Ericka Sloniker watched as a puddle spread downhill from the apartment door next to her West Milwaukee Street storefront.
Someone from an apartment upstairs was urinating through a partially open stairwell door, right onto the sidewalk—just a few feet from the customer entry at Sloniker’s shop, Dirty Bear Soap, at 309 W. Milwaukee St.
It was in broad daylight.
On a weekday.
During business hours.
In August, Sloniker had put her 9-year-old specialty soap and bath product business on the line, moving Dirty Bear Soap from Beloit to storefront space she had leased in downtown Janesville.
Before making the move, she had checked out downtown Janesville and liked what she saw.
“We took a lot of time looking into downtown improvement, the new water feature, the walking bridge. All we could think is positive, good things that are happening for this area and what that could mean for us,” Sloniker said. “It seemed like a no-brainer for us. So much promise. But that’s just not how it worked out.”
At a time when the city and private investors are pouring millions of dollars into revitalizing downtown Janesville, Sloniker said criminal and unseemly behavior drove her business out.
Dirty Bear had been open on West Milwaukee Street just a few weeks when Sloniker began to learn renters in the apartments above her storefront were running what she called a 24-hour free-for-all of drug dealing, drug use and partying—with the occasional back-alley drug overdose, robbery and machete attack sprinkled in, according to police records.
Last week, Sloniker pulled the plug on Dirty Bear Soap, closing the shop and a business that in its brief time on West Milwaukee Street had been voted a finalist for the city’s Coolest Thing Made in Janesville contest.
Sloniker walked away from a yearlong lease at a building she said had so much illegal, seamy activity going on in plain view that in just a few months she had lost nearly all her walk-in customers.
“People have thrown up in front of our store. They urinate in front of the store. They’ve stood in front of the store and waited to do drug deals right out in the street. They’ve blocked my front door so my customers can’t even get in and then stood there and hit up my customers, asking them for money or if they want to come upstairs and party,” Sloniker said.
“All of that’s why we can’t maintain a proper business here.”
Records on a public crime-tracking map Janesville police use show 309 W. Milwaukee St. has drawn more crime complaints in the last few months than any other property in the downtown’s west side commercial district.
Most of the activity was reported after Rick Wolski bought the property in May.
Last summer, shortly after buying the three-storefront property, Wolski leased the then-vacant storefronts to three new businesses, including Dirty Bear Soap.
He signed apartment tenants upstairs to month-to-month leases, businesses operators at the storefronts indicated.
Janesville police Deputy Chief Terry Sheridan said police over the last month stepped up patrols and assigned a street crimes officer to monitor the apartments above 309 W. Milwaukee St.
The extra police attention came in mid-November, after businesses on West Milwaukee Street and their customers wrote letters to police, city staff and the city council about criminal activity they said was spilling from the apartments above Wolski’s storefronts.
Earlier in the fall, Sheridan said, police saw a few reports of drug crimes in the 300 block of West Milwaukee St., some of which he said came in anonymously. But Sheridan said that in November the West Milwaukee Street business operators made it clearer to police the problems were rooted in the apartments above 309 W. Milwaukee St.
Sheridan shared with The Gazette details of nearly a dozen drug-related complaints police have looked into at or near 309 W. Milwaukee St. since September—including a mid-November robbery at gunpoint police still are investigating as a “drug rip-off” and a drug-fueled machete attack that injured a tenant in late September.
Sheridan believes criminal activity around the property might have simmered under the radar for a while before Wolski bought the building because the storefronts had previously been vacant and hadn’t seen much traffic in a few years.
Sheridan said as of last week, the owner had cleared out all recent tenants from the apartments, including two who had been evicted by a court order Wolski sought in early December. Those two renters had brazenly lingered on, squatting in the apartments and refusing to leave for weeks after Wolski notified them in October their lease wouldn’t be renewed.
Sheridan said Wolski was “cooperative” and responsive when police talked with him about recent incidents at his apartments. Sheridan believes evictions have cleared tenants and guests that he views as responsible for a spate of criminal activity Sheridan considers “unusual” for downtown Janesville.
