The only casualty of an hours-long SWAT raid and hostage situation in Neenah, Wisconsin on December 5 was Michael Funk, a disabled Vietnam veteran who was a party to a $50 million civil rights suit against the same department that killed him. Funk and three other plaintiffs filed that suit seeking compensation for harm they suffered in a SWAT raid at the same location three years earlier.
Funk and Steve Erato were co-owners of Eagle Nation Cycles in Neenah, the scene of a hostage situation that developed out of a drunken rampage by local resident Michael Flatoff. After SWAT teams converged on the scene, someone inside the building fired a single gunshot that hit one of the officers in the helmet. Funk, who had a concealed carry permit, fled from the building holding a handgun. The official story is that Funk was fatally shot for not complying with police orders to drop the weapon.
Former Neenah Police Officer Dan Dringoli believes that Funk’s violent death at the hands his supposed protectors may be the product of something other than simple misfortune or miscommunication.
“I think they may have just taken the opportunity, and erred on the side of `Let’s eliminate this problem,’” Dringoli told me in a telephone interview shortly after the incident. Currently working as a licensed private investigator in Neenah, Dringoli spent 15 years with the Neenah PD. That includes a brief stint with the SWAT team that ended when Dringoli complained about the misconduct of some SWAT operators during a tax-paid training trip to Florida.
In tiresomely familiar fashion, Dringoli’s whistle-blowing led to a suspension for “insubordination,” which escalated into a lengthy and entirely spurious criminal prosecution that ended with dismissal of all charges and a civil settlement with the city.
Dringoli is also well-acquainted with Steve Erato, the surviving co-owner of Eagle Nation Cycles.
“When I was a detective at the Neenah PD, Steve volunteered to be a liaison between the police and the `biker community,’” Dringoli explained to me. “He wanted to keep lines of communication open and prevent misunderstandings, and he helped us on a number of occasions.”
“Rather than coming here and breaking down my doors and having 20 cops and guns and SWAT teams and all of the other crazy stuff, they knew they could wake me up at 2 o’clock in the morning and I would take them to any part of the building,” Erato explained several years ago in what now seems like ominous foreshadowing of subsequent developments.
After Dringoli “crossed the Blue Line” by reporting misconduct by SWAT operators, he faced a retaliatory charge of “fixing” a ticket for Erato – in this case a citation for “disorderly” conduct. Dringoli’s supervisor agreed to dismiss the citation. For his part, Erato insists that he never asked for consideration, and was willing to fight the citation in court: “I never would have wanted [Dringoli] to do anything. I would have rather pled not guilty and said my story.”
As Dringoli pointed out to me, it was clear that both police and the District Attorney’s Office “had a boner for this guy” (an expression reflecting a desire to harass him, rather than to exploit him for other carnal purposes).
Ten years ago, Erato’s ex-wife Merica Kabke was convicted of felony charges in the accidental death of their son, Vincent, in a traffic accident that occurred while Kabke was under the influence of a controlled substance. Despite his understandable sorrow and rage over the death of their child, Erato – who had officially been designated a “victim” of the offense — sought to testify on behalf of his wife during the sentencing phase of the trial before Judge Scott C. Woldt.
“As the victim of the crime … Erato had planned on making an impassioned plea on behalf of Kabke and the fact that she had made a mistake in driving,” explains the lawsuit filed following the September 2012 SWAT raid on his business. “Part of his statement was to include the fact that both Judge Woldt and [District Attorney William] Lennon had checkered histories. His statement regarding Woldt was to highlight the fact that Woldt had killed a passenger on a motorcycle while drunk at the age of 18. His statement regarding Lennon was to point out that Lennon also had a history of drug abuse, as he had previously admitted to using cocaine.”
The purpose of that statement, which Erato was legally entitled to offer, “was not to shame or harm the judge or the District Attorney, but rather, to illustrate that we all make mistakes – even judges and prosecutors – and that punishing Kabke harshly would be hypocritical for both of them.”
“Judge Woldt refused to allow Steve to testify, even though he had every right to do so,” Dringoli recounted to me. “He had two sheriff’s deputies flank him in the courtroom, prepared to drag him away to jail as if he were a convicted criminal, rather than a designated victim in this case.”
Erato filed a complaint against Woldt and Lennon with the Wisconsin Crime Victim’s Rights Board, which censured them for their “willful neglect” of his rights.
This did nothing to endear Erato with the powerful people who later sicced a SWAT team on his business.
“At the time Erato filed that complaint [with the WCVRB], Judge Woldt was being considered for a federal appointment,” pointed out attorney Cole White, who is representing Erato in his lawsuit, in a telephone interview. “That never happened, and this business probably has a lot to do with that fact.”
Whether or not Erato’s complaint against Woldt injured the judge’s career prospects, it unambiguously played a role in precipitating the September 24, 2012 SWAT raid on his business.
The Lake Winnebago Area Metropolitan Enforcement Group(hereafter MEG) claimed to have witnessed a drug transaction take place in an alley behind a building on the 200 block of Neenah’s main street that Eagle Cycles shares with several other businesses. The MEG’s second-in-command is Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Randy Woldt, Judge Woldt’s brother. The search warrant affidavit filed by the MEG alleged the existence of “a complex drug manufacturing and distribution operation [at Eagle Cycles] in conjunction with the Hells Lovers motorcycle gang” and described the site as if it were involved in “an episode of the television series Sons of Anarchy,” recalls the lawsuit.
Despite his obvious conflict of interest in the matter, and the abundant defects in the affidavit, Woldt blithely approved the MEG’s application for a search warrant on September 20.
