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Placing predators: Committee trying to find housing option for sex offenders

Nick Smiar knows that most people wouldn’t want to live near someone once deemed a sexually violent person.

“You could put (a house for one of these people) on top of a flag pole in the middle of the desert, and people would still object,” said Smiar, Eau Claire County Board chairman.

Because of a change in the law, counties — instead of the state — now must identify an appropriate residential option within their borders for people committed to a treatment facility under the state’s sexual predator law who have been granted supervised release.

But that option can’t be within 1,500 feet of any school premises, child care facility, public park, place of worship or youth center.

Eau Claire County officials have been given 180 days to find a housing option for a person granted supervised release, and the clock is ticking.

“We are proceeding with caution but at deliberate speed,” Smiar said.

Prompting the search, Eau Claire County Judge Sarah Harless signed an order for supervised release for Jeffrey J. Bonnin on Oct. 8, according to court records.

“When there is a court order for supervised release of (a sexually violent person) in Eau Claire County, (a temporary) committee must complete a report identifying an appropriate residential placement option and submit the report to the circuit court which ordered the release,” said Richard Eaton, Eau Claire County assistant corporation counsel in a fact sheet prepared for the county’s Committee on Administration.

“Failure to submit a report identifying an appropriate placement option can result in daily financial penalties for (the county’s Department of Human Services), reportedly up to $1,000 per day,” Eaton wrote.

The temporary committee has met since October and has attempted to locate appropriate residential housing options, Rod Eslinger, county planning and development director, said, but none of those worked out, so the committee had to consider other options, including placing these people in housing on county land.

“Other counties are experiencing the same difficulty in locating these individuals after they’ve completed their programs,” Eslinger said.

On Thursday, the county’s Highway Committee — after listening to information shared by Eslinger and Diane Cable, county human services director — unanimously approved a motion allowing use of a portion of county-owned land on U.S. 12 in the town of Fairchild about 1¼ miles northwest of the village of Fairchild.

“This property is the most viable,” said Cable, noting state officials are supportive of using the site.

While that might be the case, Smiar isn’t sure if local residents or members of the County Board are going to be fine with it.

Todd Meyer, chairman of the Fairchild Town Board, plans to attend the temporary committee’s next meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

“This is all very new to us,” said Meyer, who called Cable upon learning about the proposal. “I have a number of questions about how this is going to work.”

He isn’t the first town official with questions about a sex offender’s supervised release. In late 2018 the Dunn County town of Otter Creek asked a judge to be included in court hearings involving the placement of Jamie L. Stephenson, who was committed under the state’s sexual predator law.

In December, Town Chairman Mark Warner filed a statement criticizing the property, where Stephenson was to be placed, and the placement process.

Eau Claire County’s Smiar understands both sides: Counties have to find a place for these people to live, but no one wants to live near someone who was once deemed a sexually violent person.

Earlier this month, members of Eau Claire County’s Committee on Administration expressed an interest in the county retaining ownership of the property on U.S. 12 and any housing for control purposes, Cable said.

The county acquired the property off Oak Lane in 2012, and the Highway Department uses part of it to stockpile road maintenance materials, Highway Commissioner Jon Johnson said. But there is room to put a residence there.

“We have struggled to find a residence that’s not near a park, … a school, a day care center or a church,” Cable, part of the temporary committee, told the Highway Committee.

Before a residence — most likely a manufactured home — could be placed on the property, a soil test — the first step in the process of a septic system installation — would have to be completed, Eslinger said.

If a residence is put on the property, “this is not a long-term residence for the person released,” Cable said.

Wisconsin’s sexual predator law, which took effect on June 2, 1994, created a procedure for the involuntary civil commitment of people found to be sexually violent persons.

In December 2010, Bonnin admitted to being a sexually violent person, and then-Judge Paul Lenz committed him to the state Department of Health Services.

Bonnin, 47, was convicted to second-degree sexual assault of a child for having sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl in 1992, according to newspaper archives.

He also was convicted of attempted second-degree sexual assault by use or threat of force for attempting to assault a female student in a UW-Eau Claire dormitory in 1995.

Anyone committed under the sexual predator law can petition the committing court to modify its order by authorizing supervised release if at least 12 months have elapsed since the initial commitment order was entered or at least 12 months have elapsed since the most recent release petition was denied, according to state statute.

“These individuals are highly supervised,” Cable told the Highway Committee.

For the first year of release, the court, as a condition of supervised release, shall restrict the person to his residence except for outings approved by the Department of Health Services that are under the direct supervision of a Department of Corrections escort, according to state law.

Officials asked how many individuals from Eau Claire County might be coming forward for release, and they were told four, Cable said.

“We don’t know exactly what the timing might be,” she said, noting there is a desire to create a dwelling where at least two people can live.