In December, Wolski deferred to his attorney for comment on the tenants at his apartments.
Wolski’s lawyer, Mike Hahn, said Wolski opted not to renew a number of “month-to-month” leases for his apartment tenants. Hahn said that can be a more streamlined approach to eviction than trying to force a five-day notice of eviction for suspected criminal activity by tenants.
One eviction came after a man living in the apartments showed up at the Janesville police department with a bloody hand. He said his roommate attacked him with a machete while the two were smoking crack cocaine and synthetic marijuana in the apartment, according to police reports.
Sloniker said the machete incident happened upstairs and then spilled out onto the sidewalk on a weekday when the shop was closed. She said Wolski never told her of the attack.
A few days later, Sloniker’s customers shared news headlines of an attack at her business’s address that involved crack cocaine and a machete.
Sloniker’s husband, Matt Sloniker, said around the time of the machete incident he and Ericka began to notice more of the apartment’s tenants and their acquaintances hanging out on the sidewalk in front of the building. He said the people would congregate near Dirty Bear’s door and at times harass the shop’s customers.
He said around that time, Dirty Bear’s customers stopped coming to the store. He said more of Dirty Bear’s Janesville clients began asking the shop to mail them orders.
“This wasn’t a product issue. It isn’t us. Our customers had invested in us,” he said. “We came here, and then it all fell apart.”
Ericka and Matt Sloniker said as of mid-December they continued to see both evicted men coming and going from Wolski’s upstairs apartments—even after a court commissioner ruled on their evictions Dec. 13.
Security camera recordings after a recent overnight snowfall showed the footprints of dozens of people whohad come and gone from a rear apartment door that’s in an alcove partly obscured from view.
The Slonikers said it would have been easy to get in and out of that entry because the upstairs tenants often jammed the door latch with rubber gloves and other items. Or they left the doors propped wide open at all hours.
That back door is the same area where police in September found a woman who reportedly was overdosing on drugs in the middle of the day. According to reports, police found prescription pills, marijuana and a crack pipe in the woman’s purse, plus a stolen driver’s license and stolen credit cards. The woman later told police she’s a “prostitute” and a “crack addict,” according to reports.
Other times in recent weeks, police have had reports of people breaking into the apartments at night, although the Slonikers said Wolski recently moved in a maintenance employee who is keeping an eye on the property.
Matt Sloniker said he looked into the background of the two of tenants who had been evicted.
One man listed in eviction papers Wolski filed Dec. 2 in Rock County Court had been found guilty in past violent attacks, including battery of a police officer, according to online court records.
Another man listed in eviction papers is a registered sex offender who pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault of a child in 1999. Wisconsin Department of Corrections records show the man is “non-compliant” with requirements of a state sex offender registry program.
“Why would you want to rent to these people? Unless you’re just not vetting them very thoroughly,” Matt Sloniker said. “(Wolski) vetted us as a business tenant. He did a thorough background check on us. Did the (apartment) renters get the same background checks?”
While Dirty Bear Soap’s brief stint on West Milwaukee Street is now a memory, other shops nearby have weathered the effects of crime that has rolled out.
Dee Bloom, who operates The Divas Building, a set of salons on the east end of the block, said salon operators who lease upstairs spaces have had a bird’s-eye view of the same drug dealing and overdoses the Slonickers say they witnessed in the parking lot behind their shop.
One woman who is a Divas salon tenant spoke to The Gazette on condition of anonymity because she was concerned about retaliation from strangers she’s seen loitering on the block.
She said she’d started locking the side entry to her upstairs between clients.
”I don’t like feeling nervous that someone’s going to come up here,” the woman said. “I’m from Milwaukee, and I lived on the north side, which is pretty rough. It’s been like having that feeling again here.”
Sloniker said the city’s business improvement district manager had gone to bat for Dirty Bear, and about a month ago she met with an official from the city’s economic development office.
Sloniker said that official “begged” her to work things out with Wolski and not to pull Dirty Bear out of West Milwaukee Street. She said the official also suggested a few other locations downtown where Sloniker could move Dirty Bear.
