By Carly SternEvery reporter has one of those story ideas simmering on the back burner that they simply can’t let drop. For Raquel Rutledge, it started with a house fire.
The fire, which damaged a two-story rental house in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, made headlines when it happened in spring 2013. Most stories focused on the death of three young children, who were left alone, locked in a second-floor bedroom for three hours while their mother was at work. The mother, 24-year-old Angelica Belen, was later found guilty of child neglect resulting in death and sentenced to 18 years in prison. Judgments on social media were even harsher.
But almost a decade later Rutledge felt the portrayal of Belen was simplistic and incomplete. She had questions about what led to the fatal events that night — not just in Belen’s troubled life, but in the life of the troubled house she had rented as a refuge for herself and four children. Central to that curiosity: What about the landlord?
Rutledge, an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, teamed with Ken Armstrong of Pro Publica to produce “The Landlord & the Tenant.” The 14,000-word, chaptered story focuses on two primary characters: Angelica Belen, a 24-year-old single mother at the time of the fire, and Todd Brunner, a Milwaukee landlord with a long list of black marks against his extensive rental empire. By juxtaposing their lives, Rutledge and Armstrong take the reader on a journey to understand how their paths intersected and where their fates diverged.
But the nine-month investigation reveals a 45-year history of neglect and culpability that goes far beyond one tragic evening. The mother’s childhood, the fathers of her children, the landlord and his extended family, the foster system, building inspectors, other government agencies and politics of landlord-tenant laws all played a part.
The result is an investigation that’s far from traditional: no nut graf, no bullet-pointed findings, no data visualizations and barely a trace of exposition. Context, law and policy are threaded in brief passages throughout. Chronology is bent and bent again, with 36 chapters marked by date, time and place stamps. Photos, many black-and-white, are layered throughout as if in a family album.
Rutledge, a 2011 Nieman Fellow, now is investigations editor for the nonprofit news site The Examination. She won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in local reporting for exposing fraud in Wisconsin’s child care subsidy program. Ken Armstrong has won or shared in four Pulitzer Prizes and has been a Pulitzer finalist five times.
“The Landlord and the Tenant,” published by ProPublica and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in November 2022, won a National Magazine Award for feature writing and was honored in the Dart Awards for excellence in coverage of trauma.
Storyboard talked with Rutledge and Armstrong to understand how they conceptualized the structure, considered layers of reveal and kept readers’ attention as they wove throughout decades and social systems. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, is followed by an annotation of the story.
What first put you on the path of this story and why were you so captivated by it?
RUTLEDGE: The genesis of the story was a fire that happened in 2013 outside of Milwaukee. For 10 years, I wanted to write about it. I did an investigation a couple of years ago that I thought might involve that particular fire, but it fell outside the parameters of our findings. It was something that I wanted to go back and look at for a long time, because there’s so much emphasis on on Angelica Belen — this mother and what she had done — and very little focus on accountability for the landlord for the upkeep, safekeeping and maintenance of the rental property itself. I always thought that was something we should examine.
Can you each share a little bit more context your roles and collaboration in this project? How did the original pitch and agreement come together?
RUTLEDGE: I started reporting on it in spring of 2022. I reached out to Angelique Belen to see if she would be willing to talk, and eventually got her to agree. As I started to gather information and interview her, I reached out to Ken some weeks into my reporting. I was hoping that he might have some availability and interest in helping with this project. I explained some of the materials I had. He could immediately see the structure, how it would be a powerful braided narrative if we were to tell it that way. He also helped with reporting on the Todd Brunner side of things. There was so much documentation of court files.
ARMSTRONG: I’m a huge fan of Raquel’s work and of projects the Journal Sentinel has done over the years. Pro Publica hadn’t previous partnered with them, but there was interest in doing so. After Raquel made contact with Angelica Belen and contacted me, we wrote up a pitch and sent it to my editors. They immediately said yes.
What made you choose each other?
RUTLEDGE:Ken is just legendary. Some of his previous writing and reporting had really changed the way I thought about how I do my work. I could envision that I wanted this piece to have the same effect on people, and have them rethink the way they had seen things in the past. I’d seen him execute work at the highest level and knew I could learn from him.
ARMSTRONG: It was obvious the minute that Raquel began talking about the story that it had incredible potential. What was really appealing to me was that Raquel and two other reporters had, the previous year, done incredible work on electrical fires in Milwaukee. I was blown away by that work. Being able to use that expertise as a base and spin a narrative off it struck me as something that could be really powerful.
I’d love to dig more into your thinking behind the structure of the piece. You mentioned that the braided narrative was an obvious format to you from the get-go. But when I was reading, I didn’t necessarily always know where the braid was going, or where the story was going, and how the threads were going to come together. What was your process like?
RUTLEDGE: Ken was reading the novel by Anthony Doerr, “All the Light We Cannot See.” It’s a braided narrative about a French girl and a German boy and how their lives intersect in World War II. It’s told in short chapters. I started reading that book as well and found it compelling and moving. It was one of those books that you didn’t want to put down; you just kept wanting to read the next chapter. And it was written in the present tense, which we also found compelling. We thought that would be something to try, something kind of different we don’t often do in journalism.
ARMSTRONG: We knew it was going to be a long story, but we wanted it to be a quick read. Our idea of doing that was to use short chapters, short sentences, simple language and to have a certain set of questions that would be introduced at the top that the reader would have to keep reading to get the answers to. In our initial chapter, we have the intersection of Angelica Belen’s and Todd Brunner’s lives. The house is on fire. We introduced a set of questions about how their lives came to intersect. What led up to that point, and what came after? You need to read to get the answers. Our idea was short chapters cutting back and forth, but not in a way where it would become formulaic. You didn’t have to have one on Brenner, one on Belen; you could have a run of several of them, as long as they were short. It generates momentum and makes the story more propulsive.
What do you mean by ‘a long story but a quick read?’
ARMSTRONG: It would end up being close to 14,000 words, but we were hoping it would read like half of that or even less. One way you do that is you avoid the types of sections that people tend to avoid reading: the ones that are dense, that pull you out of the story, that are so explanatory that they read like homework. We had a lot of investigative findings in the piece, but we consistently found ways to embed them within the story. If you’re able to do that, the story reads more quickly. We also avoided off-ramps throughout — we tried to avoid giving the reader any reason to stop reading. That could be either in the structure of the story, or having unwieldy language, or having distractions in the design of a story that pulls you out of the text. Those can include an interactive graphic or a video that pulls you out of the story for longer than you’d wish. There’s always a temptation to load up and use a lot of bells and whistles, but sometimes those bells and whistles work against the story.
Did you feel nervous about not including the exposition typically used in investigations or accountability journalism? How did you have faith in the reader to understand the systemic context?
RUTLEDGE: We knew we were taking a risk, but everything’s a risk. Readers are going to stop reading for various reasons at different times in any project you do. But we felt like we wanted to do something different and our editors were supportive. We were trusting readers to be able to figure it out themselves and wanted to let people have their own experience — be curious about a question and let that curiosity lead.
ARMSTRONG: I have a lot of faith in readers. If they’re curious and if they’re invested, they’re going to read. But if they’re bored or being lectured to, they’re going to tune out. Let’s say you use the traditional approach with the heavy-handed nut graf. That can give a reader a reason to stop reading because you’ve already told them what the takeaway is and what they should think. There’s no reason to keep reading.
How did you decide when to reveal the links between each storyline and multiple backstories in terms of the progression for the reader? How did you think about moving them along, showing their connection and when to make those turns?
RUTLEDGE: That was one of the things we wanted to be careful about. The local audience knew about some of these events, though a lot of folks would not have remembered because it had been so long. But in terms of revealing what happened with the children, we didn’t want that to happen early on. We were very careful with our photos, images, dek hed and language we used along the way. You wanted to build a feeling that something was going to happen, but you didn’t want it to be happening.
ARMSTRONG: In terms of when their lives intersect, the story took care of itself. We just let it happen. You start the story in the middle, then you go back to the beginning, then pretty much tell it chronologically. There’s a lot of intergenerational trauma. We tried to search before Angelica was born to explain a bit about her family’s history. We’re also writing about a lot of systems in the story — the foster care system, the landlord-tenant system, the criminal justice system — and weaving those in throughout both of their lives when it fits. Their lives intersect when she rents the house, the day of the fire, when the deed is recorded and the landlord is no longer the owner of record of the house. We just kind of let the events unfold.
ANNOTATION: Storyboard’s questions and comments are in red; answers from Rutledge and Armstrong in blue. The answers were done as a partnership, as was the story. To read the story without annotations, click the HIDE ANNOTATIONS link in the right-hand menu of your monitor or at the top of your mobile device.
The Landlord & the Tenant
Co-published with Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
April 11, 2013, 5:19 p.m.
7750 West Hicks Street, West Allis, Wisconsin
In West Allis, a Milwaukee suburb once dominated by a factory that long ago manufactured steam engines, ore crushers and kilns, a man living on West Hicks Street opens his back door to let the dog out and sees smoke.
It’s coming from the house next door, from the roof. He calls 911. “Seven, seven, five, zero,” he says. “The house is on fire.” He doesn’t see flames. But the smoke keeps pouring. Sunset is more than two hours away, but the smoke gets so thick it darkens the sky. It’s cold and wet. In the mud, in the side yard of the smoking house, there are two toy trucks and a stuffed animal.
Engine 1 and Engine 2 arrive within seconds of each other, then Engine 3.
There are two stories to the house. I’m struck by the double meaning here – two floors to the house, but also two very different narratives of the people whose lives are intertwined with the same house. Was this purposeful? It was! It’s so cool you spotted that. We didn’t know if many readers would catch the double meaning but, for those who did, we thought it might be a nice grace note. If you’re a close reader, this is a signal that this will be a braided narrative, intertwining two lives. If you breeze through, attaching just the one meaning to “stories,” that’s fine, too. There’s no harm done. In our first draft, this sentence was, “The house has two stories.” We tweaked the sentence to, “There are two stories to the house,” to boost the signal a tad. And if a reader wants to go deeper with this, they can. Our ordering was intentional; stucco, then brick veneer; Angelica Belen, then Todd Brunner. Brunner=brick veneer (a facade). Belen=stucco (made of aggregates; a common feature is stress fractures). We know few readers are going to wade in that deep. But there’s something rewarding in writing for a variety of readers. The top story is covered in stucco, the bottom in brick veneer. Angelica Belen lives in the house with her four children, the oldest 5, the youngest a toddler. In between are twin boys, 4 years old, one with cerebral palsy, the other with autism and epilepsy. Belen is 24. She’s a renter. The landlord, when she moved in, was Todd Brunner. Known around Milwaukee as the foreclosure king, Brunner collects properties others have lost to banks. He’s a familiar figure to building-code inspectors for his long list of violations.
