Thursday, January 19, 2012

Turtle Lake man cleared of false sex assault charges

From Barron News-Shield
By: Mary Glynn

60-year-old Turtle Lake man, previously accused of sexually assaulting a child in his care, has had the criminal charges against him dropped after an 11-year-old Birchwood girl admitted she made up a story that he touched her sexually.

Paul L. Burritt of 267 U.S. Highway 8 in Turtle Lake is not just "not guilty" of the accusations made against him, he is clearly "innocent" of all charges, said Polk County District Attorney Dan Steffen, who said in a phone interview Tuesday that this is "a prosecutor's worst nightmare."

It couldn't have been an easy time for the Handi-Lift transportation van driver, either. Burritt was charged in Polk County in mid-December with 1st degree child sexual assault - sexual contact with person under age of 13, and child enticement, after an 11-year-old girl alleged he brought her to his Turtle Lake home and groped her breasts and genitals over her clothing while she waited to be brought home. Burritt was transporting the child from Impact Counseling in Hayward on Wednesday, Nov. 23, to her Birchwood home. Burritt maintained his innocence when being interviewed by Turtle Lake police investigators on Dec. 7 after the child initially reported her allegations to counselors and police on Friday, Dec. 2.

Security video and GPS tracking devices confirmed that Burritt was telling the truth: he took the child from Hayward directly to Birchwood, and only made one wrong turn during the journey as he was unfamiliar with the route and was not her regular driver.

The child told police that Burritt took her to his home, let his six dogs out on the property, touched her in a sexual manner and then struck her twice in the knee when she resisted his advances and slammed the door on his hand. Burritt had showed police his uninjured hand on Wednesday, Dec. 7, two weeks after the assault was alleged to have happened.

Steffen said in other circumstances, the investigation would have continued - including gathering security footage - before any charges were brought. However, because of Burritt's occupation and ongoing contact with children, the district attorney's office believed it was necessary to act quickly in order to potentially protect other children in Burritt's care who might also be harmed, had the story proven true, Steffen said.

"When we made the charges, our alleged victim had given us detailed information, including background information that provided details" allegedly supporting the child's story, Steffen said. "Due to his occupation, we believe we had to move quickly."

When the security video and GPS data showed that what Burritt was saying was true, police investigators re-interviewed the girl, confronted her with the contrary evidence, and she admitted making the story up. Steffen said the background information the girl provided, including rough details of what the outside of his home property looked like and the number of dogs he had, came about from discussions during the bus ride between Burritt and the child. The girl also allegedly asked to use Burritt's cell phone, which had personal photos on the display screen, Burritt said.

On Wednesday, Jan. 4, all charges against Burritt were dismissed on a prosecutor's motion and Steffen is working to have them expunged from the criminal computer records. The child has been referred to juvenile authorities for possible consequences for her lying and making false allegations. A phone call to Burritt's defense attorney, Aaron A. Nelson of Door Drill & Skow in New Richmond, was not returned by press time.

Wisconsin online court records, or CCAP, show that the charges were dismissed on the prosecutor's motion with prejudice (meaning they cannot be refiled) and without court costs, but do not indicate whether the court or a victims' compensation fund will compensate Mr. Burritt for his defense attorney fees.