Prison sentence imposed in rural Lena standoff

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Benser fired shots at officers who came to check on him

Warren Bluhm,

Thomas Benser, left, is escorted into Oconto County Circuit Court, where Judge Michael T. Judge sentenced him to prison for a March 10 standoff at his rural Lena home during which he fired shots toward sheriff’s deputies and a state trooper. (Times Herald photo by Warren Bluhm)

When the judge said he was sentencing Thomas Benser to 10 years in the state prison system on the first of three counts, the 51-year-old defendant gasped as if he had been punched in the gut. As the judge added 10 years for each of the other charges – five years in a state corrections institution followed by five years of extended supervision on each count – he started to sob.

Oconto County Circuit Judge Michael T. Judge’s ruling Thursday puts the Lena man behind bars for up to 15 years, followed by 15 years of extended supervision, for shooting at officers who came to check on his welfare March 10 after he threatened to take his own life.

As a deputy escorted Benser out of the courtroom and back to the county jail to await transport to a state prison, he began to wail.

“My life is over. I did not fire those shots,” Benser shouted. “Lawyers – liars! Bunch of liars!”

Benser’s attorney, Jonathan Carver Smith, reminded Judge his client only remembers taking the first shot, and it was a warning shot into the ground about 35 yards from the nearest human being, a statement Benser made to the state agent who prepared the presentence investigative report.

“From there he holed up, and there’s a lack of clarity and again I think that has to do with consumption of copious amounts of whiskey,” Smith said. “Law enforcement says he fired multiple shots, and he doesn’t believe he did but doesn’t remember, and I guess accepts that … There’s certainly sufficient reports of multiple shots being fired, so I’m not taking issue with that, but I just don’t know and I can’t be certain as to the amount or number.”

What is certain is that Benser pleaded no contest on Oct. 5 to two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, for shots fired at Oconto County Sheriff’s Lt. Matt Morrissey and Deputy Christopher Barribeau, and one count of second-degree recklessly endangering safety for a shot fired toward Wisconsin State Patrol Trooper Patrick Callahan. He faced a maximum penalty of 75 years in prison and $75,000 in fines for the three felonies.

The criminal complaint said one shot struck a tree that Morrissey was hiding behind, and one struck a wood shed near Barribeau, spraying him with wood fragments.

“I’m very sorry; I never intended to hurt anybody ever in my life,” Benser told Judge before he was sentenced, the only time he spoke before his outburst after the hearing.

Originally he had been charged with five counts of attempted first-degree intentional homicide, four counts of first-degree reckless endangerment, one count of second-degree reckless endangerment, one count of strangulation and suffocation, one count of substantial battery, one count of failing to comply with an arresting officer, and a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct.

Judge ruled that after his first 10 years in prison, Benser will be eligible for the Substance Abuse Program, an early-release option under which his remaining prison time would be converted to extended supervision if he successfully completes the program. In any case the sentence gives the Department of Corrections oversight over Benser until 2048, and he could go back to prison if he violated conditions of his extended supervision, which include maintaining absolute sobriety.

The judge received 13 letters of character reference from Benser’s family and friends, describing him as a basically good man who is a completely different person under the influence of alcohol.

“I actually feel sorry for you and your family for what you did, for what you did to yourself and to them,” Judge said. “It’s too bad … They told me you are a loving, caring and respectful man – when you are not consuming alcohol.”

He read from the letters that “Thomas is a caring man, a hard worker, and loves his children and grandchildren,” and “Thomas is kind, considerate, and friendly.”

“Where was this Thomas on March 10? Where was he?” Judge said. “What he was doing was putting community-serving law enforcement officers’ lives at risk of injury or death, that’s what he was doing.”

Oconto County District Attorney Edward Burke had asked for a 10-year prison sentence, saying Benser’s motives were not as important as punishing his actions and protecting the community from him.

“Understanding that Mr. Benser has a world-class alcohol problem, understanding that Mr. Benser has probably a world-class mental health problem … two of the officers are here – Lt. Morrissey and Christopher Barribeau – all they were doing on that day was trying to make sure that Mr. Benser was OK … they were doing their job.”

Benser has a 22-year history of relatively petty crimes, Burke said, noting that he had last seen the defendant in 2014, when he was being sentenced for disorderly conduct.\

“Mr. Benser was sober, Mr. Benser swore off alcohol for the rest of his life, and he tearfully … admitted openly that alcohol had ruined his life and his relationships,” Burke said. “But Mr. Benser sober and Mr. Benser blacked out drunk are completely two different human beings, and we’ve seen it time and time again with Mr. Benser. Drinking is not his thing; if he doesn’t get it, he’s got to be confined.”