Neighbors gather, drawn by the smoke and sirens. A battalion chief, the commander on scene, sees people watching from a nearby porch. He yells to them, asking if anyone is inside the smoking house. Their car is gone, no one is home, a man answers. The chief returns to his command car, gets on the radio and gives the all clear. The house is vacant, he says.
When firefighters go in, the smoke layer is so thick they can hardly make out anything. On the ground floor, in the kitchen, they see the fire. Flames roll across the ceiling, burning a hole 2 feet wide.
Embers from a bedroom above fall into the kitchen sink. You choose to open the piece with this climactic event, the fire. What did you hope to convey with the opening scene? And I’m struck by the vivid description. How did you cull which details you’d use to paint the picture and which to leave out? We’re starting in the middle of the story, in a chaotic, confusing scene with high stakes. Our hope is that readers will want to know what led to this moment, what came after and what’s really going on in this scene. What will people see once the smoke clears? Who’s safe? Who isn’t? How did this fire start? To get answers, the reader must keep reading. As for the description, we relied on details that will take on greater importance as the story unfolds. Those toy trucks and a stuffed animal in the side yard will resurface in Chapter 10 (where the final paragraph will add to a building sense of dread) and Chapter 25 (where Belen’s reaction, when learning of the toys, is heartbreaking). The first chapter’s last sentence (always a critical sentence) introduces 1) the bedroom just above the kitchen (this bedroom, the reader will later, is where the children were trapped), and 2) the kitchen sink (in Chapter 17, readers learn there’s something wrong with the light above this sink — the bulbs keep blowing — and in Chapter 26, investigators determine this fire started with a failed circuit that powered this very light). And the falling embers just seemed an apt image to leave readers with before we jump back four decades to begin our telling of these two intersecting lives.
August 26, 1977
Todd Brunner is only 20 when, in the summer of 1977, he buys an old duplex on Milwaukee’s south side. He purchases the house with Glen Guldan, a friend from high school. A bank gives them a $24,000 loan.
For Brunner and Guldan, the house is an investment. The two young landlords are from the suburb of New Berlin, where the residents, to quote one magazine, are “remnants of Milwaukee’s white flight in the 1960s and ’70s or descendants of local farming families.”
At New Berlin Eisenhower High School, Brunner had been a football star, defensive tackle on a team that went undefeated his junior year, giving up fewer than 100 yards a game. Pat Raebel, nose tackle, played right next to Brunner. He remembers Brunner’s dad, proud of his son, coming to every game. (Brunner’s dad died a few years later in his 40s.) Brunner was popular, teammates recall. A nice guy. Into fast cars. His junior year, he was on prom court. Brunner’s senior year, students elect him a class officer. He leads the team in tackles. He’s all-conference. He’s honorable mention all-state. He’s the defensive line’s biggest player. One newspaper story pegs him at 6’6”, 245. Why did you choose to delve into Brunner’s backstory so early in the piece? After the first chapter, we revert to a chronological telling. So starting with Brunner in his youth made the most sense. Plus, we’re beginning to juxtapose. Brunner’s youth (football star, prom court, getting a bank loan to buy a house before he’s even 21…) is dramatically different from Belen’s youth, as readers will soon find out.
Brunner gets a scholarship to play football at Northern Illinois University. But the university has no record of him ever attending.
Before Brunner and Guldan turn 21, they go in on another nearby duplex. Then they keep going. Together they will buy more than a dozen properties, collecting more than $100,000 a year in rent.
December 16, 1985, 8:45 p.m.
MilwaukeeWe jump back in time significantly here from where you opened, and forward from the previous chapter. How did you decide to stagger these chapters? What were your considerations when structuring the chronology of the piece and what did you want this to do for the reader? So now we’re moving chronologically, which we hope will help keep the reader oriented. For extra grounding, we use time stamps and place stamps. But we also want to establish, up high, a weave to let readers know that we’ll be going back and forth. So we found entry points that would let us introduce Brunner, then Belen. As we move forward, we focus on key scenes in each of their lives, until their lives traverse. Sometimes, we use backstory within a scene (for example, dropping in Brunner’s prior convictions in Chapter 8) so that we can provide important context and history without having to give every moment of our timeline its own chapter. In our structure, we did not insist on a strict adherence to back-and-forth: Brunner-Belen-Brunner-Belen-Brunner-Belen. If we did that, the story would have suffered at the altar of form. We looked for opportunities to heighten tension and contrast, and, when needed, broke down scenes not just by the day but by the minute. See, for example, the five chapters (1, 20, 21, 22, 23) for April 11, 2013, the day of the fire.
In an apartment on Milwaukee’s south side, two girls, both toddlers, sit in their cribs, crying. One is naked, the other in a dirty diaper. They’ve been crying for much of the night.
Police arrive to find the door open and no adult anywhere. The house is filthy, the smell of urine and feces in the children’s bedroom so overpowering an officer holds his breath. Neighbors tell police the children’s mother, 20-year-old Dawn Sosa, left the day before and hasn’t returned. She often leaves her kids alone, the neighbors say. In the cupboards and refrigerator, police find little other than juice, cake and canned corn.
Nobody can say where Sosa went. Her husband, the children’s father, moved out earlier in the year.
Two days later, Sosa returns from a bar. She had gone to watch her boyfriend play in a band and didn’t come home because “it was too dark, too cold and too late,” she tells police. A friend was supposed to be watching the girls, she says.
Sosa is arrested and charged with child neglect. But ultimately, she gets to keep her kids. In 1987, she has a third daughter. Then, on May 20, 1988, at Sinai Samaritan Medical Center, Sosa gives birth to a fourth, a girl with both Puerto Rican and Menominee Indian ancestry.
Sosa names her Angelica.
January 16, 1992
Police detectives get called on a winter afternoon to investigate the death of a child who has been beaten and starved.
The child’s name is Marisol. She is Dawn Sosa’s daughter and Angelica’s younger sister. Marisol was 17 months old.
An autopsy reveals four broken ribs, a broken leg, a bruised jaw and bleeding in the brain. Marisol weighs 9.8 pounds. Asked if he’s ever seen a baby this malnourished, the pathologist says, “I have not.”
Prosecutors charge Sosa and her boyfriend, Ramon Velez. The story is all over the news. Velez tells police he hit Marisol two or three times a day. His reason, a police report says, was “Marisol had a mouth on her and would cry a lot.”
Angelica, now 3 years old, is the middle child of Sosa’s seven daughters. After Angelica came Rosalie, then Marisol. Those three sisters had the same father, a man their mom had left for Velez.
Sosa’s oldest daughter, 8, testifies at Velez’s trial. She says her mom slapped Marisol when she wouldn’t walk right. She says Velez took Marisol by the neck and slammed her against a wall. “Almost every day,” she says. Velez also brutalized Angelica and Rosalie, she says. When they sucked their thumb, “he would take a bottle of hot sauce and put it in their mouth.”
Velez is convicted of reckless homicide and gets 15 years.
Sosa pleads guilty to child neglect, resulting in death. When her sentencing comes, new horrors emerge, as details of her own childhood come before the court.
When Sosa was little, her mother hit her and her sisters with extension cords or whatever was handy. “The girls were locked in their room for days at a time,” a social worker’s report says. Food was slipped through the door. The girls peed in their boots. Sosa went into foster care, then, as an adult, had relationships with men who beat her. It is not uncommon, the social worker writes, for childhood abuse victims to partner with abusers, “and thus the cycle continues.”
The prosecutor is Mark Williams, an assistant district attorney in his late 30s who handles only homicides. “To find justice for the families of homicide victims is the purest kind of law you can practice,” Williams will say. In Sosa’s case, Williams tells the judge: There’s “got to be incarceration.” How a mother could do this to her child, “I don’t understand it,” he says. This dialogue is very effective at illuminating the DA’s biases and also reveals where he may not be the most informed in terms of mental illness and trauma science.
The judge tells Sosa: “You came from a terrible background. I feel for you.” Then he says: “Your mother was mentally ill. Are you mentally ill? I don’t think so. You are weak.”
The judge sentences Sosa to eight years.
After Marisol’s death, a psychologist evaluates Angelica. Angelica tells him that her mom and Velez both hit her with shoes and sticks. Angelica is “affiliative and dependent,” traumatized and anxious, the psychologist writes. “She chose to stand very close to examiner during much of the formal psychometrics.”
Like her mother before her, Angelica enters foster care. She and Rosalie stay together while the other sisters go elsewhere. At Sosa’s sentencing, a lawyer sounds a note of optimism about the girls’ future, now in the hands of the state. She says foster parents can undo any damage done and ensure “we don’t end up” in another courtroom in years to come, dealing with another generation of child abuse or neglect. This foreshadowing gives me the chills.
May 11, 1992
In Milwaukee County Circuit Court, Glen Guldan files a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Todd Brunner, and, in the spring of 1992, Guldan prevails. A judge orders Brunner to pay about $11,000. The two men’s friendship, and business partnership, is through. I’m imagining these chapter breaks as jump-cuts in a film. With a structure like this, the jump between storylines is sharp; you don’t soften the transition for the reader. What drove your thinking behind this approach? Were you worried that the reader might lose track of their bearings? What you were imagining is what we were hoping for: jump-cuts, with no need for transitions between scenes. When Ken worked at the Seattle Times, Jacqui Banaszynski (Hi, Jacqui!) taught him that if a story’s architecture is sound, there’s little if any need for transitions. There’s close to 14,000 words in this story, but none of those words is “meanwhile.”
Brunner is 35, married, with two kids, the youngest, a son, about to turn 2.
