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Neighbors of the man shot to death by police in Ashland Wednesday said they barely knew the man who moved into the home at 812 Fourth Ave. W. late last year.
They knew him as Joe. They saw him coming and going to work at Deltco Plastics in Ashland in his black SUV. Stephen Koenig, who lives next door, said he spoke to Joe once for a total of about one minute — the man generally kept to himself.
What Koenig and other neighbors didn't know was that "Joe" was a federal fugitive, reportedly wanted for shooting a police officer in the state of Oregon. He apparently had been hiding out and working in Ashland for months using a false name.
His ruse somehow came unraveled Wednesday when U.S. Marshals and a Sheboygan police officer, with help from Ashland police, tried to arrest him as he fled his home in his SUV.
The state Division of Criminal Investigation, which is handling the shooting case, has not released the man's real name, nor has it explained precisely what happened before and after the shooting. The U.S. Marshals Office refused to answer any questions about the case.
In a press release issued late Thursday, DCI said marshals were trying to arrest the man known locally as Joe when he rammed a police vehicle with his SUV and then was seen "handling a firearm," prompting police to open fire. Witnesses told the Daily Press they heard perhaps a dozen or more shots.
One of those shots sent a bullet whistling through the living room of Chuck Chronis, two doors down from Joe's house. The bullet blasted through his refrigerator and came to rest in the hood of a coat hanging on a kitchen chair.
Chronis's garage was destroyed when Joe's bullet-riddled SUV crashed into it, and the garage itself appeared to have taken the brunt of several rounds of ammunition. He escaped harm because he returned home from a run with his dog just after the shooting.
"There was crime tape around the whole house," he told the Daily Press Thursday. "It was a shock. You leave and your house is OK — my little castle — and when I get home that's what you expect. Instead you walk into a hornet's nest."
It was not the first time police visited Joe's home. Another neighbor, Steve Rheaume, lives just up the block from the home and watched about a week and a half earlier as Ashland police surrounded the house.
"I counted four officers with handguns drawn, and a fifth cruiser arrived," he said. "They are parked all around the house; I saw them positioning themselves. One was (in the side yard), a couple went to the back and there were a couple up front. The couple up front go to the front door and start knocking. There is no answer, and they keep knocking. Eventually the front door opens and then there is some shouting going on between the two officers in the front and whoever is in the house. Eventually they did rush into the house and they had handguns drawn."
Rheaume said police were inside the house that time for about 10 minutes before they left with no one in custody.
"I don't want to Monday-morning quarterback, but they were in that house and there was an issue," he said. "An issue that escalated to the point where they drew sidearms, and they walked away."
Those events leading up to the shooting and lack of information about how it all happened left Chronis, Rheaume and other residents of the neighborhood of neat, well-tended homes rattled and searching for answers about the man named Joe.
The call for help from local police went out at about 3 p.m. Wednesday when federal agents were approaching the home at 812 Fourth Ave. W. where Joe lived.
Moments later, all those shots rang out — some witnesses said as few as five, others as many as 17 or 18.
Rheaume was alerted to the disturbance when his dog started barking. He looked out the window of his house and saw the street lined with unmarked SUVs.
"I started counting and there were seven individuals already who were all vested, with helmets on and automatic rifles," he said. "They were all kind of getting into secure positions. A couple had shields and others were positioned behind gentlemen who had shields. Collectively more people were arriving and more people had vests that said U.S. Marshal on the back of them."
No Ashland police were involved at that point, he said.
"They did arrive eventually, but it was an operation with the U.S. Marshals," he said. "It was real evident that this was not an everyday thing."
At that point he called a neighbor, Henry Holton, who lives behind Joe's house. They kept up a running conversation about what they were watching unfold until an officer told Rheaume to get off his enclosed porch and go inside.
The gunfire erupted shortly afterward, as he still was on the phone with his neighbor.
"Henry said, 'He's running, he's on the run.' He ran from the house and got into a pickup truck and that's when the shooting started. He tried to make a run for it."
Rheaume, who served in the military, said the gunfire sounded to him just like the M-16 assault rifle he was familiar with from his time in the service.
"You can't count shots; there was more than one shooter involved," he said. "It was this da-dada-da-da-da. It was eight or 10 clustered shots."
No other shots were heard for the rest of the afternoon, meaning the rounds fired just after 3 p.m. must have left the suspect dead in the alley behind Chronis's home.
For some reason — Ashland Police Chief Jim Gregoire has refused to answer any questions about the incident and DCI refused to say anything beyond the press release it issued — officers still locked down the entire neighborhood and continued searching for someone.
Several square blocks were barricaded by police as SWAT teams were called in with armored vehicles. Emergency medical crews were staged on nearby streets as police ordered residents into their basements for safety.