During the raid, “The hyper-militarized force parked an armored tank-like vehicle outside of Eagle Nation, stormed the building, bombarding the occupants with assault weapons drawn, screaming profanities and abuse, all while wearing plainclothes … and face masks,” narrates the lawsuit. For several hours the invaders ransacked the building, finding no evidence of heroin, meth, cocaine, or any controlled substances.
After moving into Erato’s office, the raiders “found” a minuscule amount – roughly eight-tenths of a gram – of marijuana. The facility’s security camera “cuts out following the police entry in the room and then resumes only after the alleged discovery,” points out the lawsuit. “The video equipment was seized by SWAT officers, and was not returned for several months.”
Neenah officers are equipped with body cameras. None of those cameras was activated during the September 21, 2012 raid.
“If you look at the security camera footage of the raid, you’ll see that the SWAT operators completely trashed the business, tearing rooms apart in search of drugs,” Attorney Cole White pointed out to me. “In contrast, the officers ‘found’ the pot in the office in the first place they supposedly looked – and then they stopped looking. This makes no sense if they were actually trying to find evidence of a massive drug operation, but it makes perfect sense if they were simply trying to manufacture a cover charge to justify the raid.”
Erato was arrested and caged for eight days after the raid, during which time he was denied his prescription medications. While Erato was in jail, Neenah Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson – who had commanded the SWAT raid — led a team of municipal officials on an “inspection” of the building in search of additional pretexts to harass the owners and confiscate the property.
No evidence of drug manufacturing or narcotics dealing was ever found, but Erato was slapped with fifteen felony charges, all but one dealing with the discovery of firearms in a locked safe in the basement of the property. Those charges were all dismissed except for the single count of misdemeanor marijuana possession arising from the “discovery” of what was almost certainly planted evidence.
Understandably, Erato and Funk were left traumatized and fearful as a result of the raid. Erato’s second marriage was a casualty of the incident as well; his wife filed for divorce, “citing the psychological and emotional trauma Steve Erato suffered as having so damaged and changed him to such an extensive degree as to render their marriage irredeemably damaged.”
Significantly, the raid also destroyed the career of the only officer on the scene who expressed misgivings about it – Officer Renee Porter (who at the time was Renee Dubinski), who was ordered to arrest Erato.
“Following the search, several senior police officers stood and openly discussed what charges to manufacture against Erato,” recalls the suit. When Dubinski was told to take Erato into custody, she “openly questioned if the charges proferred were even appropriate” and later acknowledged that there was no probable cause to justify the arrest.
Three days later, as something other than luck would have it, the Neenah Police Department received what it described as “an external complaint” alleging that Dubinski, a probationary officer who had been hired about a year earlier, “was dating a known drug dealer by the name of Andrew Erspamer … and that Officer Dubinski did not want the Department to know about her relationship with Erspamer because if know, she would be fired from the Department.”
Many years earlier, Erspamer had been convicted of “illegal possession of controlled substances” – specifically, steroids. Like Dubinski, Erspamer is an amateur bodybuilder. At the time they were training partners and, as Dubinski grudgingly admitted, were having an affair. The complaint against Dubinski was most likely made by another of Erspamer’s girlfriends, and it was eagerly acted upon by a police department looking for a way to be rid of an officer who displayed the first worrisome symptoms of a conscience.
After several months and the expenditure of $184,000 on an official investigation, the Neenah PD fired Officer Dubinski. She has an active civil rights lawsuit against the department and the municipal government.
The September 2012 raid from which all of this ugliness sprouted was intended to close down the motorcycle shop and forfeit the property, according to the lawsuit. “Eagle Cycles and its neighboring businesses are holdouts in Neenah’s multi-million-dollar downtown renovation project,” attorney Cole White told me.
Significantly, on December 1 – just days before the hostage stand-off and the police killing of Michael Funk – the City of Neenah had filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming that the plaintiffs had neglect to respond a procedural ruling. “They sent notice of that earlier motion to the wrong address, and by the time it had arrived at my current business address the deadline to respond had passed,” White explained, referring to this as “a pretty familiar legal dirty trick.”
Dan Dringoli, who has worked with White in investigating the raid, believes that there’s even dirtier business involved in Michael Funk’s death at the hands of a police department he had sued.
“Does it sound right that a `hostage’ would run away from someone threatening to kill him, and then point a gun at a SWAT team?” asks the former Neenah police officer. “Why would they be confused as to whether Michael was a hostage, or a suspect? Steve was texting updates to the police during the hostage situation. And where is the footage from the body cameras and the surveillance footage?”
Playing the expected role in a very familiar script, Neenah Mayor Dean Kaufert has appealed for “patience” as the official “investigation” seeks for an acceptable reason to rule that the killing of Funk was justified.
Six months ago, Kaufert defended the Neenah PD’s acquisition of a $770,000 “Peacekeeper” armored vehicle through through the Pentagon’s notorious 1033 “surplus property” program. In his view, procuring this battlefield-grade vehicle was necessary to protect the city’s enforcement caste: “The one thing I don’t want to do during my tenure as mayor is … to go to a policeman’s funeral. And so if this vehicle can protect them I’m willing to accept that.”
The “Peacekeeper,” which was deployed during the December 5 hostage stand-off, did nothing to protect Michael Funk, whom the Neenah Police supposedly set out to rescue. His death could be the product of either incomprehensible misfortune or uncanny – and malicious – marksmanship on the part of a police department that institutionally had cause to resent him.
Funk, an Air Force veteran, was buried yesterday (December 13) in a ceremony attended by members of motorcycle clubs from across the Midwest. Kaufert, according to media reports, was apparently not in attendance. Given what Funk’s lawsuit reveals about the operations of his city’s government, and the police department that afflicts it, Mayor Kaufert’s presence would have been inappropriate, even if he had been inclined to attend.