Burglarized cabin's owner jailed for shotgun booby-trap

Wis. judge unsympathetic after burglar is wounded

December 20, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

TURTLE LAKE, Wis. -- What was he supposed to do?

It's not a question so much as a challenge. A challenge to anyone who thinks Lenny Miller was wrong to booby-trap his cabin with a shotgun.

Three times in eight months, the cabin had been burglarized.

His hunting rifles were stolen. His fishing gear, too. And his tackle box. His new chain saw and his leaf blower and his Christmas present, a fillet knife still in its box. His boat had been vandalized. His outhouse trashed. His all-terrain vehicle had been torn apart. Clothes. A BB gun. A folding cot.

His locks didn't help. Neither did the sheriff.

"It had to be stopped," Miller said. "Enough was enough."

So he loaded his 12-gauge shotgun. He bought string, a pulley and some hooks. And he rigged a booby trap.

Miller figured he had no choice.

Authorities say he made the wrong one.

Miller caught a burglar. He also landed a six-month jail sentence. And a rebuke from a judge who accused him of "taking us back to the days of the Wild West," the days of "vigilante justice."

The case has raised an alarm in the remote woods of northwest Wisconsin. Many residents express outrage that a man could go to jail for guarding what's his. Authorities are equally riled -- at the idea that anyone would value property above life, would set a potentially lethal trap to keep a burglar away. Miller should have worked with the sheriff and tried Neighborhood Watch, they say. He should have been patient, let the system catch the crook.

The shotgun blasted the shin of the burglar. He was spotted later by the side of a road but refused to say anything. But a deputy remembered the thefts at Miller's cabin. He also remembered Miller's vow to do something about it. So he drove over for a look.

He saw the shed door broken open. He saw the gun aimed at his shin. And he knew he had two crimes to deal with.

Miller arranged work-release privileges so he can keep his job at the shoe factory. But he has to pay the jail $11,775 for the right to come and go. Add in legal bills and court fees and the $5 booby trap cost Miller about $14,000.

Folks here don't think it's fair.

But as Circuit Judge Edward R. Brunner told Miller at his sentencing: This is "taking us back to the days where there were no rules and everyone carried guns and handled their problems as they saw fit. And that can't be condoned, no matter how terrible you feel about the loss of your property or the invasion of your space."

Jim Bell, publisher of the local Barron News-Shield, said: "Deep down, in all of us, there's a little bit of `We want to get even.' And that's just what Leonard Miller did. It's not like he shot Little Red Riding Hood." His readers, he said, sympathize with Miller -- and resent his jail term.

Bell understands why, too: "There's a whole bunch of potential Leonard Millers out there."

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