The men’s parting is remembered differently, depending on who’s remembering.
Rebecca Harms, who was Guldan’s wife, says when the partnership unraveled, Brunner would call their home at 2 a.m., screaming and threatening to kill Guldan. “We got an alarm system installed in our house, we changed our phone number, and my husband got a gun from a friend,” Harms says.
By this time, Guldan is fighting mouth cancer. Brunner makes an awful time even worse, Harms says. Guldan would go on to have 20 surgeries before dying at 44.
“Absolutely never happened,” Brunner will write later of threatening Guldan. They’d been best friends, according to Brunner. Once, while making a wine rack for Guldan, Brunner cut off four fingers; doctors reattached two, he says. They were both Type A personalities, with strong opinions, and when Guldan wanted to build a budget movie theater in a Milwaukee suburb, “I strongly disagreed so we went our own ways,” Brunner writes.
On the same day that the judgment is entered in favor of Guldan, Brunner declares bankruptcy in federal court in Milwaukee, using Chapter 13, a way to preserve property while slow-paying creditors. Bankruptcy can be seen as failure. Or it can be seen as a fresh start. Brunner sees it as part of being a self-made man. He will say, in years to come, “Every self-made man has filed bankruptcy at least three times in his life.” What source did you draw this dialogue from? This Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, by Cary Spivak.
August 13, 1993
As young children, Angelica and Rosalie move through foster homes. In one, they go to church. Angelica absorbs the stories. She finds solace in scripture’s description of a loving Father. She finds comfort in prayer. But not just the typical childlike petitions said before bed. For Angelica, faith becomes a lifeline.
In August of 1993, when Angelica is 5 and Rosalie 4, the girls are placed with two women, a mother and daughter. The girls call them Mom and Grandma. Mom works in a factory, second shift. Grandma is often gone.
And for Angelica and Rosalie, there is freedom — safety, even — in being left alone. Upon a second read, the foreshadowing here really is striking. How did you think about sprinkling bread crumbs for the reader throughout the narrative without giving too much away about how the plot resolves itself? We wanted to give readers the information they needed to experience these a-ha! moments on their own, without us screaming in their ear. We were putting our trust in readers. We’ve found that more often than not, that trust is rewarded. Angelica walks to kindergarten, then walks home to find Rosalie in the basement or their bedroom, playing by herself. They make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They drink Kool-Aid. In the summers, they get up when they want and leave the house when they want. They can play outside, do whatever. This lasts for three years, and for Angelica, these will be the best three years of her childhood.
“I did not feel neglected, or scared, or any of that,” she will write. Did Angelica keep a journal or record of her experiences during that time? Where did you source these details? These details came from Angelica and her sister, Rosalie. Raquel interviewed both of them – separately, and at length. Their accounts lined up. She also interviewed their aunt who had some knowledge of their childhood years. Belen also wrote Raquel dozens of lengthy emails from prison. In our source box — attached to the story — we detailed what steps we took to verify Belen’s recollections. “It was just that we had no adult supervision.”
Rosalie and Angelica walk into a beautiful house in Waukesha, a suburb west of Milwaukee. They’re 7 and 8. Their new foster parents tell the girls they can pick bedrooms. Each has a large bed with a floral print comforter, perfume on the dressers, and closets full of clothes and shoes. The rooms feel fit for princesses.
It is an inviting house, at first. And it’s a door to a different world — seats at “The Nutcracker,” insistence on proper enunciation. The girls stay up late, memorizing vocabulary. Angelica reads books usually assigned in middle school or high school. She’s reading Dickens and Twain.
But years later, when interviewed separately, Rosalie and Angelica will both describe another side to this home. If the girls don’t finish the milk in their cereal, the foster mom forces them to drink glass after glass until they are sick, they both say. When the girls complain of “starving” after a day of errands, the foster mom force-feeds them pancakes, saying, “You don’t know what starving is.” Sometimes, the foster parents pull the girls’ hair. Sometimes they force the girls to kneel, for hours, on gravel or stand on one leg, with arms out to the side, hangers on their wrists. If their arms drop and the hangers fall, they are further punished.
One night, Rosalie watches as the foster dad slams Angelica’s head against a wall, both sisters will later recall.
In Milwaukee County there is a Children’s Court file, with three manila folders, in which the girls’ whereabouts and well-being were charted. In these records, there’s no mention of abuse. Social workers often employ boilerplate language. “Angelica is a very energetic 8-year-old child who loves attention. She is extremely friendly and charming.” And the next year: “Angelica is a very energetic 9-year-old child who loves attention. She is extremely friendly and charming.”
Eventually, social workers note behavioral issues. Angelica “is angry, lashing out, tantruming and refusing to get dressed,” a report says. Sometimes she kicks Rosalie. To Rosalie, Angelica was like a cornered dog. “She was fight and I was flight,” Rosalie says years later. A caseworker writes that the foster parents have warned Angelica they won’t keep her if she doesn’t improve: “Angelica understands this and is really trying to be better.”
On January 16, 1998, an emergency order is issued to remove the girls from this home. The court record doesn’t explain why. All it offers is one sentence with a misspelled word: “Pre-adoptive placement has disrutived.” Years later, an aunt will write to a judge: “I knew things were not right in that home. I told the social workers and eventually they found out that Angelica and her sister suffered horrible abuse in that home.”
(A Journal Sentinel reporter recently interviewed this foster dad. He denied they abused the girls. Sometimes if the girls were lying or acting up, they’d have them kneel and face a wall for 10 or 15 minutes, he said. The agency took Angelica and Rosalie, concluding the placement wasn’t a good fit, he said.)
When Angelica is 10, she returns to the foster home of the two women she used to call Mom and Grandma. But things are not as before. They don’t want Angelica but must take her to keep Rosalie, they tell her. “I was told on a daily basis that I was unwanted, worthless, and stupid,” Angelica will later write.
This family adopts the girls when Angelica is 11. The two women’s home will provide Angelica a “safe, stable and nurturing environment,” a caseworker writes. This is where the family court file ends.
Rosalie and Angelica both say later that the two women tormented Angelica; they isolated her, and the woman they called Mom punched and kicked her. She takes Angelica to psychiatrists, who prescribe a litany of powerful antipsychotics and other medications including lithium, Depakote, Zyprexa, Neurontin, Lamictal and Wellbutrin. You spend a fair bit of time upfront detailing and chronicling how Angelica’s early childhood experiences under the supervision of adults were harmful, damaging and unsafe. Why was it crucial to establish this context early in the piece? Bryan Stevenson, the attorney who wrote “Just Mercy,” LINK likes to say that we’re all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. Before we told readers about the worst thing Belen has ever done (locking her kids in that bedroom before leaving for work), we wanted readers to know where she came from and what she’d been through. We wanted them to know her as a person in full. Intergenerational trauma figures prominently in her family history. And, again, this story is about contrast. It’s about the American divide, whether the divider is class, gender or race. Who gets the breaks? Who doesn’t? Understanding Belen’s history is crucial when taking up those questions.
February 23, 2002, 1:48 a.m.
A police sergeant in Pewaukee, a Milwaukee suburb that boasts of country living with a big lake for boating and fishing, gets dispatched to the parking lot of a McDonald’s. It’s close to 2 in the morning. The sergeant sees a car, a maroon Cadillac Escalade — it’s new, it’s a 2002 — parked near the drive-through, headlights burning, engine running, with a vanity license plate, “LANDLD.”
The driver is asleep.
The sergeant wakes him up and smells alcohol. The driver is Todd Brunner. The sergeant asks Brunner to recite the alphabet. Brunner stops after “E,” saying he can go no further, because his throat is dry. He blows a .14, well above the legal limit. A subsequent blood test comes back even higher.
Brunner is charged with driving drunk, something he’s been convicted of twice before. His first two convictions were in 1989 and 1993. In between those convictions he was charged with driving on a suspended or revoked license (third offense) and driving without a valid license (second offense).
Brunner pleads guilty, and prosecutors recommend a jail sentence of 120 days.
Brunner’s lawyer writes the judge, saying Brunner “is basically a hardworking man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Of Brunner’s prior convictions, the lawyer writes, “Drank a bit too much in an isolated incident, made a bad decision to drive and got caught.”
After Brunner serves 17 days, his wife writes the judge, asking that Brunner be allowed to serve his remaining time at home on electronic monitoring. She says he hurt his back and can’t sleep on the jail bunk and that without sleep he can’t run his business and that if he can’t run his business all his employees will lose their livelihoods.
In the court file for this case, a handwritten note in the margins of her letter says “denied without medical verification,” after which medical verification was provided, with a doctor writing the judge about Brunner’s aching back.
The jail no longer has records showing when Brunner was actually released. Brunner will later write that the jail was overcrowded and he was too big for the jail’s beds. The best he can remember, “I was released for good behavior.”
June 17, 2003
The house at 7750 West Hicks Street in West Allis, built in 1893, uses balloon framing, with long, wooden studs stretching from basement to roof. That style of construction saved money and time but introduced danger. If a fire broke out, those unbroken studs could become a highway for flames.
Todd Brunner buys this home, with three upstairs bedrooms and a steep, gable roof, in the spring of 2003. The purchase price is $50,507. He later bundles it with 10 other properties to get a $1.1 million loan from Tri City National Bank.
For Brunner, the West Allis house becomes part of a growing enterprise. In Milwaukee alone, he buys at least 65 properties from 2002 to 2005, many on the city’s economically distressed north side. He scoops up a Cape Cod on North 38th, a duplex on North 58th, a ranch on North 72nd. At sheriff’s sales, where foreclosed properties go up for auction, he’s such a fixture he has his own desk.
Brunner’s name is all over property records. It’s all over court records, too. He constantly sues, and he is constantly being sued. Court records turn up disputes with contractors, creditors, debtors, tenants, banks, utilities, code enforcers and tax collectors. He feuds with neighbors and with business associates and with business associates who once were neighbors.
In court, he wins some, he loses some. He’ll later say a lot of this litigation stems from tenants who don’t pay their rent or from properties he buys in poor condition, not up to code. “I was proud of the work we did on these properties,” he’ll write. With a crew that grew as big as 30, “we usually completely rehabbed them turning them from the worst to the best properties in the area.”
