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In 25 years, 10 men from Eau Claire County have been committed under the state's sexual predator law

More than eight years after an Eau Claire man admitted to being a sexually violent person under the state’s sexual predator law, he is about to be released — under supervision — back into Eau Claire County.

On Wednesday, Eau Claire County Judge Sarah Harless signed an order granting Jeffrey J. Bonnin supervised release from the state’s Sexually Violent Persons Program.

Since the state’s sexual predator law — which allows persons deemed sexually violent persons to be committed to a secure treatment center indefinitely after completing their criminal sentences — took effect 25 years ago, Bonnin is one of 10 sex offenders who have been committed who have identified Eau Claire County as their county of residence.

The 47-year-old Bonnin, expected to be released in the near future, is one of three men from Eau Claire County still being held at Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Those numbers don’t surprise former longtime Eau Claire County District Attorney Rich White, who was involved in several commitment petitions while in office, including the county’s first.

On March 24, 1997, a petition alleging Thomas H. Bush was a sexually violent person was filed in Eau Claire County Court.

“Thomas Bush was the poster boy for sex offender petitions,” White said of Bush, who was convicted of attempted second-degree sexual assault of a mentally ill victim in 1988. His conviction stemmed from an incident earlier that year where a worker reported seeing him undressed in the room of a Syverson Lutheran Home resident. Bush was sentenced as a repeat sex offender.

“These are not the run-of-the-mill individual who gets convicted of sexual assault,” White said. “They are people who have a demonstrated history of repeated violations.”

And those are the people the Legislature was targeting, said former state Sen. Dave Zien, a Republican from the Chippewa County town of Wheaton, who was in office when the state’s sexual predator law was enacted.

“Back then, we were strongly in favor of coming down hard on sexual predators to protect people from them,” Zien said of the law, which survived legal challenges.

Through the sexual predator law, sex offenders are transferred to Sand Ridge when the state Department of Justice or a county district attorney files a petition for commitment.

Commitment through this court process requires that the individual has a mental disorder that predisposes him to commit future acts of sexual violence. The person also must be more likely than not to sexually reoffend in his lifetime. To date, all people committed under the sexual predator law have been male, according to the state Department of Health Services. No female has ever had a petition filed for a commitment under the law.

Once admitted, patients are assessed for cognitive and functional levels and their level of mental disorder. Based on this assessment, they are placed in a treatment track designed to address individual treatment needs to lower their risk of reoffending.

Laurie Sazama Osberg, an attorney with the Wisconsin Public Defender’s Office, has handled a number of cases in Eau Claire and other counties involving men alleged to be sexual predators.

“When they initially did this, it was new territory for everyone,” she said.

Back then, “I thought it was a strange law, and it was troubling to me and some others that the law was basing confinement (through civil commitment) on something people might do, not what they’ve done,” she said.

Since the sexual predator law took effect in mid-1994, 17 petitions for commitment involving 15 men have been filed in Eau Claire County during 10 years — one each in 1997, 1999, 2002, 2003 and 2014; two each in 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2009; and four in 1998, according to a Leader-Telegram review of court records.

While 10 of those men were committed, four were detained and released prior to being committed, according to the state Department of Health Services. The remaining man was detained, but he currently is serving a longer prison sentence, and he will be transferred to Sand Ridge once he completes his sentence.

Excluding the man in prison, the average length of stay for the other 14 men from Eau Claire County has been about 10 years and two months, state officials said.

Petitions for commitment were sought twice for Michael Thorson and Bonnin.

Petitions against Thorson were filed in 2000 and 2003. The former was denied, but the latter was granted after a jury found Thorson was a sexually violent person, according to court records.

Thorson was sentenced to prison in 1985 for having sexual contact with a bartender in Barron County after he dragged her into a bathroom and beat her up, according to news accounts. In 1989, he was convicted of having sexual contact with 10- and 12-year-old girls in Eau Claire County. Two years later, he was convicted in Eau Claire County of trying to assault a woman after she entered a car in a parking lot.

Former longtime Eau Claire County Judge Benjamin Proctor signed an order in February 2009 discharging Thorson, who no longer met the criteria to be deemed a sexually violent person, court records indicate.

Petitions against Bonnin were filed in 2002 and 2007. White, then in the Eau Claire County District Attorney’s Office, requested the former be dismissed because Bonnin was sentenced to two years in prison for a parole violation. More than three years after the latter was filed, former Eau Claire County Judge Paul Lenz signed a commitment order.

