EagleHerald staff writer

TOWN OF AMBERG—Maple Road curves away from U.S. 141 into wooded rural Wisconsin, not far from the downtown area of the Town of Amberg, population 854.

On any given winter night, along that wending road, whispers of icy wind stir through snowy pines that lean in, high over the road, imparting a sense of isolation.

And isolation, in many ways, serves the the purpose—and criteria—for the upcoming placement of Wisconsin registered sex offender, James M. Harris, 52, in a home on Maple Road.

Harris was convicted of two counts of second degree sexual assault of a child in 1997 and sent to prison. Now, as part of a legal and lawful process, Harris is slated to move into a home on Maple Road, on or before Jan. 14 under the purview of the State of Wisconsin’s sex offender release program.

Several unbending legal yardsticks, like remaining 1,500 feet away from various community assembly areas where children tend to congregate (schools, parks and etc.), will place hard boundaries on Harris, defining what he can do and where he can go.

Thursday night, Amberg residents gathered at the Amberg Community Center to educate themselves on the situation. Organized and moderated by Marinette County Sheriff Jerry Sauve and his department, as permitted by Wisconsin’s sex offender notification laws, the meeting’s primary aim focused on community education and safety.

“The subject matter at hand tonight is, of course, very serious business,” Sauve told the many residents in attendance. “This information is not intended to increase fear. Rather, it is our belief that an informed public is a safer public.”

Sauve also invited six panelists (plus himself) from State of Wisconsin departments of Probation and Parole, Corrections, Health Services and law enforcement to help address any questions from concerned and frustrated Amberg residents.

To be clear, Harris served the time handed down to him by the courts. On top of that, under Wisconsin Chapter 980, the state’s Sexually Violent Person law, enacted in 1994, a circuit court committed him to an additional stint of several years at Sand Ridge Secure Treatment Center in Mauston, Wisconsin. Sand Ridge houses the state’s most violent sex offenders. It also operates Wisconsin’s Sexually Violent Persons Program, providing treatment and the possibility of eventual release to the supervised release program.

Panelist Julie Krause, a DOC’s Corrections Program Specialist—Sex Offender Registry, emphasized that the night was about providing the tools and knowledge to stay safe not only because a known sex offender was being placed in Amberg, but also because Harris represents just the tip of the iceberg. The number of known registered sex offenders is far less than the actual number. Moreover, according to the U.S. Department of Justice “Criminal Victimization Report,” only 22.9% of rape/sexual assault victims reported the assault to police.

“What we know statistically, is that one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys will be assaulted before they turn 18,” Krause said. “And a vast majority of those assaults are never reported to law enforcement … and most (93%) of the time, the victim and the offender know each other … prevention is really what we need to be focusing on. We need to be having these conversations with our kids, preparing them for situations they may encounter.”

Why in Amberg?

Wisconsin Act 184, adopted in 2017, requires that counties where a sex offender received his conviction, find suitable housing for that offender upon completion of, and release from his prison term. In accordance, Marinette County formed a committee of experts to find suitable housing for Harris in the county. Amberg met the required parameters.

For some, those parameters don’t muster up.

“A (Chapter) 980 sex offender is the the most dangerous and sexually violent type of offender in the state of Wisconsin and needs to be deemed dangerous by authorities,” said Marinette County resident Jean Sanborn, who attended the Amberg meeting after following the Harris plight for some time.

Sanborn lives in the Town of Lake which once served as another potential location on the county’s list of possible homes for Harris. However, Marinette County Board voted it down (28-2) in March after an outcry of opposition from many Lake-area residents.

According to Panelist Michael Chase, a Supervised Release Program Contract Specialist with the Department of Health Service (DHS), Marinette County conducted an exhaustive process to find the right location. Moreover, had the county dragged its feet and done nothing, the potential fines to the county would run very steep. While the cost of housing Harris still reaches into the pocket books of tax pay (Chase acknowledged, the state is paying $2,000 per month in rent to house Harris), Harris will defray some costs when he finds employment.

“In the history of the program 285 clients have been placed throughout the state and there are two other Chapter 980 (clients on supervised release) placed in Marinette County,” Chase said.

Additionally, since 1994, only three clients of those 285 have committed re-offenses. There have been no re-offenses within the last, approximately, eight years, according to Chase.

Despite his reassurance, Act 185 and Chapter 980 served as the core of much of the consternation among Town of Amberg residents, who question why officials chose their quiet town as a home for Harris.

“I am very upset,” said Pearl Barker, a mother in Amberg. “I have a 13-year-old daughter … I let her ride her bike in town but if (Harris) becomes a resident, I’ll probably never let that happen again. … how are they going to protect us?”

Sheriff Sauve acknowledged the frustrations and fears during the meeting. At the same time he also clarified the laws that bind residents, the sheriff’s department, the county and the state.

“This is a dilemma,” Sauve said. “We don’t like it … I don’t like it, but it is what we are faced with right now.”

Safety measures to ease fears

Amberg resident Patty Kemmerling pointed to the record of Harris’s crimes, as well as 72 highly rigid rules of the release program that maintain close watch on him, such as lifetime GPS monitoring, lifetime registration in the sex offender registry and home confinement unless supervised. Additionally, program specialists will make at least 30 random and unannounced check-ins with Harris per month. The rules set stiff limits in just about every aspect of a person’s life such as social relationships, employment, internet access, financial interactions, and the list goes on.

“What is all of this telling us as a community?” Kemmerling said. “Should we be afraid? … I think so.”

Others expressed concern that the rural location was too far removed from a more constant law enforcement presence. Marinette represents the 3rd largest Wisconsin county leading some Amberg residents to worry that, if Harris violates the rules of his release, a potentially slower police response time could endanger residents.

Sheriff Sauve addressed such concerns, citing other examples of supervised release programs in Marinette. He said his deputies experience very little problem with participating offenders. Moreover, Sauve pointed out that Amberg sits along U.S. 141, a main corridor.

“I’m pretty confident that we would be there promptly,” he said. “Any call for service to this location … is a priority call to law enforcement. And we will be on it as a priority call. I will assure you that.”

Meeting successful, legislative next step?

Despite frustrations, the tone of Thursday’s meeting remained respectable. Both Sauve and several residents agreed that the organizers accomplished what they intended.

Still, Sauve expressed the personal hardships that imparting such information to a community carries for both himself, the panelist and especially the Amberg residents.

“It’s a difficult position to be in, but that is part of my job,” he said. “It is what it is. And now we move on.”

Kemmerling agreed, and while she still did not want Harris living in her community, she recognized that the knowledge gained from the meeting allows the community to move forward.

“This is something that we need to talk about with our legislators to make change,” she said. “Tonight, the sheriff and the panelist came to share with us that (Harris) is coming and that we should not harass him. We need to let our officers and community leaders perform their duties and listen to our gut.”