‘At some point you have to confront it:’ The state of hate in Wisconsin’s workplaces, homes and public places

The State of Hate is a five-part series based on a review of hundreds of pages of hate investigation police reports as well as five years’ of criminal charges in Wisconsin.

A warning: some of the content is graphic and may be disturbing.

When a Black woman in Grant County reached out to Dustin Wetzel in January to tell him to “watch his mouth” after she said he used a racial slur on Facebook, the two at first exchanged angry words over text.

Then came the voice messages.

“Don’t make me get that whip and tie you to a m—f— tree, just like they used to do to your ancestors,” a message from Wetzel, recorded later by police, said.

The messages went on for four minutes, laced with profanity and obscene threats of assault and death. “I’m going to go to your momma’s house, I’m gonna go to your brother’s house…I ain’t gonna f—ing stop until everybody in your family’s f—ing dead.”

Earlier this month, Dustin Wetzel was convicted of a hate crime for the messages. A sentencing penalty rather than its own crime, investigators and prosecutors say it’s the type of crime made worse because of an underlying theme.

“Hate crimes are message crimes,” said John Vaudreuil, a retired U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin. “When you attack a Black man…you’re sending a message to everyone: We don’t like you. We don’t want you. Leave.”

‘At some point you have to confront it:’ Hate in Wisconsin

A few cases maintained a high profile in Wisconsin over the past couple years: A 2019 acid attack in Milwaukee. A deadly hit-and-run in Fond du Lac last year. A reported acid attack in Madison, closed without evidence.

But these represent just the beginning of hate in Wisconsin over that time frame, many crimes never making the public eye. Accounts of death threats like Wetzel’s, home and workplace defacement, digital harassment, and attacks on people at work, bars, and public places appear over and over again in a review of three years of Wisconsin hate crime investigations. 

“In order for us to stop history from repeating itself, at some point you have to confront it,” said Percy Brown, Jr., a Black Madison-area educator. “We have to go back to the roots of this, right? What’s going on in the homes, what’s being allowed in schools?”

In Winnebago County, a coworker was accused of throwing melted lead at a Black coworker; the victim told police he’d often been targeted by the suspect with racial slurs and insults. 

“He’s been harassing me for so long,” the victim told police in a fall 2019 interview, explaining how he’d tried to alert his employer to the issue. “He calls me racist words, no one wants to do anything.”

Over and over, Hispanic people were attacked and told to “go back to Mexico.” Black people were threatened with death for being Black. Asian people were told they “don’t belong here”. Biracial couples were attacked. Gay people’s cars and homes were defaced. Transgender people were assaulted, or told to commit suicide.

A grim picture of hate emerged after a News 3 Investigation spent weeks requesting and analyzing hate crime police reports at law enforcement agencies in the state that reported a bias motivation to the Wisconsin Department of Justice from 2018 through 2020. 

Anti-black crimes spiked last year as protests against police violence spread across Wisconsin, and reported hate overall rose by about 75%. But that number only partially captures reality because of how many hate investigations are either not reported, or later removed in the state’s database. (Part 3 of State of Hate covers how many crimes go on to be charged, even convicted, as hate crimes–but still don’t get counted in official hate statistics.)

Plus, what’s known through police reports represents a fraction of the crimes, as they too often go wholly unreported or under-investigated. Just 101 out of the state’s 478 law enforcement agencies have officially reported at least one hate crime in the last five years—a number that even then often doesn’t reflect their actual hate investigations, our review found. For the hundreds of agencies that haven’t reported a crime in years, lack of training or enforcement frequently leads to hate not being recognized or properly reported as a crime.

All in all, after some reports had been ruled out as misclassifications, News 3 Investigates found almost 200 investigations based either partly or completely on hate in the last three years. The picture those investigations provide is still short of a complete accounting of hate in Wisconsin for that time period, given gaps in reporting and definition technicalities that led to hate-motivated crimes being left out of official reports. But it does provide one of the most thorough reviews available of the crimes police knew about, investigated, and reported for that time frame.

Key patterns emerged in the hate investigations that do exist: a surge in anti-Black crime during last year’s protests against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha. Anti-Asian crimes were largely left out of official hate crime tallies. Anti-LGBTQ+ crimes have increased in severity. And through it all, people in marginalized communities still constantly face a barrage of slurs, death threats, intimidation, and physical attacks.

In the first part of this State of Hate investigative series, the News 3 Now Investigative team took an in-depth look at where these crimes are happening, what sparked them, and what communities have felt the effects.

