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January 23, 2020

Jamie Taylor/River NewsAssistant Attorney General Noel Lawrence, right, questions sexual assault nurse examiner Alexandra Zopel about an entry in her report on an examination she conducted in December 2013 at St. Clare's Hospital in Weston. The nurse testified Monday in the trial of a Lakeland area man.
Jamie Taylor/River News

Assistant Attorney General Noel Lawrence, right, questions sexual assault nurse examiner Alexandra Zopel about an entry in her report on an examination she conducted in December 2013 at St. Clare's Hospital in Weston. The nurse testified Monday in the trial of a Lakeland area man.
12/5/2019 7:30:00 AM
Lakeland area man on trial in toddler assault case
Charge filed after state cleared backlog of untested sexual assault kits
River News Staff

An Oneida County jury heard evidence this week in the case of a Lakeland area man accused of sexually assaulting a 2-year-old child back in 2013.

For a number of reasons related to the need to protect the identity of the alleged victim, the Northwoods River News and Lakeland Times have taken the unusual step of not immediately identifying the defendant. If this week's trial ends with a verdict, we will identify the defendant as part of a story announcing the jury's decision.

The charge - first degree child sexual assault (sexual contact with a person under age 13 - was filed in November 2018 after the Wisconsin Department of Justice began clearing the state's backlog of untested sexual assault kits.

According to the criminal complaint, a swab taken as part of forensic medical examination of a 2-year-old in 2013 tested positive for the presence of a sperm cell matching the defendant's DNA profile. According to the complaint, the examination was conducted after the child reported pain in the anal area after spending the night in the same residence as the defendant and had commented that someone had hurt that area. However, the nurse who conducted the exam did not find conclusive evidence of injury or abuse.

In addition, investigators noted multiple people had occupied the residence in question during the time the child was staying there and, due to the child's tender years, he/she could not provide any narrative or clear communication. Reports were forwarded to Social Services following the initial investigation in 2013, but the complaint indicates no other action was taken at that time.

According to the complaint, the sexual assault kit was submitted for testing in 2018 as part of the Wisconsin State Crime Lab Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), the state Department of Justice's campaign to clear the state's backlog of untested sexual assault kits.

The defendant was arrested after the state crime lab reported the positive DNA match.

In an interview at the time of the arrest, the defendant denied assaulting the child and claimed he may be the victim of a setup.

The trial began Monday with opening statements.

Assistant attorney general Noel Lawrence, who is handling the prosecution along with fellow assistant attorney general Amber Hahn, outlined the facts of the case for the jury, starting with an unusual statement a toddler made to a parent.

"Over the next few days you're going to hear a story nobody wants to have to tell," Lawrence told the jury. "You're going to hear the story of what happened to a little (child) on Dec. 13, 2013."

Lawrence explained that the child's mother heard signs of distress coming from the child while the child was using the restroom on Dec. 13, 2013. When she questioned the child, seeking an explanation for the distress, the child stated that his/her bottom hurt and "the doctor put his belly up my butt."

According to Lawrence, the child's mother was confused as the child had not been to see a doctor recently, however the child continued to repeat the same phrase.

This led the mother to rush the child to the hospital for an examination. While additional interviews were conducted by the Minocqua Police Department, no charges were immediately filed and the kit sat untested until the DOJ began its efforts to clear the untested kits.

When that testing took place, an analyst was able to identify a single sperm cell matching the defendant's DNA on a swab taken from the child's body, Lawrence told the jury. She ended her opening statement by explaining the elements that the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt and advised that after all the evidence is in she will request they render a guilty verdict.

In his opening statement, defense attorney Brent Debord began by noting that he is a father himself and the idea of his children, or anyone, suffering such an assault is "horrifying" and "terrifying."

"I appreciate that the funding has come through to finally begin going through all of these (sexual assault kits) to find out what has happened to bring justice to actual victims, to bring punishment to perpetrators, but not every accusation is accurate," he explained.

"I believe the evidence is going to show there is doubt here, that there is the possibility of accidental transference (of DNA)," he added. "While I do have a duty to ask questions, this isn't going to be about credibility. I don't doubt what the witnesses are saying. But I think there is doubt as to how they're putting together the story that they're coming up with from this evidence."

Testimony began with the child's mother and the nurse examiner. On Tuesday, the DNA analysts who studied the sample took the stand. After the defendant testified, the jury received the case at approximately 2:40 p.m. Wednesday. A story on the verdict will be published in a future edition.

The defendant could be sentenced to up to 60 years in prison if convicted.

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