In debate over secret safe house, prosecutor says Kenosha shooter’s ability to ‘roam freely’ is ‘extremely rare for an accused murderer’
By Mark Berman, Mark Guarino and Kim Bellware
Feb. 4, 2021 at 6:54 p.m. CST
Prosecutors seeking to increase Kyle Rittenhouse’s $2 million bond said Thursday that the ability of the Kenosha, Wisc., shooter to “roam freely” before trial is “extremely rare for an accused murderer” and argued his address should be made public. But his defense attorneys argue that housing Rittenhouse in a secret safe house is necessary to protect his life.
Rittenhouse was charged with two counts of homicide last year for shooting two people during the chaos that flooded Kenosha’s streets after a White police officer shot and wounded Jacob Blake, a Black man. His attorneys argued that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, and he was released in November after posting a $2 million bond that his former lawyer said was raised online by supporters.
The argument over Rittenhouse’s whereabouts, laid out in dueling court filings, marked a flare-up in a case legal experts said was unusual because of his celebrity-like status among some conservatives and gun rights groups that helped bankroll his freedom pending trial.
In motions this week, though, prosecutors argued that Rittenhouse violated the terms of his bond, which listed an address in Antioch, Ill., where he no longer lives.
Thomas C. Binger, an assistant district attorney, wrote in a filing that a court clerk mailed Rittenhouse a notice there in late December but that it “was returned unclaimed” in late January.
On Tuesday, Binger wrote, two Kenosha detectives went to the home and spoke to a man who said he had lived at the address since mid-December. Binger also wrote that Rittenhouse signed a bond in January with the Antioch address and had failed to give a new address to the court.
“It is extremely rare for an accused murderer to post high cash bond and be allowed to roam freely in the community while awaiting trial,” Binger wrote in a filing Thursday. “Understandably, this causes great concern in the community. The public has a right to know where he lives.”
Binger has asked the court to issue an arrest warrant for Rittenhouse and increase his bond by $200,000. Prosecutors did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday.
Rittenhouse’s attorneys argued that his address needs to be shielded from public view for his safety. Mark D. Richards, one of the attorneys, wrote that Rittenhouse has faced a volley of “death and other threats,” forcing his family to move to “an undisclosed ‘Safe House.’ ”
Richards, who did not respond to requests for comment, has not denied in court filings that Rittenhouse failed to alert the court to his new address until the issue spilled out into public view. He instead cited threats and said his client has remained in constant touch with his attorneys throughout the process.
In a filing Wednesday, Richards said the defense team was providing an updated address to the court. A representative for the clerk of the court’s office said Thursday that it had an address for Rittenhouse but that “it’s sealed from the public.” The representative declined to elaborate on when it was received.
Binger wrote in a filing Thursday that the new address filed under seal was only a post office box, rather than a home, “so the defendant continues to withhold his actual whereabouts from the Court even under seal.”
In his filings this week, Richards also included a copy of an email exchange in which another of Rittenhouse’s attorneys previously floated to prosecutors the idea of filing his new address under seal. He also included an affidavit from John Pierce, a civil attorney for Rittenhouse’s family, who posted the bond on his behalf in November.
In his affidavit, Pierce wrote that Rittenhouse’s family would be taken to a “safe house” because of threats he had received. Pierce said in an interview Thursday that in the four months since Rittenhouse was arrested, “thousands” of threats have been sent to him, his family and his attorneys.
“Half the country would like to see this kid killed,” Pierce said.
Asked to provide copies of the threats, Pierce said he could not immediately produce them because “it would take days to organize,” adding that they are spread over Facebook, Twitter, email and voice-mail messages on multiple devices of different parties.
“I wouldn’t even know where to start,” he said. He characterized the messages as threatening “nasty and serious bodily harm.”
Email and phone requests seeking copies of the threats from Richards and Corey Chirafisi, another of Rittenhouse’s attorneys in the criminal case, were not returned Thursday. Police in Antioch, Rittenhouse’s hometown, last year released several Facebook messages his mother received after the shootings, including one from a sender who wrote that they hoped “your son gets shot in the face right in front of you.”
Pierce also said in his affidavit and the interview that a Kenosha police captain advised him to put the Antioch address on the bond release paperwork for the family’s safety. The police captain, Pierce said, told him: “Do not put in the safe house location; he will be killed. If his [Antioch] address is still a good address, put it in and we’ll deal with it later.”
The police captain Pierce said he was “almost certain” gave him this advice did not respond to a phone call seeking comment. A Kenosha police spokesman did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement to the Kenosha News, the spokesman said that the person named by Pierce was not working the day Rittenhouse was released and was not a captain at the time, and that another captain spoke briefly to Pierce discussing security concerns, not how to fill out paperwork.
Rittenhouse is charged with killing Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26.
Hannah Gittings, Huber’s girlfriend, said she was in disbelief that Rittenhouse was free at all. “I’m shocked he’s out on bail right now,” said Gittings, 24. “When is the last time you’ve heard of someone being charged with murder getting out on bail?”
The case had already been polarizing, touching on fraught issues of race, guns and how the justice system functions. Activists and others in Kenosha who organized to support Blake were frustrated that Rittenhouse remained free this week.
“There should be no bail now,” Kenosha County Board Supervisor Andy Berg said, pointing to the address dispute and photos of Rittenhouse at a bar. “Lock him up through the case.”
What has happened since Rittenhouse’s arrest was unusual, legal experts said, pointing to the fundraising blitz that freed him.
“The reality is, in a homicide case, the cash bail is usually going to be set pretty high and most people facing that — not all but most — are lower-income and have no hope of posting the bail,” said Keith A. Findley, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin and a former public defender. “And Mr. Rittenhouse would’ve been in that general category as well were it not for the fact that there was this fundraising effort on his behalf that is not typical.”
It would also be rare, Findley said, for a defendant released before trial to keep their location shrouded even from the court. Such releases usually include requirements to keep authorities aware of a defendant’s current address so they can get court notices, he said.
Rittenhouse is facing serious consequences if convicted, but he is also fortunate to be able to remain free pending trial, said Dean Strang, a law professor at Loyola University in Chicago who has been a criminal defense attorney in Wisconsin for 30 years.
“That’s not because the D.A. did something different or the judge did something different here,” he said. “It’s because he happens to be a cause celebre for people who are willing to support him financially. I would hope any client of mine . . . would do what he could to not imperil his position.”
Before the dispute over his address, Rittenhouse was criticized by prosecutors who said he was photographed at a Wisconsin bar posing for photos with members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence.
Now, the judge will have to determine whether the address issue means that Rittenhouse violated the written conditions of his release, Strang said. If the judge finds that he violated it, Strang said, he could revoke Rittenhouse’s release and remand him to custody, or modify the conditions of release. The judge could also issue a warning, Strang said, though he doubted the judge would do so if he determines that Rittenhouse’s attorneys knowingly violated any part of the release.
Civil rights activists in Kenosha have highlighted what they said was the disparate treatment of Rittenhouse and Blake, who was handcuffed to a hospital bed after being shot.
Sharlyn Grace, a regional organizer with the progressive National Bail Fund Network, pointed to “the arbitrariness of using money to make release or detention.”
“If the concern is safety, the court should be making a transparent, reviewable decision that doesn’t hinge on the Rittenhouse family money or the resources of his right-wing supporters,” she said.
Whatever the judge decides in the case will raise further questions about whether Rittenhouse’s treatment is equal to what others face in the justice system.
“The public is right to be watching closely and asking, is this accused person being treated as people would be treated in the same position?” Strang said. “That’s a perfectly appropriate question for members of the public to be asking.”