Brunner lives in Pewaukee, in a sprawling, serpentine house on two acres near the lake. In 2004, a neighbor accuses Brunner of harassment. Home surveillance video captured Brunner, in a Cadillac Escalade, pulling up to the neighbor’s home and yelling: “Cocksucker. Fucking piece of shit. Fuck. Come out here. I will kick your fucking ass.” At a court hearing, the neighbor testifies that Brunner has also pulled up on other occasions and revved his engine: “He sits out in front of the house, honking, roaring.”
A judge orders Brunner to stay away from the neighbor. Months later, according to a police report, the neighbor hears a vehicle outside his house, idling. He sees Brunner on an ATV. “Take a picture, motherfucker,” Brunner says, before driving off. Charged with violating the anti-harassment order, Brunner ends up being convicted of disorderly conduct and pays a $181 fine.
Years later, Brunner goes at it with a different neighbor. He pulls up to the neighbor’s house and yells at the family to “get off his land,” according to a police report. He says, “You want a piece of me?” A deputy writes in his report, “It should be noted, Todd is a very large man approximately 400 pounds.” Brunner subsequently appears in the neighbor’s driveway with a tape measure. “For some reason,” a deputy writes, “Brunner believes the asphalted driveway … is now his property.”
June 7, 2007
Doctors tell Angelica Belen that her first child will be a boy. So the arrival of a girl, when Belen is 19, leaves her with no name prepared. A day later she’s doing the word search puzzle and spies, between the circled words, four letters, N-A-Y-A.
Naya will be her name, Angelica says. No, make it Nayeli, the father says. Because it means “I love you” in the language of the Zapotecs, an indigenous population from southern Mexico.
As Naya grows, her mother sees that she is smart, charismatic, funny, kind, “a bit sassy, and very easily distracted.” Naya walks early, talks early, reads early. When she’s 2, she trick-or-treats as a Spanish dancer in a red dress. She loves cute shoes, big bows in her hair and lip gloss. And she loves ballet. She idolizes Misty Copeland, a Black ballerina. Her favorite singers are Rihanna and Beyonce. They are brown like her, and true to the title of Beyonce’s smash album, they are “fierce.” That word is Naya’s “every aspiration,” Belen later writes. Naya will say, “Mom, I just need to be fierce, I am fierce, I need to look fierce.”
In 2008, when Belen is 20, she has twin boys, born premature.
Adrian, 3 pounds, 12 ounces at birth, has epilepsy and autism. He gets medication for seizures, and as he grows, he is quiet, gentle and sweet. He loves wearing his Batman costume. His favorite song is “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He keeps pennies in his pocket and helps his mom around the house, putting dishes in the sink. His mom will give him rubber bands and paper clips, and he will make an airplane. On a trip to Famous Footwear, he goes to a bin and starts sorting, white socks here, black socks there.
Alexis, or Alex for short, is even smaller at birth: 3 pounds, 7 ounces. He has cerebral palsy. He gets physical therapy and speech therapy. When he crawls at 15 months, his mom claps; when he pulls himself up at 19 months, she cheers; when he walks at 22 months, she cries. His mom calls Alex her “little spitfire.” If there’s trouble to be had — say, smearing grape jelly and mustard everywhere — Alex is the one to start it, while Adrian tags along. Alex’s favorite movie is “The Avengers.” He likes to sit in his mom’s lap, and if she cries, he strokes her face. The details throughout this section are lovely.
Naya is close to her brothers. She goes along on their visits to therapists and doctors. Belen teaches Naya to protect her brothers. After Belen burns cookies and a smoke alarm goes off, she instructs Naya on fire safety, saying, try to find a safe way out, and if you can’t, put a towel under the door to block the smoke and throw toys out a window and scream, so someone can hear.
August 15, 2010
In the summer of 2010, Todd Brunner sells the house on West Hicks Street in West Allis. Only it’s not really a sale, because no money is exchanged. As Brunner will later admit in court papers, he’s trying to shield this house — and many others — from creditors.
Brunner creates three shell companies, in which he hides real estate, cars and boats. He doesn’t exactly cover his tracks; they’re organized under the name of his son, Shawn. Shawn is in college. He’s 20. He’s on Facebook posting “eat pray blowjob” and “getting white boy wasted tomorrow?!?”
When Shawn was 17, he was charged with a felony for throwing fireworks at a passing train, causing temporary hearing loss for an engineer leaning out a window. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a $325 fine. When Shawn turned 18, his dad, as a birthday present, gave him $100,000 to invest in real estate.
June 5, 2011
Todd Brunner files for bankruptcy, again, declaring, in court records, that he owes more than $18 million to creditors listed across 60-plus pages.
He owes taxes to 29 municipalities, from Brookfield to West Allis. At least nine banks hold mortgages. He owes First Business Bank $2.2 million for a construction loan for a failed venture to build an assisted-living center for seniors. He has unpaid court fines and condominium dues; outstanding debts to suppliers and lawyers; and credit card balances ranging from $350 to $92,000.
He lists 218 properties he owns in Wisconsin. They include many rentals, with paying tenants, but even so, Brunner lists, as his monthly income, “$0.00.” The numbers speak for themselves here. Did you obtain all of these figures from the bankruptcy file? Yes, all the numbers and details in this chapter’s top four paragraphs, including Brunner’s claim that his monthly income was $0.00, came from bankruptcy records.
The bankruptcy records include Brunner’s personal possessions, revealing an attraction for what he later calls “some cool toys.” He owns a 1918 Rauch & Lang electric car; a 1937 Ford Coupe; a 1959 Jaguar; a 1984 Rolls Royce; and a 2006 Bentley worth $70,000. He also owns a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, an ATV and at least eight trucks.
Brunner’s flashy collection doesn’t sit well with some creditors. “A guy doesn’t usually come out here in a Bentley to tell you he can’t pay you 1,900 bucks,” the president of a window-and-door dealer tells the Journal Sentinel. Brunner’s boats include a 30-foot catamaran that, he writes, reaches 134 mph and consumes 136 gallons of fuel an hour, wide-open throttle. He also owns a 37-foot cigarette boat, worth $80,000, named El Diablo.
Kerry Kneser, a former football teammate of Brunner’s, remembers working at a bank in Pewaukee and seeing Brunner pull up, in a Bentley, and park in a no-parking zone. “At that point he had an attitude, I can do whatever I want.” Such a small detail, but one that is emblematic of the lens through which Brunner views the world.
Dennis Witthun Jr., a former business partner of Brunner’s, says Brunner wore a gold necklace with diamond-encrusted propellers. Brunner, Witthun says, “was a good actor.” Witthun says he once went with Brunner to meet with bank officials to seek relief with a big loan. In the meeting, Brunner cried with “actual tears,” Witthun says. Then outside the bank Brunner stopped crying and said to Witthun, “How was that?”
(“Never happened/ A total lie,” Brunner later writes to a reporter when asked about this.) How did you decide when to lean on reporting that was already previously done by other outlets, like your mention of the Journal-Sentinel earlier in this chapter? What’s your approach to including other reporting, generally? Most of the previous reporting was done by the Journal Sentinel, so that reporting was in-house (given that the JS was half of this partnership). We sometimes linked to stories — for example, in the sentence in this chapter. Then, in the source box at the bottom, we made specific mention of Cary Spivak, the Journal Sentinel reporter who had done extensive reporting on Todd Brunner in the years before.
One week after Brunner files for bankruptcy, a sheriff’s deputy finds two of Brunner’s employees on railroad property, according to police records. The two say they were digging a channel under the tracks to run electricity from one of Brunner’s rental properties to his boat lifts on Pewaukee Lake.
Brunner tells deputies he did indeed order this work. He says he doesn’t have a permit “but would pull one with the City of Pewaukee during the week,” according to a deputy’s report. A couple of trains get delayed while the track is inspected for possible damage to the railroad bed. The railroad fills the hole — 3 feet long, 1 foot wide — and Brunner’s employees get charged with, and convicted of, trespassing.
(Brunner himself wasn’t charged, based on what these records show. Asked recently about this incident, Brunner wrote: “I never said I would get a permit because I didn’t think I needed one. We were just driving a 1’ pipe underneath the railroad tracks, that never hurt anything and we were only copying what other neighbors had done years earlier. I paid for the tickets my people got.”) It’s very telling that his employees get charged, while he doesn’t.
June 14, 2011
7750 West Hicks Street, West Allis
The West Allis code inspector who shows up at 7750 West Hicks Street doesn’t go inside. On this spring day in 2011, he inspects only the house’s exterior, checking for violations.
Milwaukee, 6 miles east, has a program at this time requiring interior inspections of rental units in particularly distressed neighborhoods. Its program recognizes that if a renter notifies the city of some problem — say, failing pipes or faulty wiring — an upset landlord could respond by filing to evict. Milwaukee strives to catch dangerous conditions without exposing renters to retaliation.
West Allis has no such program. Its inspector sees what he can from the outside, and at 7750 West Hicks, he sees five violations, including weeds, a boarded-up window, scattered junk, and wood in need of paint.
The remaining violation falls under the city’s electrical code. But the inspector’s written notes offer only six words of description: “two outlets east side of house.” On June 14, the inspector sends a “notice,” directing the landlord, Todd Brunner, to fix the violations by June 30.
On July 20, the inspector returns and sees the same violations. He sends an “order,” demanding Brunner fix them by August 20. This is a super important section. Beyond the documentation from the inspector, what was the sourcing? What materials did you use to reconstruct this scene? We used the inspector’s reports (the notice, order and second order), as well as his handwritten notes. These reports were found in a file kept by the city’s neighborhood services department. Raquel also interviewed the inspector, who had retired, at his home.
On August 22, the inspector sees that three violations remain, including the problem outlets. He sends a “second order,” demanding Brunner fix them by September 22.
August 31, 2011
Angelica Belen didn’t plan for another child, but her IUD fails. She’s 23 when her fourth child is born, and her fourth child, like her second and third, is born premature. Born at 28 weeks, he has a breathing disorder; he needs a nebulizer three times a day, an inhaler twice a day. She carries him constantly, afraid he’ll have an asthma attack.