Tim Piff and Josh Comer were walking down Fourth Avenue when they heard the shots. They continued down the road and into the 800 block, where an officer told them to take cover.
They hid between two houses across the street from 812 and watched as police surrounded the home and ordered someone inside to come out with hands up.
Both said they heard police repeatedly demand that someone named "Nelson" surrender. Officers carrying assault rifles and wearing body armor then used a ram to break down the front door, they said, and rush inside.
They heard no additional gunshots but did hear police saying something about performing CPR, they said.
Terry Weaver, who lives across the street at 819 Fourth Ave. W., told a Daily Press reporter he was napping Wednesday afternoon when he awakened to find his street teeming with police. When he looked outside, an officer told him to get to his basement for safety. Shortly afterward, he heard what he believed to be five or six gunshots.
Twice during the afternoon, explosions rattled windows of homes in the neighborhood as police used flash-bang grenades intended to stun suspects.
At 6 p.m., police declared the neighborhood safe and allowed most residents to return to their homes.
By that time, several officers had gathered around the shirtless body of a man lying prone on the ground behind a home at 314 Eighth St. W., just around the corner from the homes that had been surrounded. A Daily Press reporter said it appeared as though the officers and a coroner were examining the body and gathering evidence as another officer took photographs.
But about 10 houses around 812 Fourth Ave. W., including the alley in which Joe's shattered SUV rested on a flattened tire, remained cordoned off with police tape into Thursday as DCI agents collected evidence. Residents of those homes, including Chronis, had to spend the night elsewhere.
Residents told the Daily Press they're not sure when — if ever — their neighborhood will feel the same again. On Thursday, the shooting was still fresh in their minds.
"Yesterday I saw a dead body lying in the driveway, and the garage (being destroyed) didn't break me up, but that did," Chronis said. "Today I am angry, very angry. I am angry at the situation, that he thought he could just run through people's yards and evade the police, do whatever he wanted to do to get away, and if people got hurt or killed it seemed like he didn't care."
Paul Gulan lives at 806 Fourth Ave. W., one door down from the scene of the shooting in a tidy two-story house. He was among those turned away from the neighborhood during the lockdown.
"I don't know; this is freaky," Gulan said. "We had a bad incident happen here several years ago where that girl got her throat cut. Same house. I told my wife it's time to leave."
That incident was an attempted homicide in which a man cut his girlfriend's throat with a camp saw. She survived and he went to prison — which was of no comfort to Gulan Wednesday.
"I saw everyone crawling all over my property and I wondered, what the hell is going on? And of course, they won't tell you anything. I don't know what to think. It's not good. I am kind of glad I wasn't home."
Curtis West, who lives up the block from the shooting scene, was at home and heard the gunfire ring through the neighborhood he has called home all his life. He was frustrated that authorities released no information about the shooting or who was involved.
"I want to know whose body is lying in the f...ing alley. What if that's my neighbor?" West said.
Bodies in alleys are far from the norm in the neighborhood, which Rheaume's fiance Jody Johnson and other residents described as secure and quiet — until Wednesday.
"I guess I want to feel that our town is safe. I like to go walking at night," she said.
She and Chronis said that feeling of safety might take some time to return.
"You read about things like this," Chronis said. "You read about it in Chicago and New York and L.A. A little burg like Ashland, where everybody knows everybody and waves at them, and then this," he said shaking his head.
Daily Press reporters Michelle Jensen and Rick Olivo contributed to this report.
Ashland native Josh Smith carries the weight of the entire U.S. Army on his shoulders.
As a drill sergeant, he is responsible for training the next generation of troops that the United States will send into combat. What he teaches them could keep those soldiers alive or get them killed; could bring them home safely to loved ones or leave them bloodied on the battlefield.
And to do that properly, he believes he needs to be not just a great noncommissioned officer, but the best NCO in the entire Army Reserve.
"I have always wanted to push myself to be the best I can be," said Smith, a 2012 graduate of Ashland High School. "I don't want to go in front of privates and try to teach them how to be part of the Army if I can't do it myself."
Smith already has proven that he can do it himself.
He already was named the noncommissioned officer of the year for the Army Reserve's 95th Training Division, and then earned the same recognition for the entire 108th Regional Training Command.
In June he will compete at Fort Bragg, N.C., for the Army Reserve Noncommissioned Officer of the Year award and if he succeeds, he will go up against the best active-duty sergeants in the Army, competing for the All Army Noncommissioned Officer of the Year crown.
Rocketing to the top
What's remarkable about Smith's story is not that he has earned so much praise. It's that he has achieved it when less than four years of service, squaring off against NCOs with decades of olive drab blood running through their veins.
No mater how he finishes the next rounds of competition, he will have established himself as one of the Army's best NOCs, standing right beside those grizzled veterans.
It is a career that almost never happened.
"I kind of always wanted to be in the military. It always interested me, but my parents said I was going to college first. It was non-negotiable. I had to go to college," he said.
