Fugitive hid in solar-powered bunker in woods for years, Wis. police say

Bunker near Ringle housed Portage Co. fugitive for over 3 years

RINGLE, Wis. (WSAW/Gray News) – Standing 20 feet away from the bunker, swatting at a cloud of mosquitoes undoubtedly breeding in the swamp nearby, you’d never know it was there.

Jeremiah Button’s jury trial in Portage County was just two weeks away when he disappeared in early 2016. Charged with first-degree child sexual assault and possession of child pornography, Button had been out on a $25,000 cash bond for about a year and a half when he vanished.

That was when he built the bunker, he would later tell deputies with the Marathon County Sheriff’s Office. Carved into an embankment near the Ice Age Trail on state land in the township of Ringle and protected from sight by thickened underbrush that he himself had helped create, Button would escape detection from law enforcement for almost three and a half years until a concerned hunter called police on Friday, Aug. 9.

Thomas Nelson has lived in Wausau all his life, and he's a frequent hunter on the state land near the bunker.

“I followed the brush marks, I saw the door. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough,” Nelson recalled from the first time he found the bunker several months ago. Someone was living there, and his curiosity overpowered him and he returned months later to find out why.

“There was no way you could have seen this if you didn’t know there was something there,” he said. Last Friday, he approached the bunker--the door wasn’t latched.

“I pushed the door open, and I look inside and I can see canned foods, there’s little storage boxes, and I’m like... I got to go in,” he said. “I come around the corner a bit and there he is, laying in his bed.” Nelson pauses to take a deep breath. “I mean, I was shaking when I went in, I was shaking when I went out.”

He moved a safe distance away and called law enforcement, guiding them to the door of the bunker and leading to a twenty-minute standoff with MCSO deputies on the roof of Button’s bunker last Friday morning. When it was over, Deputy Matt Kecker described Button’s attitude as almost welcoming, glad for human interaction.

“He told us that he was wanted through Portage County for numerous warrants,” Kecker said. Button wanted to talk, and deputies had no trouble getting him to describe how he’d survived the last three humid summers and brutal winters.

Pushing in the log door and crossing the bunker threshold, we were first met with a wave of foul, dusty air. But after stepping inside, the smell isn’t actually bad despite everything inside but the television (yes, television) coming from the nearby landfill—it’s cool and smells like cold earth.

There’s barely room for myself, my camera, and the officers who had hiked out with me: Kecker and Detective Lieutenant Jeff Stefonek. Inside, the walls were covered with dusty cans of food, storage bins, and every other type of thing imaginable--miniature fans dangled from the ceiling, and an old radio still faintly crackled with an advertisement.

"He has solar panels up on the roof that power three car batteries inside the structure," Stefonek pointed out. "And from those three car batteries he has running to LED lights and radios and cooling fans, all sorts of electronic equipment, some of it left intact for its intended purpose, and other things he took apart to fit the needs he had."

There’s a bike-powered generator for the days when the sun can’t power the batteries from the solar panels on the roof of the structure--which forms the top of the embankment.

"He said the initial build took him from the time he got out to the time he disappeared," Kecker said. "It was roughly about half this size, but as he started bringing stuff back from the landfill that he needed to make his life more comfortable, he had to expand. So he dug out even further into the wall."

Electricity, computers, television, radio – Button didn’t even stop there. He built a contraption for filtering water, pumping it through charcoal and filters and boiling it.

"He was not only surviving, but thriving in this structure through all of the different supplies he was able to find," Stefonek said. "Not a lot of air comes in from the outside, and it was a small enough space that he was able to survive the winters obviously, and keep himself warm, and it’s cool down there this time of year, and it is stocked full of all of the items that he was able to pilfer from the Marathon County landfill by sorting through garbage."

But the isolation from human contact is perhaps the most remarkable. He'd interacted on and off with the occasional hiker, he told deputies, but apart from that, he'd never left the area.

"Given the chance, I think the majority of the U.S. population would choose prison over this type of isolation from human contact," Stefonek noted.

Button is in custody on a $100,000 cash bond and awaiting a pretrial conference on Sept. 16. Meanwhile, Stefonek said the Department of Natural Resources is taking control of the area and plans to dismantle the bunker.

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