next.”
There was no response from Walker’s office after multiple contacts in September.
7. County building construction breaks ground
In a unanimous vote, the county board of supervisors passed a resolution to move forward with phase two of the construction of the new county building.
The building is being built in downtown Mauston, adjacent to the current government facilities. The building will house the county’s department of human services, health department and aging and disability resource center in one location.
The staff and clients are currently spread throughout seperate buildings, the courthouse annex and the Hickory building.
The 42,000 square foot facility will be three floors and cost about $10 million. County Finance Director Lori Chipman said the debt would be paid off by 2030.
Devine Inc. is being contracted to oversee the project.
“We presently do not have any control over who is in our building and there is no barrier to eliminate possible access for anyone to several office spaces and our clinic rooms,” Juneau County Health Officer Barb Theis said. “A new building would better control who enters our office and clinic space. All guests would be escorted in and out of the department, thus providing a more secure space for both staff and our clients.”
6. Two people dead in house fire in Elroy
Two Plymouth residents lost their lives in a fire that completely destroyed their home on Apr. 30. The house was located on W8856 off Highway 82, east of Elroy.
A family member of the two residents attempted to get them from the house but was unsuccessful. The family member sustained several burns and was taken to a local medical facility.
The Elroy Fire Department and Elroy Ambulance service were first to respond. Aid was requested from the Mauston, New Lisbon, Union Center, Wonewoc, La Valle, Hillsboro and Kendall fire departments. A Mauston police officer assisted with traffic on scene.
Fire personnel remained at the site of the fire through the night and were present into the afternoon May 1.
5. State patrol officer killed in car accident
State Trooper Anthony Borostowski tragically lost his life in an accident while on duty on Apr. 11. Borostowski was 34 years old.
It was reported he was “killed instantly” when he apparently lost control of his patrol vehicle. The vehicle ran off the interstate and crashed into a tree.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker ordered statewide flags flown at half staff “as a mark of respect” for Borostowski’s service as a state trooper since 2014.
It was determined that Borostowski’s car was traveling at a high speed when it crashed. It has been speculated he may have been pursuing a vehicle when he lost control of the car, but a semi-truck driver who witnessed the accident reported the patrol car’s emergency lights “were not activated at the time of the crash.”
The car was not equipped with a video camera.
Borostowski also served since 2004 in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. He had been living in Tomah at the time of the accident.
“He was a true public servant, he didn’t just serve the people of Wisconsin with our agency,” Wisconsin State Patrol Lt. Col. Steven Krueger said. “I can tell you one thing, this young man made a difference.”
4. Mauston teacher gets jail time for teacher relations with student
A Mauston social studies teacher was sentenced to nine months in jail for sex with a former student of his. Stewart Thompson, 25, was convicted of exposing genitals to a child, sex with a child 16 years or older and disorderly conduct. Charges of sex assualt by school staff and child enticement were dismissed as part of a plea deal.
Thompson lost his teaching license and was made to give a DNA sample.
The Juneau County Sheriff’s Office was notified of an inappropriate relationship between Thompson and a student. On Jan. 26, two detectives followed Thompson and the victim.
The two were observed to have dinner together. Detectives pulled Thompson over and said they were conducting an investigation, and then took custody of both people and their cell phones.
In an interview with the victim, she said she met Thompson when she was a junior in high school and he was her history teacher. The two began messaging over text and Snapchat during the course of the second semester of her junior year. The messages included pictures of the victim in a bra and panties, and at least one occurrence of Thompson sending a picture of his genitals.
The victim said she did not have sex with Thompson until after her 17th birthday, but had spent time together at his apartment, including kissing, while she was 16. Thompson gave her a Victoria’s Secret gift card for her 17th birthday, and their sexual relationship started shortly after.
The victim said she had sex with Thompson at least 10 times.
The two met at Thompson’s apartment until the fall of 2016, when Mauston High School received an anonymous letter about the relationship. After that point, the two would meet at Thompson’s parents’ cabin in Warrens.
The victim said they would meet about one or two times a week. She said Thompson handed in his resignation Jan. 25 so it would be easier for the two of them to be together. She said the dinner date was their first official date, because Thompson was no longer a teacher.
3. Elroy Police Chief’s son shot
The son of Elroy Police Chief Tony Green accidentally shot himself with a firearm on Dec. 4.
According to a press release by Juneau County Sheriff Brent Oleson, deputies responded to reports of an accidental gunshot wound in the town of Plymouth at 6 p.m. The boy was transported to Mile Bluff Medical Center by Elroy Ambulance.
It is not clear whether the firearm involved in the incident was Green’s service firearm or a personal gun.
The case is currently being investigated by the Wisconsin Department of Justice Division of Criminal Investigation.
The child is reported to be “recovering well.”
2. Sonny Reynolds’ body found
Months after his disappearance, the whereabouts of 19 year old Sonny Reynolds were discovered by two hunters off of County Road N on Nov. 18.
Sonny’s body was found about four miles where he was last seen. Juneau County Sheriff Brent Oleson said the cause of death was determined to be suicide. “Unfortunately, the evidence at the scene shows that he more than likely took his own life,” Oleson said.
Oleson said the seasonal absence of foliage on the trees had helped make Reynolds’ body more easily discoverable. In the Spring, the area would have been much more concealed by leaves on the trees.
1. Mauston Apartment Fire
Tragedy struck on Jun. 5 after an apartment fire claimed the life of a seven year old boy. His name was Carter Whitaker. “Thoughts are with the family of the deceased and with those who have been displaced by the fire,” Mauston Police Chief Mike Zilisch said.
The Juneau County Sheriff’s Office and Wisconsin State Patrol assisted the Mauston Fire Department in evacuating the complex. New Lisbon, Lyndon Station, Oakdale, and Necedah fire departments all responded to assist with the call.
The 514 McEvoy Street building was damaged beyond repair and forced the evacuation of 16 apartment units. The American Red Cross assisted the displaced residents of the complex.