When Belen first met the boy’s father, he seemed caring and helpful. He went to the kids’ doctor’s appointments and sat and played with them. “More than anything else that’s what drew me into him,” she’ll write years later. But a few months after their child’s birth, he hits Belen in the face, bloodying her nose, then grabs and shakes her head, according to a criminal complaint. He gets convicted of disorderly conduct and is ordered to stay away from Belen.
For Belen, this is history repeating. The twins’ father had also been a good father at first. Then, she says, he became violent and lapsed into drugs, and she knew she had to leave him.
In the spring of 2012, Belen gets evicted from her home in Oak Creek, south of Milwaukee. It’s her second eviction, the kind of history that will make it hard to find a new place. The man who served the eviction papers sees three children outside, unattended, near a busy intersection, two in diapers so soiled they hang to the knees.
Belen gets a job at a thrift shop but loses it for missing too many days taking care of her kids.
She enrolls Naya in Saint Lucas, a Lutheran school in Milwaukee, even though it will require her to drive Naya back and forth every day. On days when Belen’s minivan breaks down, she takes her by city bus. A fellow mom writes of seeing Belen arrive one winter day, “her baby strapped to her chest and one boy in each hand,” out of breath, having walked a half-mile from the bus stop through snow. Robert Gurgel, the parish pastor, notices Belen in the pews at church. “I thought who is this woman with these well-groomed, well-mannered children,” Gurgel will later say. “I wondered what her story was.” How did you find sources like Gurgel? Reading through the sentencing documents. Included were many letters from family members, friends and others such as Gurgel, who had written to the court.
Belen makes beautiful dresses for Naya, and she makes it to school events, like Pastries with Parents, and she volunteers to help clean the school on weekends. You include a wide range of details about Belen – the ways in which she is struggling as a mother, like with the soiled diapers, but also where her commitment to her children shines through. What were you hoping to convey with this complexity? She’s trying. She’s failing, but she’s trying. Sometimes we expect people to be all this or all that. Life’s not that way.
January 3, 2012
The way Todd Brunner divulges information in his latest bankruptcy declaration, dribbling it out, angers creditors and the U.S. trustee, who monitors cases and enforces bankruptcy laws. Asked in a hearing where he got the information needed to fill out the voluminous bankruptcy forms, Brunner says, “Out of my head.” As creditors and the trustee keep digging, he keeps revealing more assets, including a backhoe, a forklift, boat propellers, five guns and four pieces of real estate in Bend, Oregon.
In January 2012, the trustee asks that Brunner’s request for bankruptcy protection be denied. “A core purpose of the Bankruptcy Code is to provide a fresh start for honest debtors,” the trustee’s motion says. “It is not a safe haven for fraud or deception.”
Brunner accused a former secretary of throwing all his records in a snowbank. (“Not truthful,” the trustee’s motion says.) Brunner transferred properties into shell companies when in financial trouble — a “badge of fraud,” the motion says. He then moved many of them back, including the house in West Allis. He didn’t disclose his income to the bankruptcy court; he hasn’t filed federal tax returns for two years running; and he declared assorted assets only after creditors asked about them, the motion says. The trustee likens Brunner’s actions to “a game of ‘cat and mouse.’”
In April 2012, the bankruptcy judge tosses Brunner’s bankruptcy request out of court. Brunner, the judge says, blamed his poor record-keeping on a former record-keeper, his property transfers on bad advice from a former lawyer, and his poor property management on a property-management company. “You have a propensity to blame others,” the judge tells Brunner. “And you seem to be portraying yourself as an innocent victim, and I’m not persuaded by that at all.”
Instead of getting protection from creditors, Brunner’s now in trouble with law enforcement. In June, an assistant U.S. attorney emails federal and local authorities about what she calls Brunner’s “multi-faceted fraud activity.” At least three Milwaukee police detectives work with federal agents; their emails back and forth reveal an investigation that keeps expanding. Subpoenas go out to banks, title insurers, property managers. Investigators collect rent ledgers, loan applications, balance sheets. They interview Brunner’s business partners, tenants and at least two of his former lawyers.
Banks swoop in to collect. This line evokes powerful imagery. I often imagine debt collectors as birds. In October 2012, Brunner, questioned under oath by one bank’s lawyer, says, “This is just a witch hunt.” He says, “I wasn’t meaning to defraud anybody.” He says, “If you think I got a big bag of money somewhere, you’re wrong.” Some questions, he just won’t answer. He refers to getting a high-interest loan but treats the loan’s source as a secret.
“I borrowed it from an attorney. He makes loans.”
“And who is that attorney?”
“He doesn’t want his name out there.” Did all of this dialogue come from court records? What was your experience and the timeline like when it came to obtaining records? Yes, this dialogue came from a transcript that was included in court records. For our scenes with dialogue, we consistently pushed for the best available record. If video wasn’t available, we asked for audio. If audio wasn’t available, we asked for a transcript. If a transcript wasn’t available, we paid to have one created, using a court reporter’s notes. Our timeline was nearly 400 pages long. It got so long it became balky, so we stopped adding to it and instead created additional timelines on specific subtopics (for example, the details regarding Brunner’s 200-plus properties).
“So you’re willing not to answer this question under oath to protect the attorney?”
“I’m done with this right now. What else do you want?”
Two days later, the FBI raids Brunner’s home, seizing computers and paperwork. Separately, the FBI finds, in a warehouse, expensive engines, superchargers and gauges that had been stripped from El Diablo, Brunner’s cigarette boat.
March 9, 2012
A fire starts in the garage of a rental house on Ridgeview Drive in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, and the fire spreads to the house, but thanks to a barking dog, the two people sleeping inside on this Friday morning are alerted to the blaze and able to get out.
Crews from fire departments around Milwaukee respond to the fire, which causes about $150,000 worth of damage. Firefighters fill out a form for the fire, and in the section titled “Ignition,” in the subsection for “Heat source,” the author types, “Electrical arcing.”
The rental home’s owner is Todd Brunner.
In nearby Milwaukee, firefighters are accustomed to getting called to Brunner’s rental properties.
In December of 2009, they get called to a house of Brunner’s on North 41st Street. The incident report says “bad outlet.” Firefighters shut off power to the outlet and advise the tenant to call an electrician.
In May of 2010, firefighters get called to a house of Brunner’s on North 28th Street. The incident report says the woman living there “witnessed sparks coming from electric outlet.” Firefighters shut off power to the kitchen, the room with the sparking outlet, and advise her to call an electrician.
In July of 2012, firefighters go to a house of Brunner’s on North 65th Street. The incident report says “OUTLET SPARKING.” Firefighters shut down the circuit and advise: “contact landlord.” We can now see that Brunner’s neglect, and propensity for that neglect to start fires, is a pattern. Why did you choose to place this section here, in the middle of the piece? How were you thinking about these different layers of reveal? This is an example of arranging chapters to heighten tension: This chapter — about a fire and fire hazards at Brunner’s other rental properties — comes immediately before Belen moves into Brunner’s rental home in West Allis. She considers her new home a “dream come true,” because she knows nothing about Brunner or this pattern we’ve just revealed. So at this point, the reader knows something Belen doesn’t — and what the reader knows is going to make the reader very uneasy. This chapter is also an example of using a scene with a time stamp — the March 9, 2012, fire in Brookfield — but then describing incidents on either end of that date (December 2009, May 2010, July 2012) to establish a disturbing pattern.
July 18, 2012
7750 West Hicks Street, West Allis
Knowing nothing about the house’s landlord, Todd Brunner, Angelica Belen signs a lease and moves with her four kids into 7750 West Hicks Street in West Allis. For weeks, Belen’s family had been sleeping in her minivan or at a relative’s house or in a shelter. Now, with the help of government assistance for her children with disabilities, she can rent this house — a big house — for $825 a month. “This place looked like a dream come true,” she’ll write later.
In the kitchen, one light flickers. A friend tightens the bulb, but still, Belen needs to flip the switch several times to turn the light on. The light above the kitchen sink is worse. The first time she turns it on, two bulbs blow. She replaces them and tries again, but those bulbs blow as well, leading her to give up. She tells the property manager about the problems with the lighting, but nobody comes to fix whatever is wrong, Belen will say later. Belen considers calling the city but chooses not to, fearing her landlord will kick her out.
Thelma Nash, who rented the house before Belen, says the wiring throughout was “a mess.” “The lights were going on and off all the time,” Nash says. “I thought there were ghosts in there.” She complained to property managers but got no response, she says. She never saw an electrician make repairs.
A month or so after moving out, Nash meets Belen while returning to pick up mail. Nash asks if the electrical wiring has been fixed, and when Belen says no, Nash tells her, “Baby, they shouldn’t have let you move in.” Why did you choose this quote for the dek hed? There’s such foreboding in this quote. The previous tenant knows something Belen doesn’t — and is worried about Belen. We thought this quote might pull readers in. What is it that the previous tenant knows? What’s the history here? We also wanted to avoid having a dek that would give the story away. That’s the same reason we avoided having any kind of traditional nut graf.
There is so much about the house Belen doesn’t know. She doesn’t know about the code inspector who has flagged two exterior outlets. She doesn’t know what the wiring looks like in the basement, because she doesn’t go down there. Basements give her the creeps; plus, a property manager told her the floor had been torn up. And she doesn’t know the house’s history.
In the summer of 1978, decades before Brunner became owner, the house caught fire. As smoke poured from the eaves and windows, firefighters found, in an upstairs bedroom, a teenager. She wasn’t breathing. She had no pulse. Firefighters carried her outside and resuscitated her.
The fire department classified the fire’s cause as electrical. A TV overheated, the battalion chief wrote. A captain, in a report now preserved on microfilm, requested an electrical inspection of the house by the city’s Fire Prevention Bureau. He wrote, “Various electrical code violations were noted in the building while overhauling — especially the basement.”
December 31, 2012
On the final day of 2012, a year and a half after the code inspector first flagged the problem outlets, the city’s file on the house on West Hicks Street is closed.
After Todd Brunner failed to respond to the “notice,” then the “order,” then the “second order,” the city filed a citation against Brunner, hoping that would get his attention. Brunner failed to appear in municipal court, resulting in a $5,000 default judgment, after which Brunner’s attorney got the case reopened and then resolved with payment of a $50 fine. Again, the numbers really show it all here — how Brunner gets off easily with the law, time and time again.
