Rural Port neighbors settle suit filed years ago by family of man targeted because of his crimes
A protracted legal dispute between neighbors sparked by a 2009 campaign targeting a Town of Port Washington sex offender has been settled, an Ozaukee County Circuit Court judge was told Monday — the day the case was finally set to go to trial.
Lawyers for Wanda Keller and her family and Barbara Patterson told Judge Joseph Voiland they had agreed upon a confidential settlement, bringing seven years of litigation that included a Wisconsin Court of Appeals decision to an end.
“I really can’t say much, but I’m certainly glad this is all over at last,” said Keller, who along with her husband Allan and son Greggory Lentz filed a civil lawsuit against Patterson, the Kellers’ neighbor, in December 2009.
Patterson was among a handful of area residents who in April of that year distributed material in the Port Washington and Saukville areas informing people that Mrs. Keller’s other son, Michael Lentz, was a sex offender living with his mother and stepfather at their Town of Port Washington home.
The materials included Wanda and Allen Keller’s names, their address and phone number and information from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections sex offender registry about Michael Lentz. It also included information about a meeting for “concerned citizens” at the Niederkorn Library in Port Washington, which was cancelled at the urging of authorities for fear that violence would erupt.
Michael Lentz, who has lived with his parents much of his life, was required to register as a sex offender in 2003 after pleading no contest in Washington County Circuit Court to two counts of sexual assault of a child and one count of child enticement for having sex with two 15-year-old girls in a West Bend park in 2002. Lentz, who was 27 at the time of his crimes, was sentenced to one year in the Washington County jail as a condition of probation.
Patterson could not be reached for comment this week, but in 2009 she told Ozaukee Press, “Our goal was to put his picture everywhere there might be young children.
“This is just not the community for him. He should move on, for his own good and our good.”
The revelation Monday that a case that has dragged on for years was settled at the 11th hour appeared to irritate Voiland, who noted that just three days earlier lawyers for both sides said they were prepared for the four-day trial and that jurors had taken off of work.
“This case has been pending for seven years and the day of the trial we suddenly have a settlement,” he said, adding that he will consider assessing jury fees to the plaintiff and defendant.
James Walrath, Patterson’s attorney, told Voiland that his rulings on two motions during a hearing on Friday prompted discussions between the parties and a settlement was reached over the weekend.
Although relieved this week to have the case settled, Mrs. Keller said in April 2009 that the campaign targeting her son had turned their lives on end.
“We’re getting harassing calls from people who scream horrible things in the phone,” she said seven years ago. “My husband is up half the night looking out the window because he’s afraid they’re going to burn our house down. I’m afraid someone is going to start shooting at us. I won’t let Mike out of the house for fear someone will hurt him.”
The Kellers eventually hired a lawyer, who in August 2009 sent a letter to Patterson informing her the Kellers intended to sue her for invasion of privacy but Patterson could contact the Kellers’ attorney if she wanted to avoid litigation.
Instead, on Aug. 27, 2009, Patterson petitioned the court for temporary restraining orders against Mrs. Keller and Greggory Lentz and filed a civil lawsuit against Mr. and Mrs. Keller and Greggory and Michael Lentz alleging “harassment, slander, extortion and threat to life.”
The petitions and civil complaint alleged that Greggory and Mrs. Keller had guns they intended to use against Patterson, that Greggory had “documented violent behavior” and the Kellers had been spreading lies about her, much of which an appeals court later concluded was false.
According to Patterson’s subsequent testimony during depositions, the allegations against Greggory stemmed in part from a police report involving an incident in Port Washington’s Upper Lake Park.
In April 2009, Greggory Lentz confronted a woman whom he mistakenly thought was posting flyers about his brother. A confrontation between Lentz and another man ensued.
Lentz, who was cited for disorderly conduct, told police he was being threatened by a mob in the park and said that if he attended the meeting of “concerned citizens” at the Niederkorn Library, “he believed an officer should be there or asked if he should bring a gun,” according to the police report.
Temporary restraining orders against Mrs. Keller and Greggory Lentz were granted, but before they could be served, Patterson withdrew the petitions and her lawsuit.
Months later, the Kellers and Greggory Lentz sued Patterson for invasion of privacy, defamation and abuse of the legal process. They alleged Patterson’s actions were intended to harass them and, because Patterson’s allegations in her restraining order petitions became public records easily accessible on the state’s online court record known as CCAP, Mrs. Keller’s lost work as an in-home nurse.
Patterson subsequently filed a motion for summary judgment, and then-Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Tom Wolfgram dismissed the lawsuit.
The Kellers appealed the case, and while the court of appeals agreed with Wolfgram that they did not have grounds to sue for invasion of privacy or defamation, it ruled the family had a case for abuse of process.
“When Patterson went to the courthouse on Aug. 27, 2009, she filed a complaint with allegations that were somewhere between grossly exaggerated and patently false, as evidence by her own testimony,” the court wrote in its 2012 decision.
“Because of the timing of the petitions so close to the Keller’s attorney’s letter regarding a possible lawsuit, one reasonable inference is that Patterson allegedly filed the false petitions in an attempt to gain leverage in potential upcoming proceedings and/or an attempt to intimidate the Kellers from taking any action against her.
“The undisputed facts in the record could lead a reasonable fact-finder to conclude that Patterson abused the legal process when she made false allegations against the Kellers and Greggory.”
Patterson petitioned the Wisconsin Supreme Court to review the case, but her request was denied.