“Those were difficult cases,” recalled Proctor, who served as an Eau Claire County judge from 1988 to 2011 and presided over several sexual predator cases, particularly when it came time to release those deemed sexually violent persons back into the community. “There was a lot of negative feedback from people who didn’t want these people living near them.”

Patients committed to treatment at Sand Ridge, which has an average census of 330 men, have the opportunity to periodically petition their committing court for release. If the court determines the person has reached a point in his treatment in which he is no longer more likely than not to reoffend, the court will order him released to the community as a client of the Supervised Release Program, which offers monitoring, treatment and support to aid in the transition to community life, or order him to be directly released from Sand Ridge into the community with no supervision, treatment or support.

Since the sexual predator law took effect, 119 men were discharged directly from the inpatient facility, and 57 men were discharged following a transitional placement under supervised release in the community through a court order, according to Department of Health Services data last updated in September.

“Supervised release helps provide safe integration of these men back into the community,” said Robert Peterson, an attorney in the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office who is the practice leader for the six attorneys handling sexual predator cases statewide. “I think that is something that should be encouraged.”

In the Supervised Release Program’s history, only three member have been charged with new sexual offenses while living in the community on supervised release, according to state data updated in October.

Peterson, who represents Bonnin, has been handling these types of cases since 1998, and the biggest change he has seen over the years is the number of men on supervised release.

As of April 15, 60 men were living in a community on supervised release through a court order, according to state Department of Health Services statistics. In addition, another 27 were ordered to be placed in the community, but they were living at Sand Ridge waiting for an appropriate home.

Because of a change in state law, counties — instead of the state — now must identify a housing option within their borders for men like Bonnin. Eau Claire County is going through this for the first time, and a committee has had a difficult time finding a place for Bonnin to go.

Harless, last week, approved a temporary housing option for Bonnin, but she ordered the Eau Claire County Department of Human Services to continue to look for more permanent housing.

“Counties all have their unique population disbursement, making it more difficult to place people in some areas,” Peterson said. “Proponents of the change in law would argue counties are in the best position to determine the proper placement of these men.”


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Remembering 'Mighty Maddy'

Madelyn Odegard believed every milestone along a cancer journey should be celebrated, especially birthdays.

The 9-year-old Maddy — described by her parents, Josh and Heidi, as their “brave, strong little warrior” — lost her three-year battle with cancer on Aug. 15, 2017.

Hoping to help other children fighting cancer and their families on a similar journey, the Odegards of Eau Claire launched Mighty Maddy’s Mission in 2018.

The nonprofit — like the girl it is named after — aims to create smiles for those affected by childhood cancer by providing “Maddy’s Sparkle Box,” a birthday box full of party supplies and a gift for the inpatient cancer patient or sibling if it is his or her birthday.

The boxes made their debut at Marshfield Children’s Hospital, which is located in Marshfield Medical Center, the flagship hospital of Marshfield Clinic Health System. The site also is home to Maddy’s Toy Shop, a mobile cart filled with new toys that pediatric patients can pick from, and a bell young patients can ring when their treatment is complete.

“Marshfield was always very accommodating, ... so it seemed fitting to start there,” said Josh, noting that Mighty Maddy’s Mission grew to include HSHS St. Vincent Children’s Hospital in Green Bay in February. “We hope to keep expanding, but we want to be mindful as we go to make sure we do this right.”

In addition to the birthday boxes, Mighty Maddy’s Mission also provides end-of-treatment boxes with supplies to celebrate that milestone, along with family resource baskets.

“Over the course of three-plus years in and out of many hospitals, we … understand the difficulties, stress and pain that families go through, and our goal is to help to provide a smile for the child, their siblings and, hopefully, the parents while also helping the caregivers with additional tools and resources,” the couple said.

While they are proud of being able to do something to bring a little happiness to children battling cancer, Josh and Heidi admit the effort is bittersweet.

“Certainly, our hope was that Maddy would be here to see this through, to tell us what to do,” said Josh, noting his daughter was the quintessential big sister “in charge of everyone and everything.”

Unexpected diagnosis

Maddy, the oldest of Josh and Heidi’s four children, was an active child. She played soccer and T-ball and swam, but not long after her sixth birthday and finishing kindergarten, she began to experience pain in her legs and hips, prompting a visit to the doctor.

Initially, the doctor figured Maddy had overexerted herself, but Heidi, a nurse, knew something else was going on. During a subsequent visit in June 2014, a pediatrician felt around Maddy’s rib cage. Finding something that didn’t feel right, the doctor ordered an ultrasound.