But what happened at the house is unclear. The inspector’s notes — handwritten and at times barely legible — indicate the issue with the outlets was corrected in March 2012. But just as his initial notes didn’t specify the problem, his subsequent notes don’t describe the fix.
Nash, the home’s renter in early 2012, says she doesn’t remember anyone coming to the house to do repairs. There is no record on file of anyone getting an electrical permit. Electrical permits trigger an inspection by city engineers who can ensure work was done — and done properly.
February 26, 2013
A social worker is on her way to Angelica Belen’s house when she notices that Belen is driving right in front of her in a minivan. The social worker sees Belen arrive at her home and get out with only her daughter.
Belen, the worker discovers, has left her three boys in the home, alone. The twins are crying; the toddler is in a high chair. Confronted, Belen makes up a story, then admits the truth: She’d left them for about an hour while picking up Naya from school.
The social worker is with the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, an agency that helps families in crisis. Child welfare officials have received at least a half-dozen complaints about Belen, all of which they’ve found to be unsubstantiated or not credible enough to investigate. But there are real problems. Social workers report that Belen has been missing therapy appointments for her children. Their medication isn’t being routinely refilled. Her home is often filthy, with dirty diapers and garbage strewn about.
The bureau is doing unannounced visits. Social workers have been meeting with Belen about once a week to work on family safety. They tell her: Under no circumstances should she leave her kids alone.
Two weeks later, Belen drives to a store in West Allis and goes inside with Naya to buy art supplies. Outside, in the parking lot, a man discovers the twin boys walking around. One nearly gets hit by a car. Someone else discovers Belen’s youngest child inside the minivan, alone and crying. The police are called, and caseworkers notified, and Belen says this is how she was raised, that as a child she’d been left in the car with no harm done.
In a follow-up, a West Allis police detective goes to Belen’s home on March 18 and does a walk-through. The children seem OK, the detective reports. There’s clutter, the kitchen is dirty, food seems limited, but the detective doesn’t see anything dangerous. The detective returns the next day and reports that conditions have “improved greatly.” The kitchen’s clean, floors vacuumed, refrigerator restocked.
For the two instances of leaving three of her kids alone, Belen gets charged with six misdemeanor counts of child neglect.
While those charges are pending, child welfare officials decide to let Belen’s children remain in the home.
On April 9, a social worker visits Belen and sees no cause for concern. The home is fine. The children appear happy. Belen has a new job, as a hostess at a Chinese restaurant, and says she’ll be putting her kids in day care.
April 11, 2013, 3:49 p.m.
7750 West Hicks Street, West Allis
Angelica Belen wakes up around 6 a.m.
Then she wakes up Naya, Adrian and Alex.
She makes oatmeal for breakfast, then gets everyone ready, faces washed, teeth brushed. Naya wants to wear her blue tights, but Belen can’t find them, so Naya wears pants instead. At risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll reiterate that I find the details you weave in to be quite striking. Did these all come from Belen’s memory? Most of these details do come from Belen, but as told to police, in interviews on this same day and the next day. So she’s reconstructing this day in the immediate aftermath, while her memory is fresh. We listened to the five-plus hours of audio from the interviews.
Around 7:30 they pile into the minivan, all four of them. (Belen’s youngest child is with his dad today.) Belen drives east into Milwaukee, to Naya’s school, Saint Lucas Lutheran. The trip’s just 6 miles, but with city traffic it can take 20 minutes. It’s cold and wet. Naya doesn’t want to get out of the van. But there’s a place to pull up, close to the school’s doors. Belen drives up and Naya goes in.
Then it’s 6 miles back.
Belen and her twin boys get home after 8. They watch a movie, “Lilo & Stitch,” for “the thousandth time,” as Belen puts it.
Around noon, a social worker comes by to check on the family. The kids are watching another movie, “Stardust.” The social worker stays at the house for 30, maybe 40 minutes.
After she leaves, Belen makes lunch. Macaroni and cheese. She makes two boxes because they always eat more than one.
The boys watch “Lilo & Stitch” again while Belen changes clothes, preparing for work later today. This will be just her third shift at Lychee Garden, a restaurant she’d been going to since she was a child. She’s scheduled for 4 to 7.
Belen changes the boys’ diapers. She changes Adrian’s shirt, because he got macaroni and cheese on it. Around 2:30 she puts them in the van, and it’s back to school, to pick up Naya, then back home again, pulling in sometime after 3.
When she worked two nights ago, Belen found neighbors, neighbors she barely knew, to watch her kids. Going forward she’ll have subsidized day care; her boss has already signed the form, verifying her employment. She’ll be dropping those papers off tomorrow at the county office.
But for today, she’s been unable to find anyone to babysit. At 3:47 she tries one more time, she calls one of her sisters, but the sister can’t.
Belen gives her kids hugs and kisses, tells them she loves them and promises to bring home almond cookies from the restaurant.
Play with your toys, she tells them. When I get home, we’ll have spaghetti for dinner.
She puts Naya, Adrian and Alex in the boys’ bedroom, the one just above the kitchen. She closes the door.
And locks it.
At 3:49, she drives away. At this point, as readers, we can get the sense that tension and drama are building into a narrative climax. Can you share more behind your thinking for this placement? Also, why did you include exact time stamps? The level of detail in this chapter signals to the reader: This day is important. Something’s coming. And it’s bad. Some readers — certainly not all, but some — are going to scroll back up to the first chapter and see that the 911 call which started our story took place on this very day, at 5:19 p.m. So they can calculate: the fire gets reported an hour and a half after Belen drives away. We also use small echoes to help readers link that first chapter to this one. For example, we use the same, short sentence, “It’s cold and wet,” in both chapters. The exact time stamps serve multiple purposes. In a story where most of the attribution comes in a source box at the end, it helps sometimes to reestablish authority with readers — to let them know that we’ve got this locked down. We know Belen called her sister at 3:47 because it was in the sister’s phone log. We know Belen drove away at 3:49 because a neighbor’s surveillance camera captured the moment. The exact time stamps also help readers to picture, in their minds, Belen’s day in relationship to events elsewhere — namely, what we describe in the next chapter, when Brunner on this same day fails to show up in court to be arraigned on charges of violating building-maintenance codes.
April 11, 2013, 10:48 a.m.
Milwaukee Municipal Court
The same day, at 10:48 a.m., as Angelica Belen’s twins are watching “Lilo & Stitch,” or perhaps by now they’re watching “Stardust,” Todd Brunner is supposed to be in Milwaukee Municipal Court.
The court’s docket has two cases in which Brunner has been charged with 14 counts of violating building-maintenance codes. One count is for not fixing a rental home’s porch steps. Another is for not fixing a foundation to keep out rodents.
His arraignment is this morning. But Brunner fails to show.
The judge finds Brunner guilty of all 14 counts and fines him $14,050. If Brunner fails to pay, he could be jailed for 171 days.
That sounds serious. But the threat is hollow.
The year before, city inspectors ordered Brunner to fix defective electrical wiring at one rental, defective electrical fixtures at another and a defective electrical outlet at a third. When Brunner failed to show he had fixed anything, the city charged him, adding three code violations to a long and growing list.
In 2013, Brunner will be called to court to face 134 code violations. He won’t contest any and will be found guilty of all. He’ll be fined more than $100,000 and threatened with more than three years in jail. (Nine years later, he will have paid less than half and served not one day.) I’m flabbergasted by this parenthetical. How is it possible that he paid less than half? When it comes to enforcement, the municipal court has a way of letting landlords off easy. Todd Brunner isn’t alone in this. See Chapter 32 and Todd’s son Shawn.
On this very day, the city has at least 11 warrants out for Brunner’s arrest, for failure to pay his fines. Not one warrant will ever be executed. In this, Brunner is the beneficiary of a practice meant to help the poor. Municipal court, not wishing to jail low-income people who can’t afford to pay fines and traffic tickets, generally allows people with warrants to have at least four contacts with police before being arrested.
At 1:18 p.m., two and a half hours after Brunner fails to appear in court, a deed is recorded at the Milwaukee County Assessor’s Office showing Brunner no longer owns the house at 7750 West Hicks Street in West Allis. That’s the house where, at about this time, Belen is cleaning up after lunch, or perhaps getting ready for work.
Brunner, the foreclosure king, lost the home six weeks ago in foreclosure to Tri City National Bank.
In online records, the new deed will take a while to show up. So this evening, when a member of the West Allis Fire Department searches for the home’s owner, Brunner’s name will still appear. The firefighter will call Brunner, get no answer, then leave a message and get no response.
April 11, 2013, 7:20 p.m.
7750 West Hicks Street, West Allis
Angelica Belen clocks out at the restaurant at 7:06 p.m., then drives home. Nearing her house, she sees firetrucks. A block from her street, she sees a police officer. He tells her a house is on fire. Which one, she asks. He doesn’t know the address, but with each detail he offers, the north side of the street, the far side of the alley, realization, then panic, set in.
She jumps out of her car, leaving it where it is, the door open, and runs toward her house, in ballet flats, splashing through puddles, praying, please, God, not this, not my kids. People try to stop her, but she runs past. In her yard she finds a firefighter and asks, frantically, about her kids.
There’s nobody in there, the firefighter tells her.
While Belen was at work, firefighters from West Allis and nearby cities had chased the fire through the home. Discovering a locked door on the second floor, they’d used a Halligan tool to force it open. But they couldn’t search the room; the smoke was thick, the floor unstable.
Belen tells firefighters that she believes her children are inside. She says her sister was with them and may be inside, too.
A firefighter climbs a ladder up the side of the house and goes through a window into the boys’ bedroom. Underneath a dresser he sees what appears to be a doll’s hand.
He lifts the dresser and says, “Oh my God.”
Firefighters find all three children dead, their bodies in a corner, touching.
April 11, 2013, 11:29 p.m.
Detective Thomas Kulinski turns on the tape recorder and waits for Angelica Belen. It’s 11:29 p.m., about four hours after Belen learned of her daughter’s and sons’ deaths.
“How you doing? Doing OK?” he asks as she enters.
