To those who love him and spoke Thursday, Dennis J. McNeal is a man who stepped into roles of grandfather, father and best friend and devotedly cared for those around him.
They gave these descriptions during McNeal’s sentencing hearing for a violent attack he carried out in April 2018, an act his supporters at the hearing characterized as an aberration.
“Dennis, well my grandpa—Papa—he has been there for me literally my whole life,” said the grandson of Laurie Ruosch, the girlfriend McNeal has known for 30 years and the woman he shot in the incident McNeal said he can’t remember.
“I mean, he raised me,” the grandson continued. “He’s basically like my father. I really love him so much. ... He has just been there for me for my whole life, and I really care about him a lot.”
His supporters blame his mental illness and perhaps substance abuse for when he shot Ruosch six to 10 times and seriously injured Ruosch’s daughter, Brenda Ruosch, and Laurie’s brother, Steven Ruosch.
It seemed like everyone reached the consensus that McNeal’s attack was a complete shock, Judge Barbara McCrory said.
But citing the concerns of other victims who didn’t speak during Thursday’s hearing, Assistant District Attorney Gerald Urbik argued for a 20-year prison sentence, much harsher than the probation the speakers were calling for.
McCrory did not go as far as Urbik requested, but she still sentenced McNeal to four-and-a-half years in prison, two years of extended supervision and 15 years of probation.
McNeal, 59, formerly of Janesville but more recently living with his sister in Madison, has about two years of sentence credit for time served.
He pleaded guilty July 29 to first-degree reckless injury as domestic abuse and aggravated battery causing great bodily harm, both with use of a dangerous weapon.
Over the course of his case, he has undergone various mental health evaluations and treatments.
Urbik, the prosecutor, was still concerned with McNeal’s criminal history, which he said included disorderly conduct, battery and fleeing. Although those crimes were from several years ago—going back to the 1980s—Urbik said the incident McNeal was being sentenced for Thursday appeared to be the most serious.
“I don’t think I’m being too hyperbolic when I say that this case easily could have turned into a triple homicide,” he said.
Urbik said he was worried that without a clear, established cause for McNeal’s behavior, no one could be sure what might trigger a similar outburst again.
McCrory, the judge, said McNeal staying on his medication and staying off drugs would be “pretty big ifs for me to hang my hat on” if she only gave probation.
Defense attorney Joshua Klaff said after about 17 years on the job and well over 2,000 clients, he thought McNeal was among the most gentle and pleasant people he has met. He called the case “extraordinarily difficult,” pointing to how different the two sides’ recommendations were.
He wanted a 15-year probation sentence for his client, which would have run until McNeal was nearly 75 years old.
He also argued the victims who still supported McNeal—including Laurie Ruosch, who was the most seriously hurt in the attack—should be heard in addition to the victims who wanted a harsher sentence.
Klaff said McNeal being off his medication and his substance abuse was a “toxic mixture of things to happen.”
“He’s working on what he needs to work on,” Klaff said. “He lives peacefully and quietly at his sister’s (home).”
McNeal on Thursday said hearing details from the shooting still come as a shock to him, too, because he said he doesn’t remember what happened.
But it is still deeply upsetting to him. He said he struggles with suicidal thoughts.
“I live with this every day, trying to figure out what went wrong,” he said. “Why did this happen?”
“I just don’t know. I just lost my way.”