Hate most often based on race, color or national origin

When Jon Holte from Marshall came home in the summer of 2020 yelling death threats and deportation threats to his neighbor, it wasn’t the first time.

Dane County prosecutors had convicted him of a battery charge that included the hate crime penalty in 2018, when he tried to break into a Hispanic neighbor’s home with a fake Dane County Sheriff’s badge and shoved the victim who responded. During the attack, Holte claimed he was from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and said he supported President Donald Trump because he was “sick of paying for illegals.”

So when Holte told a different victim last fall that he wanted to “put a bullet through his head,” the victim told police he was afraid for his life and took the threats seriously, particularly given Holte’s track record.

The vast majority of reported hate crimes in Wisconsin have targeted people because of the way they look or where people believe they “came from,” a review of hate-tagged investigations from 2018 to 2020 found. An intoxicated white man on Madison’s west side using racial slurs told two Black teen girls he wanted to sexually assault them. 

In graffiti scrawled on train trestles and overpasses, in online harassment over snapchat and Facebook, or while committing a more serious crime simultaneously—death threats laced with racial slurs and obscene insults are a constant component of hate crime in Wisconsin. 

In the state’s most recognizable case last year, a Hispanic man is accused of killing a white man in a deadly hit and run. Now facing a hate crime penalty for homicide but found mentally incompetent to stand trial, he told investigators he’d targeted the motorcyclist because he was white, and he’d been the target for racism from white people in the past.

A prison in Grant County was the site of the state’s other attempted homicide in 2020 that investigators believed had at least part of its motivation in hate, when a white inmate stabbed a Black inmate multiple times while using a string of racial slurs.

Crimes targeting Black people more than doubled last year amid nationwide protests

Most of the rise in Wisconsin’s officially-reported hate crimes can be attributed to a rise in reported anti-Black crimes in 2020, reports indicate. Official statistics differ from actual police investigations, but at least 38 anti-Black crimes are documented last year, up from at least 13 the year before.

During months when thousands took to the streets in the summer and fall to protest police violence and racial discrimination after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, hate crimes targeting Black people increased through graffiti, threats, and physical attacks.

In a Snapchat group, a high school student in Walworth County called for “Slavery 2020” and death to “all blacks and women”, telling other students that the Kenosha police officer should have shot Blake “even more times.” A message of slavery and death was echoed in multiple graffiti incidents last summer and fall around the state.

A Black woman and her children were physically attacked on Madison’s east side last year, something they say they’re still recovering from.

“I’m not completely healed from it. I don’t know how I’ll feel, seeing him again,” Toshiana Northington said. She’ll see him soon for the first time at an upcoming court date, where he’s facing hate crime charges–but isn’t counted in Madison’s hate crime statistics.

Anti-Asian hate crimes left out of official statistics

The pandemic fueled a surge of anti-Asian hate crimes both state and nationwide, but Wisconsin’s official statistics reflect none of that.

Graffiti at UW-Madison targeting Asian people and calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” last March, for example, didn’t pass the state’s review to meet the definition of hate. Seven racially-charged graffiti cases initially classified as hate last year at UW’s campus were untagged for that reason, according to a spokesperson.

In Marathon County, home to one of the nation’s largest Hmong communities, Hmong individuals reported a string of threats and attacks from people blaming them for COVID-19. The sheriff’s office opened an investigation, a case that wasn’t included in hate crime reports requested by News 3 Now. 

Victims didn’t choose to come forward and talk to police, Sheriff Scott Parks said in an email, and without a victim the case couldn’t move forward.

Caroline Tu Farley, the program director for the Farley Center in Verona, said there’s a number of reasons that contribute to underreporting in the Asian community, including language barriers and a reluctance to talk to police.

“Many distrust the police because maybe the countries they came from, the police were very corrupt there,” Tu Farley said. 

But often, the crimes themselves are also simply widely discounted or ignored in the community at large. (A News 3 Now Asian-American panel further explored the historical and social context for anti-Asian hate crimes.)

“After the Atlanta shootings, I saw somebody on Facebook said, ‘Oh, all the sudden there’s hate crimes against Asians.’ I mean, it’s been happening forever,” Tu Farley explained.

In Portage County, victims reported another string of anti-Asian crimes against Hmong people. Stevens Point Police investigated the crime as hate-based and the district attorney charged it as a hate crime—but it’s not included in the official reports to the DOJ. Stevens Point’s official record there only reflects one anti-Black crime, later in the fall.

Officially, the current number for anti-Asian crimes reported to the Wisconsin Department of Justice for 2020 sits at two. Last year, the state reported one. Stringent reporting definitions, varying standards and record systems, and other technicalities all contribute. (Part 3 in State of Hate, airing May 20, will delve further into the reasons behind undercounted cases.)