Smith threw himself into the challenge. He attended Concordia University of St. Paul, Minn., a Lutheran liberal arts school of about 5,000 students, and graduated after just three years, despite having a double major in criminal justice and psychology.
He also ran for Concordia's track and cross country teams, continuing a career in athletics he began in high school where he was on the golf team for two years, the baseball team for two years, the track team for two years and the cross country team for four years.
When he wasn't running or studying at Concordia, Smith ruminated. He took stock of the course his life was taking and what he would do once he graduated.
"It just came down to if I don't join the military now, I'm never going to do it," he said. "It had always been in the back of my mind, so I figured, what the heck, I'll give it a shot."
Smith graduated from Concordia and told his parents just five days before his graduation that he was joining the Army.
Love at first drill
Smith immediately felt he had made the correct choice. He loved military life — the discipline, the rigors of training, the commitment required.
But he also had a fiance to consider, a woman he met at Concordia. After his three-year hitch in the regular Army, he and now-wife Savannah married and they took stock.
He didn't want his young family to grow up moving from Army base to Army base, but he missed the regimen of service life. So he enlisted in the Army Reserve and picked up where he left off in the regular Army.
"It's hard to have a family and be on active duty, so being able to live with my wife and drill on weekends, especially as a drill sergeant candidate, it's a great feeling," he said.
Josh works as a conductor for the Canadian Pacific Railway in St. Paul, while Savannah is employed as a golf pro assistant at Braemar golf course in Edina, Minn.
With his college degrees, Smith could have trained to become an officer. But accepting yet another challenge, he joined as an enlisted man.
His father Mark, an engineer at Ashland's C.G. Bretting Manufacturing Co., said he wasn't surprised by that choice.
"He chose to in as an enlisted man because if he were to move up the chain of command, he wanted those below him to understand where he had been," said Mark. "He has walked in their shoes, and it also gives him a certain vision; they can't pull the wool over his eyes. He knew he was leaving money on the table, but Josh didn't go into the military for the money."
Mark said both he and Josh's mom Tracy, a special-education teacher in Ashland, fully expected their son to succeed in uniform.
"Josh has always had an inner drive. His motor is always going. He's been that way all along," he said. "He's worked out a game plan that he is working towards, and his mother and I are going to support that as best as we can, but he's putting in all the hard work to get the credentials that he wants."
That Josh now is training to be a top NCO seems almost a foregone conclusion. Parents with a touch of drill sergeant raised him themselves.
"Mark and I set the expectations for our sons early," Tracy Smith said. "We said 'God gave you a good brain, and you will use it, that is what we expect.'"
That's the same thing Capt. Jessica Phelan expects. She is Smith's commanding officer, and she has even higher standards than his parents.
"We expect the best out of these drill sergeants. They are going to be training soldiers for war, getting soldiers prepared for whatever their military job is, so they have to be leaders, they need to be motivated," she said.
Phelan said leading Smith has been easy. She makes her expectations known, and he meets them — or exceeds them.
"He's not been in the Army that long; he's just coming up to four years total service and he is excelling in front of soldiers that have many more years of experience," she said. "He has proven again and again that he can be up to the level of these other individuals, and beat them."
He's beaten them so far, but the next round of competition promises to be more challenging as he faces ever-more-experienced and driven fellow NCOs.
To advance, Smith will have to demonstrate that he has mastered all the physical and mental tests a soldier might encounter in combat — marksmanship, orientation and map reading, physical fitness and all of the other leadership skills required to lead soldiers into battle and bring them home safely.
"There are many, many tests," Wilson said. "So if you blow one, you aren't out of it. It looks at everything you do."
Smith is approaching the competition with the same attitude he took when he enlisted.
"It's just an honor to represent not only myself and my family, but my unit in Neenah," he said. "There are so many good soldiers who take part in these competitions, it is an honor to be here."
The Fruit Loop, a famous knot of farms and orchards growing berries and apples in abundance, is a tasty slice of Bayfield Peninsula life seeded more than 100 years ago and still topping tourists' agendas.
The secret to the Fruit Loop's enduring success is the area's microclimate, said David Eades, executive director of Bayfield Chamber and Visitor Bureau.
Lake Superior and the Apostle Islands combine forces to create a microclimate that's a little warmer in winter and cooler in summer than surrounding areas, making conditions perfect for apples and berries, he said.
Jason Fischbach, a UW-Extension ag agent for Bayfield and Ashland counties, also credited the farms' well-drained, sandy soil and location atop a hill that sends cold air descending, therefore lending a little more protection to the crops.
But that's probably more information than a fruit-lover needs to know. The real questions are: How has this spring's cool, wet weather affected this year's crop, when will particular fruits or berries be ready, and where do we go?