Kulinski interviewed Belen once already, earlier tonight. She’d told him that when she’d left for work today, she had left her kids at home with her sister Nicole. But police now know that’s a lie. They’ve interviewed Nicole, and Nicole has detailed her day, and the police have corroborated her timeline.
Kulinski, a former Marine with a graduate degree in theology, reads Belen her rights. Then he tells her: “Your sister wasn’t there. I can prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that your sister wasn’t there.”
He asks Belen, “Who was with the kids when you left for work?”
For 13 seconds, there is silence. Then Belen says, “No one, sir.”
She tells him that she had no one to babysit, that she’d called around, with no luck, that she’d just started her job, she needed the job, and if she didn’t show, she would have been fired.
“There was nobody in your life at all that could have watched your kids?”
“I have nobody.”
“Why didn’t you build a better support system for yourself?” Kulinski asks.
“What support system? These people were never there for me.”
Belen tells the detective: “There’s been nobody in my life. For 24 years I’ve been either beaten, abused, left alone to fend for myself. That’s, that’s what I’ve had.”
April 12, 2013, 4:49 a.m.
“Don’t make me look. Please don’t make me.”
Angelica Belen is being interviewed by Detective Nick Pye, who has brought photographs to the cellblock where she’s now being held. Pye says the medical examiner is having trouble telling her sons apart, so they want her help. One boy died with his face away from the flames. Pye would like her to say if it is Alex or Adrian.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, please don’t,” she says.
She describes her sons, to help distinguish them. Adrian was taller, his hair curlier. He sucked his thumb, and his bottom teeth, the ones in the middle, were pushed in.
“You’re not going to show me the pictures, please don’t,” she says. “Please, sir, please, I’m begging you, please. Please.”
As Belen speaks, her breath is short. She sounds panicked, exhausted. But Pye expects tears. After 18 minutes, he says, “How come you’re not crying?” She tells him she has cried and screamed, horrified at what she’s done, and now she’s numb. She says she wants to remember her kids the way they were. She asks the detective if he’d want to see his kids this way. This whole scene is horrifying.
After a half hour, Pye tells her, “I’m not going to force you to, I mean, OK?” When she starts to waver, he says: “I’ll tell you what. Your choice. I’ll slide it face down under the door, OK, and you can take as brief a glimpse …”
“No, no. I can’t, I can’t do that alone,” she says.
So he stays. “You ready?” he says. She looks at the photo.
“Alex,” she says, and he turns off the recorder as she gasps and wails. What was your process for acquiring these tapes? Was law enforcement cooperative when it came to providing materials? The audio of the interviews and police photos of the scene were included in our records request, and West Allis police provided them along with the written reports. They did not fight us on this.
April 12, 2013, 6:45 p.m.
Detectives Pye and Kulinski interview Belen for what is now the fifth time. This interview lasts more than two and a half hours.
Belen talks of leaving her children alone. She never wanted to do what her mother did, to hurt her kids. But “in the end,” she says, “I did exactly what she did, only three times worse.” She didn’t want to lose her job, Belen says. She’d told her kids that with her first paycheck, she’d buy them toys. Naya wanted a Barbie Dreamhouse. The boys wanted action figures — for Adrian, Batman, for Alex, Captain America.
The detectives want Belen to admit locking the bedroom door. “I swear to you, I swear to you, on everything that is holy, I would never lock my kids in the room,” she says. They offer her an out: By locking her kids in, she thought she was keeping them safe. The kids couldn’t get to the kitchen and play with knives. They couldn’t leave the house and wander into traffic. Belen refuses their offer.
Finally, after an hour, Pye screams at her, “How did they get locked in the room!”
“I don’t know!” Belen screams back.
Soon after, she gives in. She admits turning the lock. “Because it kept them safe,” she says. She tells the detectives that when she was a kid, she was left alone and nothing happened, “everything was fine.”
Did her kids try to open a window? Belen asks, at one point.
“I think they did. Because there were some toys laying on the ground,” Pye says.
“She tried,” Belen says. “She tried, she did what I told her to do. She tried. My sweet baby girl, she tried.”
Death certificates show the children died from inhalation of soot and products of combustion.
The detectives tell Belen that with the high level of carbon monoxide in the children’s blood, the kids would have become numb. Euphoric, even. “You just close your eyes,” Pye says. “You go to sleep,” Kulinski says.
“The fire didn’t get them first?” Belen asks.
Pye tells Belen about electrical problems in the house. He describes the power hookup to one bathroom as “about the most careless thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“The fire is not your fault,” he says.
Kulinski talks about how old the house is and says, “What are the odds that it would burn down the three hours you’re gone?”
There’s no predicting how things will turn out, Kulinski tells Belen. Some jurors could understand why she did what she did. Some could sympathize with what she’s endured. And some jurors, he says, “will look at you as the devil and want to take you out back and shoot you.”
April 15, 2013
7750 West Hicks Street, West Allis
A lieutenant from the West Allis Fire Department meets with an electrical engineer at the house in West Allis where the children had died four days before. They are among 12 people from four departments — federal, state and local — investigating the fire’s cause.
They start outside, at a pole-mounted transformer. Then they follow the electricity, looking for evidence of arcing, where a current may have jumped off course. They examine the service panel in the basement, then trace the circuits running up, removing drywall and flooring to ensure they don’t lose track of each current’s path.
Ultimately, their investigation takes them to the kitchen and to a space, 1 foot deep behind a wall, filled with plumbing, heat vents and wiring. Here, they find their answer. The fire, they conclude, started with a failure in the circuit that powered the light above the kitchen sink.
The state classifies the fire’s cause as “accidental.”
No one is charged in connection with the fire’s ignition. Only Belen is charged, for what came after. Prosecutors charge her with three counts of criminal neglect of a child, resulting in death.
June 27, 2013
Waukesha County Court Commissioner’s Office
An employee with Badger Process Service Inc. goes to Brunner’s home on May 31, 2013, to serve an order requiring Brunner to answer questions about money he owes the city of Milwaukee.
No one answers the door. She leaves a card. She returns on June 4 and finds the door open. But no one answers. On June 6 she returns at 10:10 a.m. and again at 8:30 p.m., and both times, “someone is home but won’t answer,” she later writes. On June 9 she sees Brunner’s wife outside. “I’m not accepting anything,” Brunner’s wife says, to which the server says, “That’s OK,” and lays the papers at her feet, which does the job.
Brunner shows up on June 27 to answer questions from a lawyer. But Brunner becomes “argumentative,” standing and swearing and asking why he has to be there, according to a court commissioner’s affidavit. Sit down and stop swearing, the commissioner tells Brunner. Brunner does neither; he shouts and waves his arms. The commissioner orders him out, but Brunner refuses, so the commissioner asks his secretary to notify the police, at which point Brunner leaves, “using profanity all the way out the door.”
Brunner gets held in contempt, and a new hearing is scheduled, for which Brunner fails to appear, leading to another motion for contempt, for which Brunner must be served, leading another process server to his door, where, twice, the server hears a dog barking but gets no answer.
September 27, 2013
Milwaukee County Circuit Court
Twenty-one years after Angelica Belen’s mother was sentenced in the death of Marisol, Belen appears for sentencing in the deaths of her three children. The prosecutor is the same. Wow. I have the chills. It’s Mark Williams, an assistant DA with thick, gray hair, who, according to one newspaper story, has likely prosecuted more homicides than anyone in the country.
Colleagues call him a “machine.” Williams, in another newspaper story, says that he works from morning to midnight and that prosecuting homicides is his “dream job.” Before he’s through, he will prosecute more than 700.
Belen has pleaded guilty to all three felony counts of child neglect resulting in death. Each count carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.
The defense submits a memorandum from a sentencing mitigation specialist who writes, “Ms. Belen unfortunately experienced perhaps one of the most tragic developmental histories that this writer has come across in twenty years of working with indigent, criminal defendants.” Belen’s crime, he writes, “was an offense of omission rather than commission. … Additionally, there has never been any report of Ms. Belen abusing her children physically, emotionally, or verbally.”
Members of Belen’s family address the sentencing judge, some to condemn, others to defend.
Two of Belen’s sisters describe the pain of losing their nephews and niece, and blame Belen. “Time will not heal these wounds,” one sister says. Belen “had so much help and support around her” but turned it away, this sister says.
Angelica’s aunt — who was in court when Angelica’s mother was sentenced, in the hospital when Angelica was born and now in court as Angelica is sentenced — says: “She was ill-equipped and overwhelmed. And it’s not true when people say they were falling all over themselves, offering to help her. That’s not true.”
This same aunt, in a letter to the judge, described her niece’s history of being abused: “People wonder why Angie didn’t reach out for help. But I have to ask, would you? The system and the important people in her life failed her over and over. She learned as a young girl not to trust anyone.” I appreciate the variety of perspectives and voices you include here.
Williams, the prosecutor, laces into the Bureau of Child Welfare for leaving the children with Belen despite all the reports of her neglect. “And this house, we — everybody knew that this house was not exactly in good repair,” he says. “It was possible that anything could have happened.”
When Belen’s mother was sentenced, Williams had said of her crime, “I don’t understand it.” Now, he says of Belen’s crime, “It’s beyond comprehension.” This dialogue reveals the prosecutor’s lack of knowledge and literacy on trauma. There are such striking parallels between Belen’s sentencing hearing and the sentencing hearing for Belen’s mother, two decades earlier. In this chapter we drop in an echo, so readers can hear it. In the early 1990s a judge told Belen’s mother: “You came from a terrible background. I feel for you.” Then he says: “Your mother was mentally ill. Are you mentally ill? I don’t think so. You are weak.” In 2013 a different judge tells Belen: “I understand your — your terrible, terrible upbringing. I know that you’ve been victimized yourself growing up. But there shouldn’t be this cycle.” He asks the judge to sentence Belen to a “period of substantial confinement” for each of the three counts. And he asks that the sentences run back-to-back, saying that’s what each child deserves.
Belen, offered the chance to speak, tells the court: “I would like to say that I’m sorry to my children, my beautiful Adrian, Alexis and Nayeli. I’m sorry they will never grow up. I’m sorry I will never see you graduate from high school and get married and have children of your own. I’m sorry that my decision that day took that from you.”