Anti-LGBTQ+ crimes increase in severity

In the fall of 2019, Our Lives publisher Patrick Farabaugh closed up his offices for good and went remote after a string of threatening vandalism incidents at his workplace left him concerned for his safety.

He publishes Wisconsin’s only magazine serving the LGBTQ+ community, filling boxes throughout Madison six times a year with a bi-monthly outlet that tells the stories of the community in their own words. He serves a population of tens of thousands in the Madison area alone; thousands more can access the magazine online or through the mail.

But for years, the physical boxes have been targets for vandalism, thefts, and damage. He’s made numerous alterations to protect the magazines inside. It’s been reported to police in the past, but suspects were never found.

He tolerated many of the incidents before reporting it to law enforcement, seeking help in the community instead—underscoring how many of these types of crimes ultimately go unreported. 

Crimes against people for their sexual or gender orientation frequently took the form of stealing or vandalizing expressions of pride like signs and flags, including a string of unsolved pride flag thefts in Hudson spanning several years. The Hudson reports represented the vast majority of anti-LGBTQ crimes reported to the state in 2016 and 2017.

But in the last couple years, a News 3 Now review found the reported crimes are increasing in severity, and more often include death threats and physical attacks. Police reported attacks at gay bars at least half a dozen times, where people targeted either the bars themselves or their patrons with slurs and attacks. At times, the damage comes even closer to home. Two roommates in Fond Du Lac County were twice targeted last year, their cars keyed with a homophobic slur at two separate times, months apart, in their apartment building’s garage.

“It’s gotten worse over the last couple of years,” Steve Starkey, the executive director at the OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center in Madison said. “Part of the problem is that your civil rights depend on what zip code you live in…We talk to clients that are from rural Wisconsin, where there’s no protection, there’s no culture, that people feel very vulnerable, and don’t have legal protection.”

In one incident prosecuted as a hate crime but unreported as hate by police, a Black gay man in Racine was beaten and left with severe injuries in 2019.

Last summer, a white man attacked a Black transgender woman in Marathon County as she was leaving a convenience store; Jeffrey Lee Paul is being charged with the hate crime penalty. 

In Eau Claire County, a transgender professor was sent a string of anonymous letters and threats online, telling her they hoped she would commit suicide. Police tried to trace the emails, but never found a suspect.

Anti-religious, disability crimes

A man who left threatening, anti-Semitic messages for a Winnebago County teacher in 2019 wasn’t charged. Voicemails left for the teacher said he “didn’t want his children taught by a Jew.”

When anti-Semitic crimes are reported, they often take the form of swastikas spraypainted on the sides of buildings and bridges, as well as threats and intimidation. Anti-Semitism is by far the most common anti-religion hate crime in Wisconsin, but anti-religion hate in general has a dark history in the state.

Last year, a seventh victim died after the 2012 Oak Creek mass shooting where Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, initially killed six people at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin and wounded several others before shooting himself. The medical examiner said Baba Punjab Singh had died of complications from the shooting and listed the death as a homicide; Singh had been left paralyzed for years.

It’s children that often bear the brunt of crimes against disabilities, where students target another student with special needs to bully or attack. Similar to incidents around the state, students in 2019 spent ten minutes on a school bus in Janesville shoving, bullying, and throwing a disabled student on the floor before a driver intervened. 

Looking forward

Victims of hate crimes say one thing often gets them through it: the community and support of others. For both Patrick and Toshiana, it was the outpouring of support from their communities that helped them heal, knowing that support outweighed the hate.

“People who are targeted need to know they’re not alone,” Patrick said.

For Toshiana, the healing–both physical and emotional–still takes time. “It’s the major key to being able to continue on with your life.”

Contact News 3 Investigates

The News 3’s Investigative team can be reached at news3investigates@wisctv.com; feel free to contact us with your stories. The State of Hate is an ongoing investigative project that we’ll be contributing to throughout 2021.

Reporter Madalyn O’Neill, photojournalists Brian Mesmer, Lance Heidt, and Jim Rader, and investigative intern Nuha Dolby contributed to these reports.

Victim Privacy

Unless a victim chose to participate in an interview, News 3 Now Investigates isn’t naming victims from police reports and is generally only identifying the county where a crime occurred in order to protect a victim’s privacy in Wisconsin’s smaller or less populated towns, villages, and school districts. The information for specific incidents throughout this series has been gathered from police reports, court records, media reports, and conversations with investigators and victims.