Wisconsin State Journal

Judge's son accused often, rarely prosecuted

May 23, 2009

HORTONVILLE — Reymundo Avila says he doesn’t remember what prompted Michael Froehlich to attack him, chase him through the streets of Hortonville and taunt him with racial slurs while Avila cowered in his second-floor apartment with a broken nose.

Avila, who admits he had plenty to drink that night, said his memory of the Sept. 11, 2005, incident starts with him running, bleeding from the face, from the bar Froehlich owned in this community 120 miles northeast of Madison to another bar across the street. He says it continues with Froehlich and at least one other man chasing Avila to his apartment.

“All I know is when he did what he did, I walked out of the bar. I was in a daze,” recalls Avila, 48, who has since moved from Hortonville. “My face was pretty well messed up.”

Normally, the type of attack suffered by Avila — whose account is backed by other witnesses in Hortonville police reports — could land a perpetrator behind bars for months, if not years. But Froehlich, 34, walked away from that incident without so much as a fine — and it wasn’t the only time.

Records show that over the past four years, officers from Hortonville and Outagamie County have arrested and ticketed Froehlich, the son of Outagamie County Circuit Judge Harold Froehlich, more than a dozen times for allegedly making threatening phone calls, drunken-driving related offenses, resisting arrest, battery, false imprisonment and threatening a sheriff’s deputy.

During that time, Froehlich has been criminally prosecuted just once — in 2008 — after he was caught driving drunk for the third time with a 0.361 percent blood-alcohol level, more than four times the legal limit.

In two other incidents, Froehlich was fined but not criminally charged after wrecking pickups — including one instance in which he later admitting to having been drinking, according to police reports. In both cases, he fled the scene and eluded police for more than three hours, preventing police from taking a blood sample for alcohol testing.

In an interview, Froehlich, who now lives in Appleton, denied he was driving either time — contradicting what he told police.
“You can’t put me in that vehicle,” he said of one of the crashed trucks. “I never acknowledged that.”

In the Avila case, Froehlich acknowledged ousting him from his bar, The Thirsty Otter, because, he said, Avila was “not welcome” there, but he denied chasing him through town. “Never happened,” Froehlich said, contradicting other witnesses’ version of events.
Michael Froehlich
Michael Froehlich, the son of Outagamie County Circuit Judge Harold Froehlich, has been arrested and ticketed more than a dozen times in the past four years but he has been criminally prosecuted just once.

‘Terrified’ residents, chief says

Hortonville Police Chief Michael Sullivan said the younger Froehlich “terrified” residents in this community of 2,700 people and has repeatedly dodged consequences in Outagamie County, where his father has been on the bench for 28 years.

The Wisconsin State Journal found no evidence that Froehlich’s father ever sought to influence his son’s treatment by authorities. Through an assistant, the judge declined to comment on his son’s legal troubles.

To avoid any potential conflict of interest, Outagamie County District Attorney Carrie Schneider said she referred seven cases involving Froehlich to the district attorney in Brown County and two to Winnebago County since 2005.

Just one of those nine cases — the third-offense drunken driving — was prosecuted, by Winnebago County, resulting in a conviction. The other eight are either pending or were dropped.

According to online court records, however, Schneider’s office handled six other referrals from police, including unlawful use of a telephone, drunken driving-first offense, failure to notify police of an accident, and hit and run. In each case, Outagamie County court records show, Froehlich was ordered to pay a civil forfeiture.

Schneider didn’t respond to repeated messages over the past several weeks. And while Brown County District Attorney John Zakowski declined to prosecute most of the cases sent by Schneider, he denied any special treatment. (One referral sent last month for unlawful use of a telephone is pending.)

“Nobody took steps to ensure that (Froehlich) not be prosecuted, and there was never any communication with (Harold) Froehlich, the judge,” Zakowski said. “If it was anybody else, given those facts, he wouldn’t be prosecuted. It’s so ridiculous to think this guy would get a break because he’s a judge’s son. The cases were just not that good.”

In the Avila case, for example, Zakowski said, “everyone was drunk” and no one saw the attack, which would have made it difficult to prove the case. But Sullivan, who referred the case to Schneider for prosecution, said several witnesses were sober, and Froehlich acknowledged to him that he manhandled Avila.

