The owner of a popular restaurant and concert venue on Madeline Island has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over an August arrest at his home, citing police brutality brought on by a decades-long family feud.
Tom Nelson, the longtime operator of Tom's Burned Down Café, was arrested and Tasered multiple times inside his La Pointe home on August 12, 2014. The incident, which happened in front of Nelson's wife and two young children, came shortly after he was involved in a minor traffic collision.
Nelson, 61, alleges that the arrest was unlawful and that Police Chief William Defoe used "unreasonable and excessive force" in arresting him. Nelson claims that the arrest came at the direction of his estranged cousin, Town Board Chairman Greg Nelson.
"The constitutional violations were carried out when William Defoe went to (Tom Nelson's) home and forcefully entered it without a warrant or probable cause," said Bayfield attorney Glenn Stoddard, who represents Tom Nelson.
The suit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin, names the town of La Pointe, Defoe and Greg Nelson as defendants.
According to the suit, Tom and Greg Nelson are "first cousins who have been directly involved in an ongoing Nelson family feud for many years and they have disliked and distrusted each other for nearly 20 years."
The August incident began when the cousins were involved in a traffic collision, according to court documents. Defoe, chief of the two-member department, was flagged down by Greg Nelson, who showed him damage to his logging truck and stated that he "wanted Tom Nelson arrested," the suit alleges.
Defoe drove to Tom Nelson's home and arrested him - an incident that was captured on body camera video, which was provided to the News Tribune by Stoddard.
The video shows the door opening and Defoe saying, "Hey, Tom." Nelson responds by pointing at Defoe and yelling, "Get off my property! Go get a warrant! Get out of here! Stay out!"
As Nelson backs up slightly, Defoe appears to reach across the threshold and attempts to handcuff Nelson. When Nelson further retreats, Defoe enters the home and deploys his Taser on Nelson.
Shouting continues between the two men and Defoe deploys his Taser - three times, total, according to the complaint - before Nelson falls down at the doorway and is handcuffed.
The incident was witnessed by Nelson's wife and children, ages 3 and 7, according to the lawsuit.
Nelson was taken to the Ashland County Jail and was charged with five offenses, including operating while intoxicated and hit-and-run. Nelson later accepted a plea agreement, pleading no contest to disorderly conduct and reckless driving charges.
The lawsuit alleges that Nelson's arrest violated the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures. The suit is critical of the policies of Defoe, who became head of the department last summer.
"Defoe's new policing policies included authorization of the Town's police officers to conduct warrantless home entries, and warrantless searches of persons alleged to have committed minor offenses, without probable cause or exigent circumstances," Stoddard wrote.
Citing "physical and mental pain and suffering" and numerous other factors, the suit seeks unspecified monetary damages.
Reached by phone Monday night, Greg Nelson said he had just learned of the complaint and had not had a chance to review it. "I still don't know in what capacity I'm involved in the suit, so I really can't comment at this time," he said.
Messages left for Defoe and other town officials were not immediately returned.
Tom Nelson has long owned Tom's Burned Down Café, a 40-foot trailer set among the ruins of a fire-ruined eatery on Madeline Island. The venue is a popular summer tourism eatery and music venue.
Greg Nelson is the elected chairman of the town's board of supervisors, which governs the town's services, including the police department.