“The radiologist said, ‘We found something; something abnormal is growing in there. Have you ever heard of Wilms?’” Josh recalled.

Wilms tumor is a type of childhood cancer that starts in the kidneys, according to the American Cancer Society Cancer. Tumors are usually found when they start to cause symptoms, such as swelling in the abdomen.

“I was just oblivious,” Josh said. “I didn’t even put two and two together and realize he was talking about cancer.”

But that is exactly what the radiologist suspected. Noting he couldn’t say definitively that Maddy had Wilms, he wanted to get the family in touch with an oncologist.

After a CT scan, Marshfield Clinic medical professionals in Eau Claire recommended Josh and Heidi get Maddy to Marshfield right away. Hastily arranging care for their two younger daughters and throwing some clothes in a bag, the couple — full of emotion — and Maddy headed east.

In Marshfield, Maddy had a biopsy to verify she had Wilms. Her treatment plan included chemotherapy to shrink the large tumor and then surgery to remove it and some lymph nodes. Once Maddy healed, she resumed treatment, which included more chemotherapy and radiation.

“She never complained or let on that things hurt,” Heidi said.

When her treatment was over, “we thought this part of our story was done,” said Josh, crediting family, friends, his employer, RCU, and coworkers for helping them get through that chapter.

However, on Maddy’s first post-treatment scan in May 2015, a new growth was found, and the search for the next treatment option was on.

“Hearing that was almost as bad as finding out she had cancer,” Josh said.

After consulting with a team of doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, the consensus was another surgery to remove the growth followed by a high dose of chemotherapy and stem cell rescue, which took place in August 2015. The latter is a method of replacing blood-forming stem cells that were destroyed by treatment with high doses of anticancer drugs.

“That was tough watching,” Josh said of the four days of constant chemotherapy followed the replacement of Maddy’s stem cells. “It hit her hard, … but she fought through it.”

Calm before the storm

After a long recovery process, the Odegards had a stretch where Maddy was able to spend a great deal of time with her family and friends, travel to Florida through Make-A-Wish and even go back to school at Manz Elementary.

The family got a call in August 2016 from a doctor alerting them that a routine scan revealed something new but tiny in Maddy’s body.

Maddy underwent surgery in Milwaukee to remove the growth, and then the family was off to the Cleveland Clinic, where Maddy underwent different treatments that had some success in other children. They didn’t work.

In January 2017, the Odegards headed to Washington, D.C., where Maddy was involved in several trials for more than six months.

“The more things they tried, the more resilient the cancer seemed to become,” said Josh, who, along with his wife, never lost hope.

“Maddy was going to make it through until the end,” Heidi said. “That was always our mindset.”

However, the cancer proved to be too much for their courageous daughter. Maddy died on Aug. 15, 2017, the day before her brother, Hudson, was born.

“As she was going, he was coming, and we figured she filled him in,” said Josh, adding Maddy had picked out Hudson’s name.

Creating Maddy’s legacy

During their daughter’s illness, the Odegards decided once Maddy was healed they would start an organization in her name.

Maddy was hospitalized often during her treatment sometimes on her birthday or the birthdays of her sisters, Isabelle and Amelia. Instead of missing out on the festivities, Maddy would find or make banners or pictures and decorate her hospital room for the celebrations.

“(The girls) would always be so excited to walk in her room and see all the effort she (made) for them,” according to the couple.

Maddy’s love of crafts, decorating and making other people smile, along with finding the hospital didn’t always have supplies necessary for such celebrations, led to the creation of the sparkle boxes bearing her name, along with the end-of-treatment boxes.

In addition to the supplies contained in the boxes, Mighty Maddy’s Mission also has partnered with Festival Foods to provide cakes for both types of celebrations.

Lindsey Welch, a certified child life specialist at Marshfield Children’s Hospital, has heard multiple families comment on how wonderful it is to be able to celebrate during treatment.

Welch got to know the Odegards during Maddy’s illness and helped the child understand what cancer is and explained the different procedures she would be going through to her.

“Maddy was so positive and loved arts and crafts, so it just seems fitting that her family has chosen to do this to help her legacy live on,” Welch said. Mighty Maddy’s Mission “embodies who Maddy was.”

“She loved to give to others during her fight,” Josh said. “Doing that for other families on this journey is what keeps us going.”


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Justice Clarence Thomas' moment may finally have arrived

WASHINGTON — Clarence Thomas has been a Supreme Court justice for nearly three decades. It may finally be his moment.