Couple aims to tell story of Eau Claire music, arts scene with documentary

For many years, Jared and Kelly Choate have been searching for the perfect project to work on together.

Sure, since the couple relocated to California’s Bay Area, they started a band together with friends. When Jared decided to run across America, trekking 3,000 miles from Surf City, N.J. to Santa Monica Pier, Calif., Kelly served as his eyes and helped him route the trip. And together, they wrote “The Now Testament,” an e-book released in 2013 about the adventure.

But when the couple returned home to the Chippewa Valley for Christmas in 2017, a conversation at The Joynt with owner Bill Nolte about what it was like to bring in well-known jazz acts like Dizzy Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan to the small but iconic Eau Claire bar, they stumbled upon the idea they’d been dreaming of — a documentary about Eau Claire’s music and arts scene, and the people behind it all.

Though The Joynt had always been their “watering hole” while studying at UW-Eau Claire — in fact, it’s where they met — they’d never met Nolte and never truly understood the history of music and art in the Wisconsin city.

“We were so inspired after that conversation,” Kelly said Thursday afternoon. “Before, I didn’t really know that there was all of this music happening here. As we learned about so many different musicians and so many stories, we were just like ‘Why doesn’t everybody know this? How did I not know about this?’”

“We spent so many years wondering what we were going to do,” Jared said, smiling at Kelly as he spoke. “And it was like we realized that back home has all the elements of a story worth telling. We want to tie together this community, shine a spotlight, bring other people around here and give us a reason to celebrate us.”

Since that night, the Choates have been returning to Eau Claire any chance they get to continue filming the so far untitled documentary, which they hope to complete by next summer. On a filming excursion this week, the couple spent their days interviewing another batch of Eau Claire movers and shakers — artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs ranging from best-selling author Michael Perry and poet laureate Bruce Taylor to sound engineer Brian Joseph and performance artist CV Peterson.

A passion project

From the outside, it may seem out of the blue for the couple to consider producing a documentary.

The Choates have never produced a documentary before and aren’t professional filmmakers — both work at startup companies in the Oakland area. Jared, an Eau Claire native, earned degrees in psychology and criminal justice from UW-Eau Claire and Kelly, a Spooner native, graduated in music performance.

For a time, Jared considered returning to school for a degree in film but instead decided he’d dip his toes into the medium through experience. He’s worked on several movie sets in California and has served as a producer.

The Choates are funding the project as they go, with their own money and other friends who have joined as producers.

“It’s a true passion project,” Jared said, chuckling. “In the utmost sense of the term.”

Although the Choates haven’t lived in Eau Claire for about a decade, they want the film to be entirely “Eau Claire-oriented.” They scouted for an Eau Claire-based filmmaker, and eventually discovered Nick Houchin, who now serves as director of photography on the project.

“We’re trying to keep it all homegrown,” Jared said, noting they will eventually scout for an Eau Claire-based film editor.

History, ‘artrepreneurship’

The overall premise for the documentary, Jared said, is to track the origin and history of art in Eau Claire while also attempting to find some sort of understanding of why these artists do what they do — why they’re motivated to create, and why in this city of all places.

“We’re trying to figure out what makes (artists) tick and keeps them going, because we have so much respect for that drive,” Jared said. “No one tells them to go carry heavy gear across the state so they can play music for $10 or a free beer after the show, you know?”

The documentary will also delve into how artists and musicians make their craft work as a profession nowadays — “artrepreneurship,” as it’s been coined among local musicians and artists of late.

“There’s not a huge record industry — no one’s booking big contracts anymore,” Jared said. “You have to wear many hats just to get by. It’s not enough to just put words on a page ... So we want to find out how can artists thrive? Not just survive, but thrive.”

But it’s not a “puff piece” — a documentary about artists can’t be, Jared said, as there’s a natural conflict between the artist way of life and society.

“It’s not all lollipops and gummy bears,” Jared said. “We’re trying to get to the grit of the artistic struggle and drive.”

And, it’s not all about the music.

A growing web

As the Choates and Houchin continued working on the project, and got connected to more folks of all trades through what they call a “web of artists” in the community, they realized there was a lot more happening in the Chippewa Valley. They soon noticed burgeoning literary and fine arts scenes and began expanding their scope to include art in all of its forms.

“It’s everything growing,” Kelly said. “It’s every art form, and I think that’s really special.”

Although Kelly and Jared haven’t been around to witness the growth of music and art in the community, they agree they cherish the times they have and enjoy returning to see where it’s led.

And more than that, it’s fitting that their project brings them back to their home; back to their roots.

“I think that everyone who has that itch to create, it kind of all comes back to where you’re from,” Kelly said. “I don’t really know that I’d be interested in making a similar film in San Francisco or Oakland or some place that I don’t consider as my real roots. There’s something about it here, being part of our past, that just feels special and to see what it’s like now is really cool.”