Variety is key
Bayfield's unique climate ensures that apples or some variety of berry prolifically produce sweet, succulent fruit during any given year.
And the number of different varieties of fruit that call the Bayfield area home is astounding. Strawberries — "so sweet and amazing," said Eades, practically licking his lips — typically kick of the berry season in mid-June.
They are followed, generally in this order, by currants, juneberries, cherries, raspberries, gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, pears and plums.
The emphatic punctuation to the season is the apple harvest, celebrated in style at Bayfield's annual Apple Festival in October.
And don't assume that because you've traveled the popular Fruit Loop tour in the past that you have it all down to a science.
There's a fair amount of variation in the crops that boom or bust each year, Fischbach said, due to the fact that berries and apples tend to produce heavily one year and less the following.
For example, although apples seem to currently rule the Fruit Loop, they haven't always been king of the fields. Strawberries, for one thing, proliferated in the area in the 1920s and '30s, Eades said, and in the mid-2000s, raspberries and blueberries did exceptionally well.
Fruit Loop farms and orchards offer more than the chance to pick your own fruit or let them do the picking chores for you. They also provide a variety of jams, jellies and fruit butters, as well as vegetables, dried flowers, herbs and honey, among other things.
Two families in particular, the Ericksons and Hausers, figure prominently in Bayfield's growth into the Berry Capital of Wisconsin.
Jim Erickson, 88 years old and still involved in the family business, started tending apples in his tender teens on the farm high above the waters of Lake Superior that his grandfather started in 1910.
It wasn't all about the apples for Jim. He held a commercial fishing license for 50 years and would go out on the boat early in the morning, only to return to put in a full day's work in the orchard and not see his bed until 10 p.m.
"You gotta put your mind into anything you do," he said. "It's a lot of work."
But his schedule was hardly unusual; many bay-area fishermen and loggers supplemented their incomes by growing apples and berries, Fischbach said.
First to prove that apple trees could flourish in the seemingly harsh northern Wisconsin winters near the Apostle Islands, Roswell Pendergast and his wife, Helen, planted more than 1,000 trees and shrubs on Michigan Island in 1870 as a sideline business. (As part of a lighthouse restoration effort, new apple trees have been planted there to honor Pendergast's influence.)
But it wasn't until 1905 that William Knight founded the first commercial orchard operation on the mainland after he observed that fruit trees did well, spurring him to plant 20 acres each of cherries and apples.
Some of Knight's original apple trees, bearing an apple dubbed Dudley, still stand — and bear fruit — at Hauser's Superior View Farm.
In 1908 Swiss-American John Hauser started growing strawberries and potatoes, and when the Great Depression arrived, his son J. Dawson established an apple orchard to help make ends meet.
That 30-acre orchard, now run by Jim Hauser Sr., 84, Jim "Fritz" Hauser Jr. and Dane Hauser, generation No. 5, has about 12 to 15 types of apples, including the Dudley.
Ellen Hauser, Fritz's wife, acclaimed the vintage Dudley for its suitability for apple pies. It's on the tart side and keeps its shape well during the baking, she said.
The next generation of farmers is busy planting new varieties of apples and other fruit. Jim Erickson's son, Fred, took over Erickson's Orchards in 2014 and continues to keep the family business thriving.
And at Hauser's, Dane and his sister, Becca, branched out to brew hard apple cider to sell in the new Apfelhaus Cidery, Dane's mother, Ellen Hauser, said. They also have an apple variety unique to the orchard called Hauser's Merlot, so-called because of its beautiful burgundy color.
Spring showers — and then some
Although this spring has not been kind, showering the Fruit Loop with rain and snow and clocking in at colder-than-normal temperatures, Fred Erickson and Fritz Hauser remain optimistic their crops will prevail.
Erickson said the chilly, damp spring slowed crops down slightly, but it doesn't seem to have caused harm and strawberry plants are "greening up nicely."
But he hesitates to say this year's strawberries will be ready starting June 19 — last year's first-pick mark.
"Time will tell," he said.
Hauser agreed strawberries may ripen later in June, although he wouldn't mind a good crop coming in around the Fourth of July when more people can enjoy picking them at the farm.
Meanwhile, his apple trees have dodged a fateful end simply by not yet opening their blossoms, which typically appear around Memorial Day. Cold weather can stunt or kill apple growth if it freezes vulnerable blossoms.
So far, Hauser said, he's knocking on wood.
Watching and waiting farmers may be at the mercy of the weather, but fruit and berry fans don't have to guess when the crops will finally arrive for their enjoyment.
For insider knowledge of which berry, fruit or apple is in season and where they're growing check out the Bayfield Chamber and Visitor Bureau's Fruit Loop website, bayfield.org, or call the chamber at 715-779-3335. When berry season opens around the middle of June, the chamber updates conditions at the farms and orchards twice a week, Eades said.