Many Americans know Thomas largely from his bruising 1991 confirmation hearing, when he was accused of sexual harassment charges by former employee Anita Hill — charges he denied. People may know he’s a conservative and has gone years without speaking during arguments at the court. But scholars say it would be wise to pay closer attention to Thomas.

Thomas is now the longest-serving member of a court that has recently gotten more conservative, putting him in a potentially powerful position, and he’s said he doesn’t plan on retiring soon.

With President Donald Trump’s nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh now on the court, conservatives are firmly in control as the justices take on divisive issues such as abortion, gun control and LGBT rights.

Thomas, for the first time, is on a court where there are at least four votes for some “pretty radical” decisions, said political science professor Corey Robin, the author of a Thomas book due out in September. Robin says the question will be whether the court’s more conservative justices — Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh and Samuel Alito — can get Chief Justice John Roberts, a more moderate conservative, to go along.

Thomas, 70, became the high court’s longest-serving justice, the “senior associate justice,” when Justice Anthony Kennedy retired last summer . But unlike Kennedy, who sat at the court’s ideological center and was most often the deciding vote when the court split 5-4, Thomas is consistently on the court’s far right.

That’s won him praise from Trump . As a presidential candidate, he called Thomas “highly underrated.” Trump said Thomas has “been so consistent for so long, and we should give him credit.”

More than 20 of the men and women Thomas mentored as law clerks have gone on to hold political appointments in the Trump administration or been nominated to judgeships by Trump . Thomas and his wife, Virginia, herself a well-known conservative activist, have dined with the president and first lady.

Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center, acknowledged that Thomas’ views may now have more sway, something she described as “terrifying to many progressives.”

Still, Thomas’ views can be so far from his fellow justices that neither Roberts nor Chief Justice William Rehnquist before him have assigned Thomas big, landmark opinions on the belief that he won’t be able to keep together the votes of his colleagues, said Ralph Rossum, the author of a book on Thomas. Instead, Thomas often writes separately, speaking only for himself. Some critics dismiss those solo opinions as uninfluential, but Rossum disagrees.

“He stakes out a position more forthrightly or vigorously than other justices are willing to go, but they’re kind of sucked along in his wake,” Rossum said, adding that, like a magnet, “Thomas drags the court in his direction. They may not go as far as he goes, but they go further than they would have otherwise.”

Some of the areas of law where, over time, Thomas has pulled the court closer to his positions include voting rights, campaign finance, and the Second Amendment, Robin and Rossum said.

If it were up to Thomas alone, the high court would be willing to make sweeping moves. While the court is typically cautious about overturning its past decisions, Thomas, who as an originalist believes in reading the Constitution as those who wrote it meant, feels less bound by precedent than other justices.

Just this term, Thomas called on the court to reconsider a landmark 1964 First Amendment case, describing it and later decisions extending it as “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law .” He also criticized a 1963 Supreme Court decision that guarantees a lawyer for anyone too poor to hire one. And he equated the court’s Roe v. Wade abortion decision with its Dred Scott decision, which said African Americans weren’t citizens, labeling both “notoriously incorrect.”

He also wrote an opinion rebuking his colleagues for declining to hear cases involving states’ efforts to strip Medicaid money from Planned Parenthood, a decision Thomas described as “abdicating our judicial duty.” Alito and Gorsuch agreed.

If Thomas’ writing can be attention-getting, he personally keeps a low profile. Thomas shies away from public speaking, describing himself as an introvert. He once explained : “My personality is not such that I enjoy public appearances.”

At the high court, Thomas rarely asks questions during arguments, a contrast with his vocal colleagues. When in March he asked a question during arguments for the first time in three years, it was headline news .

But colleagues and court staff know Thomas as gregarious.

“Clarence knows the name of every employee in the courthouse, from the lowest position to the highest ... with virtually all of them he knows their families, their happinesses and their tragedies,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor told an audience in 2014 at Yale , where both she and Thomas attended law school.

Over the past year, speculation has intensified about whether Thomas might retire, letting Trump nominate a like-minded, conservative justice. But Thomas, who declined an Associated Press interview request, said in public comments recently that he’s not retiring, not even in 20 or 30 years.

If so, Thomas is on track to be the longest-serving justice in history in 2028, when he’ll celebrate his 80th birthday. He is currently the court’s third-oldest member, behind Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 86, and Justice Stephen Breyer, 80.

Yale law professor Akhil Amar said part of the appeal of staying on the court for Thomas has to include his increasing influence. Amar said he could see Thomas justify staying this way: “It’s a pretty good job. I’m having fun, and I’m winning.”