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Protesters Demand Tougher Prosecution In Alleged Spearfishing Hate Crime Case

Ben Meyer/WXPR

Protesters gathered Monday morning in Eagle River to demand tougher prosecution of a St. Germain man suspected of a hate crime against tribal spearfishers.

They held signs asking for justice for tribal members and respect for federally-protected treaty rights.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Shannon Retana, who organized the protest.

“We’re tired of the hate. Racism is hatred. Feeding and allowing that to continue for so long is unacceptable, and we’re not going to stand for it. We won’t tolerate it anymore,” said protester Shannon Retana.

On the night of May 2, Retana’s uncle and three others were practicing their federally-protected right to spearfish for walleye in off-reservation waters, this time on Little St. Germain Lake.

On the shore, 61-year-old James Kelsey fired off a shotgun.

Credit Vilas County Court
James Kelsey, 61, as seen during Monday's virtual court session.

He says he was shooting at a squirrel on his property.

But Retana doesn’t buy it.

“That’s why my shirt says, ‘He’s not a squirrel,’” she said. “Clearly, he’s not a squirrel. He’s a man.”

No one was hurt by the shot, and there’s no indication any projectile hit the boat or water, but police arrested Kelsey that night.

He was charged with intoxicated possession of a firearm and a hate-crime disorderly conduct count, a pair of misdemeanors.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
Protesters gather in front of the Vilas County Courthouse in advance of James Kelsey's initial court appearance.

Spearers told police they heard phrases like “get off the lake,” “get out of here,” and “fish” around the time of the shot. But Kelsey’s attorney, Steve Lucareli, said his client was, in fact, firing at one of the red squirrels that had invaded his property.

“These were two unrelated events. Assumptions have been made that they are related,” Lucareli said of the shot and the nearby spearfishing. “I think that, if people will take a step back and look at everything that occurred with a cool head and not attribute malicious intent here, there’s a reasonable explanation for what occurred.”

In a virtual court hearing Monday, a judge allowed Kelsey to remain free on a $1,000 signature bond. However, he can’t have guns or alcohol, can’t come in contact with the alleged victims, and can’t go on Lac du Flambeau tribal lands.

Credit Ben Meyer/WXPR
A protester displays a sign she made.

Lucareli, the attorney for Kelsey, said his client has no racial animosity and no issue with tribal spearing. Kelsey hasn’t even fished for 30 years, Lucareli said.

Lucareli is concerned the episode is being blown out of proportion.

“Mr. Kelsey has a constitutional right to be presumed innocent and I hope that people won’t forget that,” he said.

But protesters like Retana believe the prosecution hasn’t gone far enough.

“He should be charged appropriately. I’m sorry, it’s not a misdemeanor. It’s a terrible hate crime,” she said.

A 1989 protest by non-tribal members at a Northwoods boat landing, symbolic of some of the early protests of tribal spearfishing in the area.

The case comes against the backdrop of historic protests by non-tribal members against the spearfishing rights of Ojibwe tribal members. Those protests started in the 1980s and, at times, became violent and racist.

Brittany Lerdal, a Lac du Flambeau tribal member holding a sign on Monday, said she had hoped the Northwoods was past those days.

“I was just hoping that I would read about it in the 80s,” she said. “I never really thought I would have to relive it.”

Kelsey will return to court on July 14.

Vilas County District Attorney Martha Milanowski chose not to comment for this story.

Ben worked as the Special Topics Correspondent at WXPR from September 2019 until November 2021. He now contributes occasionally to WXPR. During his full-time employment, his main focus was reporting on environment and natural resources issues in northern Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula as part of The Stream, a weekly series.
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