According to Sullivan’s report, during the 13-mile ride to the Outagamie County Jail in Appleton, Froehlich admitted calling Avila a “useless Mexican,” grabbing him around the neck and physically tossing him out of The Thirsty Otter but said it was in response to Avila “throwing things” around his bar.

“Froehlich also brought up several times that his dad is a judge, but I should not worry about it because he does not like dropping names,” Sullivan reported.

Froehlich denies threat

According to the numerous police reports compiled by Hortonville and the Outagamie County Sheriff’s Department, Froehlich is often quoted threatening officers and bragging about his ability to avoid prosecution.

In the transcript of one tape-recorded conversation with Outagamie County Sheriff’s Deputy Shawn Oligney in 2006, Froehlich made a veiled threat to harm Oligney’s children if he ticketed him for making harassing phone calls to one of his former employees, Melissa Reimer.

The sheriff’s office referred that incident — and the text and tapes of the phone messages Froehlich allegedly left on the former bartender’s phone — for criminal prosecution but no charges were filed. Oligney declined to comment on the case.

For his part, Froehlich contended the veiled threat to Oligney “never happened.”

Standoff at the tavern

One incident on Oct. 14, 2005, culminated in Froehlich locking himself in The Thirsty Otter with a frightened patron while police, investigating reports that Froehlich created a disturbance at another bar, surrounded Froehlich’s tavern. Although the incident prompted police to arrest Froehlich on several tentative charges, he again wasn’t prosecuted.

During the standoff, the woman told police she repeatedly asked Froehlich to let her go. She said he relented after she told him “either he lets me out, or I can get him in trouble.”

At one point, Harold Froehlich and his wife came to The Thirsty Otter. The younger Froehlich was arrested, police said, after his father restrained him. Hortonville police referred a complaint alleging false imprisonment, trespassing, resisting police and disorderly conduct to the Outagamie County district attorney’s office, but no charges were brought.

Asked about that incident, Michael Froehlich became agitated, called a reporter a series of vulgar names, then hung up.

Two mystery cases

The disposition of two cases against Froehlich remains a mystery. Schneider said she referred seven cases to Brown County, but Zakowski said he knows of just five, including the referral sent last month.

The two referrals unaccounted for are from the 2006 allegations investigated by Oligney involving threatening phone messages to Reimer and her fiancee, and another complaint from that year about continuing harassment of the couple. Zakowski has asked Schneider’s office and the police agencies to resend the reports for evaluation of possible charges.

Schneider didn’t respond to messages seeking an explanation for the discrepancies or the reason for not seeking a special prosecutor in the six cases against Froehlich that her office handled.

Under Wisconsin Supreme Court rules, prosecutors are required to act on a conflict of interest “as soon as they become aware of it,” said Keith Sellen, director of the Office of Lawyer Regulation, who emphasized he was speaking generally and not commenting on Schneider’s conduct.

According to OLR records, the agency investigated Schneider for a possible conflict of interest in 2005 after her office initially prosecuted Schneider’s brother, Thomas Q. Rathsack Jr., for third-offense drunken driving. Schneider showed up at the scene of her brother’s motorcycle crash before he was arrested and taken to the hospital for treatment, police records show.

The regulatory agency declined to discipline Schneider in that incident, however, noting she eventually turned the case over to Brown County.

Handling of cases ‘fishy’

Sullivan said the two missing cases and the rationale for not prosecuting most of the others appear “fishy” to him.

He’s not the only one. In all, Reimer and her fiancee have called police at least half a dozen times to report threatening phone calls and text messages from Froehlich. Last month, Schneider referred a case of unlawful use of a telephone to Brown County. No decision on prosecution has been made, Zakowski said.

Froehlich “has basically always gotten a slap on the wrist,” Reimer said. “He’s been sent ticket after ticket. It doesn’t seem to affect him at all.”

Zakowski said the cases he declined lack proof that Froehlich engaged in criminal activity. “There’s no statute for prosecuting somebody who’s being difficult or a jerk,” he said.

Sullivan disagreed.

If he believed the incidents weren’t prosecutable, the chief said, “we never would’ve sent them up.”

Froehlich “was just very abusive, just very dangerous. That’s the part that really upsets me. He was left to roam the streets and harm people.”

Police/Prosecutor Misconduct
Truth in Justice