Sloniker said Dirty Bear’s move from Beloit to West Milwaukee Street and the die-off in customers that she blames on crime make relocating the shop financially impossible.
The economic development department’s downtown business liaison did not respond to Gazette requests for comment.
Sheridan said he’s interested to see how Wolski hits a reset button with new apartment tenants.
“I guess time will tell how he handles that,” Sheridan said. “But he has a vested interest in keeping his business storefronts occupied, and if his apartments are going to cause people to not want to be there, well ... we’ll see. He’s the one who is going to control the future of that building.”
Becky Milhouse watched proudly as her 6-year-old son, Carter, danced joyfully without his walker in the safety of a dance studio.
“It’s a new experience for him,” Milhouse said. “It’s something he enjoys without any pressure.”
Carter, who was born with a birth defect, was shorter than the other young dancers on a Saturday morning at Janesville’s Life Dance Academy.
But what he lacked in height, he made up for in excitement.
The child takes part in the No Limits Dance Program based on the simple idea that dancing is for everyone.
At the heart of the opportunity is Director Declan Boran-Ragotzy, who often can be seen snapping his fingers and moving to the beat of a dance tune with his students.
The enthusiastic teacher welcomes people with all kinds of learning differences and physical challenges.
They include those with autism, Down syndrome and sensory-processing disorder.
The building was designed for wheelchair accessibility.
“So there are truly no limits to who participates,” Boran-Ragotzy said. “We work with anyone and everyone and will accommodate all needs.”
He has about 20 students in five classes, plus a competition team. His youngest student is 4, and his oldest was 63.
In 2017, Boran-Ragotzy and studio owner/instructor Tanya Adkins talked about what a dance program for people with disabilities would look like.
She researched the certification process, and Boran-Ragotzy, a special education teacher in Milton schools, approached it through the eyes of an educator. Eventually, he completed 18 hours of online training in a certification program.
The certification teaches instructors how to blend the needs of students with dance training and movement.
Classes are based on the Rhythm Works Integrative Dance model.
“Students of all abilities have the chance to explore dance through an accessible-class design,” Boran-Ragotzy said. “This approach differs depending on the individual needs of our dancers.”
Before starting classes, students and parents meet with him to develop an action plan for success.
“We make sure parents and students have their voices and choices in what happens,” Boran-Ragotzy said. “Parents are always able to watch classes. Mom and Dad can even come in where the class takes place if they want.”
In addition, students are paired with mentors who volunteer their time to help students with the physical steps of a dance as well as their social and emotional growth. In the process, students become part of a loving and caring community.
Fifteen mentors offer students one-to-one support. Many mentors take classes at the studio. Some are community members, and three are moms.
“The mentors are vital,” Boran-Ragotzy said. “They establish personal connections and rapport.”
Jack Powell, who attends high school in Janesville, is a mentor to students.
“I am by their side to help them and give them the courage to dance,” he said. “I have been a mentor to four different students, and they are all amazing.”
Powell has studied dance for five years and used to compete in jazz, hip-hop and ballet.
He is super aware that each new student is adjusting to the studio environment.
“If they can’t do a full dance, we sit down and play games to help ease their mind and to let them know this is a safe place for them,” Powell said.
He sees positive growth in all the students, who consistently exceed expectations.
“Some go to the mirrors and smile,” Powell said. “They know they are beautiful.”
Cost of the program is $20 for the school-year session and $10 for summer classes.
Boran-Ragotzy understands the extra expenses that parents of children with disabilities have.
“I did not want money to be a factor for students to take part,” he said. “Everyone should be able to dance, regardless of a family’s financial situation.”
He volunteers his time, which ranges from 10 to 25 hours per week.
Each 30-minute class starts with a warm-up, which includes stretching. Then, students learn new counts to a song, play a game and perform a piece at the end. Classes feature different music, often depending on what a student or students prefer.
In addition to learning dance techniques, classes allow students to develop muscle strength and other physical skills.
Each year, students can show off what they have learned by performing at the dance academy’s end-of-the-year recital.
In addition, the program has a competition team that performs in spring. Any student is eligible to take part.
Boran-Ragotzy called the dance program “a passion project of mine.”
