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Dane County zoo director to get sexual assault charges dismissed in 2 years under agreement

Dane County zoo director to get sexual assault charges dismissed in 2 years under agreement


The director of Dane County’s Vilas Zoo, who has been on leave due to allegations that she sexually assaulted a co-worker during a 2018 work trip, struck an agreement with the city of Seattle in municipal court Wednesday in which her criminal charges can be dismissed in two years if she completes alcohol treatment and follows other rules.

Ronda Schwetz plans to return to work as the zoo’s executive director Monday, said Greg Brockmeyer, director of the county’s Department of Administration.

The alleged victim, who the Wisconsin State Journal is not identifying, called the agreement “utterly thoughtless.” He said the prosecutor in the case told him the deal was offered because “it is just so important that Ronda gets the help that she needs.”

“Everything I have suffered is for nothing because the city of Seattle believes that the defendant is the victim,” the man told the Seattle Municipal Court.

He said he paid $694 to fly from Wisconsin to Seattle to appear in court in person to ask that the judge “hold this defendant accountable.”

Judge Adam Eisenberg apologized to the man, and told him that he appreciates the pain that the man expressed in court. The prosecutor said the agreement was “heavily negotiated.”

“I’m sorry that the resolution isn’t more satisfactory to you,” Eisenberg said.

Schwetz’s case will remain open through October 2023 as she receives treatment, so she did not have to enter a plea or admit any guilt as part of the agreement.

Schwetz, who was named zoo director in 2012, is accused of drunkenly groping and making other sexual advances against the man, a former UW-Madison assistant professor and animal researcher. The alleged assault happened while the two were sharing a hotel room during a zoo conference in Seattle, according to a Seattle police report and a civil suit filed June 21 in King County, Washington.

The man told police he agreed to share the room because of budget constraints, and that he thought it would be fine because he was in a committed relationship and Schwetz was married.

Brockmeyer said Wednesday the county “has always acknowledged the serious nature of these allegations, but has also recognized that they remain allegations. Moreover, Ms. Schwetz has adamantly denied those allegations, and the resolution reached during today’s hearing does not suggest otherwise.”

The civil suit, which is ongoing, alleges that Schwetz and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) discriminated and retaliated against the man because he reported the alleged sexual assault.

The AZA has said that the man’s claims against it “have no merit.”

In the suit, the man accuses Schwetz, the AZA and its board of saying disparaging things about him to his new employer, Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. Shortly after the comments were allegedly made, the man was fired and removed from AZA committee work.

‘Wake up screaming’

The man said he waited to come forward with the allegations because Schwetz “controlled every facet of my life,” including his employment and his visa. He said Schwetz make it clear to him that if he ever told anyone about the alleged assault “she could take away my job, my income, my hope, my relationships.”

Since he spent time living in isolation in the jungle doing research when he was young, the man said he was “naive” and easily manipulated and “groomed” by Schwetz. He said he shared with Schwetz that he was raped when he was 19, but was too afraid to tell anyone, and she used that against him.

“I wake up screaming all the time,” the man said as he broke down in tears. “I see this defendant and my rapist in the night.”

Once he came forward with the allegations, the man said, Schwetz started rumors about him and destroyed his professional reputation.

“The defendant has made it her mission in life to dismantle and destroy every facet of mine,” he said.

Welcome to return

Brockmeyer said Schwetz’s leadership at Dane County’s zoo will ensure its ongoing success.

“I welcome Ms. Schwetz back and am confident that she and her staff will continue to provide an enriching and enjoyable zoo experience,” Brockmeyer said.

Under the agreement with the city of Seattle, Schwetz has to go through chemical dependency treatment, have no contact with the alleged victim, not possess a firearm, undergo court monitoring and show up to any future court dates.

Any violations of those conditions could land Schwetz back in court. But if she follows them for the next two years, the prosecution has agreed to dismiss her case on Oct. 13, 2023. She’ll receive treatment in Dane County.

Conflict at Vilas Zoo over money, operations

A long-running partnership between Dane County and the Henry Vilas Zoological Society is ending over disputes over the nonprofit organization’s cash reserves and friction with the zoo director. 

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The County Boardvoted 27-8 to approve a three-year contract with Centerplate to run concessions and rides after several board members brought up questions relating to the shift from a nonprofit to a for-profit company operating concessions without a bidding process, as well as transparency and board oversight of contract negotiations.

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The county is working to hire nine new positions, sign a contract with a concessions operator and refine requirements for a fundraising partner.

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Executive Joe Parisi said financial questions and accreditation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums led to the decision, but society board members say misunderstandings caused a breakdown that will be the end of the zoo's 105-year-old nonprofit.

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A Dane County committee on Tuesday night endorsed resolutions to hire more staff and to operate concessions at the Henry Vilas Zoo.

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The consultant, Mike Gill, will advise the county as it takes over fundraising duties and additional operations from The Henry Vilas Zoological Society.

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The trust fund would be co-managed by the county and Henry Vilas Zoological Society. The society's fundraising money would go to the fund after its contract with the county expires March 31. 

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The county is recommending Centerplate, which does work at the Alliant Energy Center, take over operation of the zoo's concessions and rides.

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"Concessions will operate. The Carousel will turn," Parisi said.

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Employees of the Henry Vilas Zoological Society filed allegations of harassment against the county's zoo leadership staff.

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  • 5 min to read

The Henry Vilas Zoological Society currently operates all of the zoo's concessions, the carousel and the train ride while managing fundraisers for the zoo, but all that will end March 31.

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