Small town sends armored vehicle, 24 officers to collect debt from 75-year-old

Small town sends armored vehicle, 24 officers to collect debt from 75-year-old
An armored military vehicle and 24 armed police officers: That’s what the sheriff’s department in a small Wisconsin town used to collect a civil judgement from a 75-year-old man, who has filed a $4.5 million lawsuit against the town over the incident.

Marathon County sheriff's deputies went to Roger Hoeppner’s property in the town of Stettin to serve a writ of execution against the 75-year-old for the $86,000 he and his family owed the municipality.

The police expected to have to seize and remove tractors and wooden pallets to pay the judgment, which is why so many deputies were on hand, Sheriff's Capt. Greg Bean told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Hoeppner is known to be argumentative, he added, but not dangerous.

"I was doing my battery of pills for myself and for my wife and I looked out the window and I saw numerous activity up there with numerous unmarked squad cars and a battery of officers and I called 911 at that time and a reporter says that they were there to serve a judgement against me," Hoeppner explained to WSAW.

He quickly called his lawyer, Ryan Lister, who was also unaware that deputies were arriving to collect the debt. The attorney told the Journal-Sentinel that he was stopped by a roadblock that was kept up until after his client had been taken away in handcuffs.

"Rather than provide Mr. Hoeppner or his counsel notice...and attempt to collect without spending thousands of taxpayer dollars on the military-style maneuvers, the town unilaterally decided to enforce its civil judgment" with a show of force, Lister told the Journal-Sentinel.

The police said they didn’t call in the crews ‒ and the armored vehicle ‒ until after they knocked on Hoeppner's door and no one answered, despite being able to see Hoeppner, his wife and adult son closing curtains and "scurrying" around inside, the Wausau Daily Herald reported.

"That's not normal behavior and it causes us concern, especially when there are a lot of threatening statements leading up to this and our attempts at arbitration and mediating this out failed," Marathon County Chief Deputy Chad Billeb, who was at the scene, said at a press conference on Monday. "We don't want to take a chance with our officers' safety."

Hoeppner owns about 20 acres outside of town, where he restores antique tractors and runs a pallet repair business, according to the Journal Sentinel. In 2008, the town sued Hoeppner over claimed violations of ordinances about zoning, signs, rubbish and vehicles. The two parties settled a year later, but Stettin officials felt he reneged on the deal and filed for a motion for contempt and enforcement. In September 2010, a judge ordered Hoeppner to clean up his land. The property owner didn’t comply, and so the judge then authorized the town to seize assets, which officials did in summer of 2011, selling the tractors, pallets and other items for “pennies on the dollar,” Lister said. Hoeppner was then issued a $500-a-day fine in April 2013 for his previous non-compliance.

"This has been a long outstanding problem between the resident and the township and it's been contentious. We've had deputies go to town board meetings to do security. We know we've had our staff involved to mediate this over a number of months trying to calm the situation and it never got any better,” Billeb said.

By October 2, that daily fine amounted to $86,000, which the town sought to collect that day. When Hoeppner failed to open the door, deputies called in the Marathon County Response Vehicle (MRAV) and began inventorying the items on the property.

That brought the 75-year-old then out of the house, but he soon got “pushy” and tried bowling past them, police said, according to the Daily Herald. That’s when a lieutenant handcuffed the property owner.

"I've been involved in about five standoff situations where, as soon as the MARV showed up, the person gives up," saving the county time, money and increasing safety, Bean said to the Journal-Sentinel. "People may not always understand why, but an armored vehicle is almost a necessity now."

The department obtained the armored ‒ but not weaponized ‒ vehicle in 2011, and it has since been deployed 53 times.

The 75-year-old and his wife have filed a claim for damages against the town in the amount of $4.5 million, according to WSAW.

"It's a long-running, heavily litigated dispute over his use of his property," another of Hoeppner’s lawyers (on an unrelated matter), Jeff Scott Olson, told the Journal-Sentinel. "They're trying to collect in a very heavy-handed manner."

Stettin officials agreed to drop $6,000 from his bill, in exchange for Hoeppner paying the bill that day without the town needing to haul away and sell the equipment from his property.

"The $86,000 figure is enough to shock most men," the 75-year-old said. "And they wanted it now, today."

Hoeppner estimates that his prolonged battle with the town has cost him about $200,000, a retirement fund he "worked very hard to accumulate," he told the Journal-Sentinel. In addition, he said, the events on October 2 upset his wife so much that he had to take her to a hospital for a few hours that day.