“Growing up, I had a physical disability and felt like I had to fight for opportunities in the arts,” Boran-Ragotzy said. “There’s nothing more exciting than to see a minority group make impossible dreams happen.”
A parent at one of Boran-Ragotzy’s classes said her 9-year-old daughter, who struggles with muscle tone in her legs, loves Boran-Ragotzy and the dance program.
“The program helps her build confidence,” she said.
During classes, parents often wait in a separate room, where they can see their children through large glass windows.
Jessica Thompson, 22, called the dance lesson “my place to let everything out and to get exercise.”
She added: “I feel like I belong somewhere.”
The young woman was diagnosed with a brain tumor in her senior year of high school.
Her mother, Susan, said the activity helps her daughter feel “more normal.”
“Sometimes, if she is not having a very good day,” Susan said, “dancing brings her up.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email email@example.com.
It’s a pattern that has emerged throughout Trump’s presidency. On a range of national security matters, he has cast aside the same warnings that gave his predecessors in both parties pause.
At times, he has simply been willing to embrace more risk. In other moments, he has questioned the validity of the warnings altogether, even from experts within his own administration. And he has publicly taken pride in doing so.
When Trump moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a pledge others had made but ultimately backed away from, it was against the advice of aides who argued it would inflame tensions in the Middle East. When he became the first American leader to step foot in North Korea, he disregarded those who said he was giving Pyongyang a symbolic victory without getting anything in return.
Trump’s supporters have embraced his willingness to act where others would not, saying he has brought a businessman’s fresh eye to intractable problems. But his high-risk approach has sparked fear in Democrats, as well as some Republicans, who worry that the president is overly focused on short-term wins and blind to the long-term impact of his actions.
“Trump thinks foreign policy is a reality show, and if there aren’t devastating consequences the next day, then they won’t come,” said Ben Rhodes, who served as President Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser. “They are coming—in some cases, they already have, in others, the situation is getting progressively worse.”
Trump’s willingness to buck conventional thinking has been a defining feature of his political life. As he enters the final year of his first term, aides and allies describe him as increasingly emboldened to act on his instincts. He has banished the coterie of advisers who viewed themselves as “guardrails” against his impulse. Others, such as former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have left because they disagreed with Trump’s decision-making.
Trump’s approach to national security has been shaped in part by the response to one of his first major actions: airstrikes against Syria in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons in 2017, a few months after he took office. He relished in the fact that both Republicans and Democrats cheered the decision, one that Obama had backed away from.
Obama halted plans for a strike in 2013 in part because he feared it would drag the U.S. into a wider conflict. That didn’t happen after Trump’s targeted strike—though quagmire in Syria remains and the U.S. still has a small troop presence in the country.
The consequences of Trump’s brash foreign policy decisions have indeed been mixed.
His decision to move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem did not, in fact, prompt an uptick in violence in the Middle East. But it also did nothing to help the Trump White House ease mounting tensions with the Palestinians, cratering prospects for progress on a peace deal with the Israelis.
Trump’s decision to embrace direct diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, including a meeting at the dividing line between North and South Korea, has resulted in little progress toward dismantling Pyongyang’s nuclear program. Negotiations have largely broken down, and Kim said this week that his country would soon unveil a new strategic weapon.
The president also faced fierce backlash from his own party last year when he abruptly announced that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, clearing the way for Turkey to launch an offensive against Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. Trump initially dug in on his decision,but ultimately reversed course.
To the president’s critics, his decision to order a targeted strike against Soleimani might be his riskiest decision yet.
Both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations passed on the prospect of taking out Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force who is accused of helping orchestrate attacks on American troops in Iraq. Even Trump advisers acknowledged the risk of Iranian retaliation, which could pull the U.S. and Tehran into a direct military conflict.
“One of these days, he’s going to blunder himself into a real, full-blown crisis,” Marie Harf, a senior adviser to former Secretary of State John Kerry, said of Trump. “The Soleimani assassination may be the reckless move by Trump that sends us into full-scale conflict.”
But to Trump backers, it’s just another hyperbolic response to a warranted action by the president.
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