Belen apologizes to her sisters, to her aunt, to the police and firefighters. She says of her children, “They were everything to me, and I loved them so much.”
At the hearing’s end, the judge, Jeffrey Wagner, tells Belen: “I don’t think there’s anybody in this courtroom that would disagree that you loved your children very much.”
“I understand your — your terrible, terrible upbringing. I know that you’ve been victimized yourself growing up,” he tells her. “But there shouldn’t be this cycle.”
He gives her six years in prison on each count — and orders the sentences to run back-to-back.
Belen, sentenced to 18 years, gets sent to Taycheedah, the same prison where her mother was sent.
October 7, 2014
A federal grand jury returns an 11-page indictment against Todd Brunner and his son Shawn for financial misdeeds. To reach this point, the government has expended enormous resources. Here’s the investigation and charges, by the numbers:
Agencies involved in the investigation: 4 (FBI, IRS, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Milwaukee Police Department)
Boxes of evidence collected in search of Todd Brunner’s home: 22
Documents collected: nearly 46,000
Felony charges against Shawn Brunner: 4
Maximum years he could face (all charges, combined): 95
Felony charges against Todd Brunner: 15
Maximum years he could face (all charges, combined): 350
The indictment accuses father and son of both bank fraud and bankruptcy fraud. I’m struck by the mother/daughter link you draw with Belen and her mother, and the father/son link here with Brunner and his son. Todd Brunner used invoices that were duplicated, forged, altered or inflated to make draws on that $2 million construction loan for the senior center, the indictment alleges. With his son, he used three shell companies to hide cars, boats and more than 100 parcels of real estate, federal authorities say. The value of those hidden assets, according to the indictment, totals about $7 million.
Brunner also “fraudulently concealed” the engines from El Diablo and claimed to have no income when his rental properties were generating, on average, more than $30,000 a month, the indictment alleges.
In a press release, U.S. attorney James Santelle says Brunner’s crimes undermine the operations of bankruptcy court and “compromise the strength of our financial institutions.”
Rather than arrest the Brunners, federal agents try to serve a summons, instructing them to appear in court. Papers in hand, U.S. marshals go to Todd Brunner’s home in Pewaukee. The lights are on. A dog is barking. But no one answers.
After multiple failed attempts, government officials conclude they’re being dodged. They get an arrest warrant. Early on a Monday morning, U.S. marshals, heavily armed, backed up by three other police agencies, bang on Brunner’s door, get no answer, then break the door down. They come out with father and son.
Accompanied by officers, Todd Brunner walks from the house to a sheriff’s van. His steps are slow and labored. That afternoon, he gets arraigned. Then he’s released, on condition he post $2,000 cash bail. Outside the courthouse he gets into a black pickup and drives away.
December 10, 2015
Local governments see it as a threat to tenants.
A bill being debated by state lawmakers in Madison will gut the ability of cities to inspect rental properties. And, say local officials from across the state, it will prevent them from forcing owners to fix code violations before renters move in.
One state legislative sponsor says the bill “promotes regulatory fairness” by treating all properties alike, whether occupied by renters or owners.
But Milwaukee says the bill’s prohibitions “strike at the heart of what a local government does — to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.” Its inspection program, in place since 2010, has allowed the city to target areas with higher-than-average building-code complaints, officials write. The city of Beloit also opposes the bill. This year, in two months alone, its rental inspection program found 33 units unfit for inhabitation.
The bill passes the Republican-controlled Assembly along party lines, 60-31. The Senate gives its approval, and Gov. Scott Walker signs the bill into law.
The bill is one of five major, landlord-friendly laws passed between 2011 and 2019.
Among lawmakers voting on these measures, about 1 in 5 are themselves landlords or property managers. You spend a lot of time positing the landlord and the renter as diametrically opposed, in terms of their interests, throughout the story. But here you present that more explicitly. What guided your placement of this short section about the policy landscape? This section on the state’s landlord-friendly laws has more emotional power here, coming as it does after the fatal fire and while Belen is in prison. These laws, passed between 2011 and 2019, bookend the fire. And these kinds of laws, gutting the ability of local governments to make rental properties safe, will increase the chances of more such fires in the future.
June 30, 2017
At times in a wheelchair, at times using two canes, Todd Brunner makes his way from the federal courthouse’s entrance to the courtroom where he will be sentenced. It takes two hours. In the hallway, his screams of pain draw courthouse employees from their offices.
It’s been nearly five years since the FBI searched his home and nearly three since he was indicted. There’s been no trial — Brunner took a plea deal — but still the case has dragged, due in part to Brunner’s obesity and poor health.
Brunner’s lawyer argued, unsuccessfully, to let Brunner appear at one hearing by video, citing his lack of mobility. Transporting him to court would cost $3,000 to $4,000, the lawyer estimated. Then there was the matter of Brunner’s mental fitness. Brunner suffered a stroke, but, following a psychiatric evaluation, both sides agreed he was competent to enter a guilty plea.
Brunner has pleaded guilty to three felonies: two for bank fraud and one for concealing assets from bankruptcy court. Fraud deemed sophisticated can yield a longer sentence. But Brunner’s lawyer, a public defender, argues his client was, as a criminal, incompetent: “The sophistication level was bordering on the juvenile.”
As his criminal case lingered, Brunner kept making news. In 2016, the Journal Sentinel revealed that Milwaukee Municipal Court keeps a list, called “Egregious Defendants,” of landlords with delinquent fines for code violations. Brunner was the list’s No. 2, owing $161,019.
In the courtroom, awaiting sentencing, Brunner sobs. His lawyer says he has cried at the sight of Brunner’s agony. “Mr. Brunner shouldn’t be in court. He shouldn’t have to endure that, that long walk,” he tells the judge. “It hurts my soul to see someone like Mr. Brunner suffer this much.” The lawyer argues against any prison time for Brunner, saying, “I don’t believe Mr. Brunner is long for this world.” Brunner’s existence, he says, is now confined to “living in his bed.”
She says Brunner has “morbid obesity,” which can be treated in a prison medical facility. She describes Brunner’s various frauds: the falsified invoices, the hiding of money from bankruptcy court. Brunner hid so much cash, she says, that a bank employee had to help Brunner’s son shove a stuffed safety deposit box back into place.
As the prosecutor makes her case, the judge, J.P. Stadtmueller, interrupts her. “You’ve got to put this case in context,” he says. Brunner committed his crimes during a time of lax financial oversight, when “it was go, go, go, go, go, and we don’t need to get verification for anything.”
“Perhaps, but that doesn’t excuse what he did,” the prosecutor says.
“I’m not suggesting that he be excused. What I’m suggesting is, this case is the product of bent rules and blind eyes. Make no mistake about it!”
Before announcing the sentence, the judge asks Brunner if he’d like to say anything. “No, sir,” Brunner says.
The judge says, “Obviously, the core facts of this case are not much more than a very simple fraud.”
Brunner is “barely, barely ambulatory,” the judge says. He now weighs more than 600 pounds. To put him in prison, the judge says, “borders on the unconscionable.” Why did you continue to nod to details about Brenner’s weight and physical condition? We made reference to Brunner’s size when it related to a particular scene or moment. A deputy describes Brunner’s size as imposing in Chapter 9, a chapter that details Brunner’s run-ins with neighbors. In Chapters 8 and 31, Brunner’s size and his physical condition are cited by his wife and then by his lawyer as a basis for getting him out of jail early and then for sparing him from any prison time. Belen’s long and horrific history of trauma does little to spare her from a harsh prison sentence, while Brunner’s size and physical condition are used more than once to grant him mercy.
The judge sentences Brunner to probation — two years on each of the three felony convictions.
Rather than lasting six years, Brunner’s probation will last two. The judge orders the probationary periods to run concurrently instead of back-to-back.
After the sentencing, Milwaukee police Detective Elisabeth Wallich gets a phone call. A fellow detective gives her the news. Together, they investigated Brunner for more than six years. When she hears Brunner’s getting no time, she’s devastated. “All of this work went for nothing,” she’ll say later. “We often said, ‘If I were a criminal, I’d be a white-collar criminal, because nothing ever happens to them.’”
(A reporter recently emailed questions to Stadtmueller, asking if he felt his sentence held Brunner accountable. The judge declined to be interviewed.)
February 12, 2018
In pursuing felony fraud charges against Todd and Shawn Brunner, the federal government viewed the son as more sympathetic. Shawn did what he did, one prosecutor said, “because he loved his father.”
Now, in early 2018, the government drops its charges against Shawn as part of a deferred prosecution agreement. By this point he is 27.
If there is a cycle in Angelica Belen’s family, the same goes for Todd Brunner’s. This feels like the line where you most directly state what you have concluded throughout the course of your reporting. It almost feels like it could be an apt dek or pull-quote or summary for the story. Why did you wait to say this outright? It goes back to the idea of letting readers reach conclusions on their own, rather than having us hand them a takeaway. But here, we felt like this was worth stating because of what follows. We wanted to make clear why we were writing about Brunner’s son. He’s picking up where his father left off, and the cycle of building-code violations goes on.
On Facebook, Shawn calls his father “the wisest man I know.”
In 2014, Todd Brunner transferred 24 properties to his son.
In 2015, one of those rental homes caught fire. The ignition sources included a floor lamp plugged into an outlet, according to Milwaukee Fire Department records.
In 2016, a sheriff’s deputy arrested Shawn on a charge of drunk driving. Shawn told the deputy he was weaving because his glasses were dirty, according to police records. Shawn was convicted and ordered to pay $1,000.
In 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, judgments or tax warrants are filed in circuit court against Shawn for money owed. One, for delinquent state taxes, is for $456,079.12. (Shawn did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.)
In 2021, Shawn is found guilty of 80 counts of violating Milwaukee’s municipal code for problems with his rental properties ranging from black mold to a missing stair handrail to noncompliance with the rules requiring smoke alarms. He is fined about $20,000 — and as of this week, still owed more than half.
December 10, 2018
A little after midnight, deputies get dispatched to a call of a 61-year-old man who has fallen in his home in Delafield, west of Milwaukee. It’s Todd Brunner, in a bathrobe, on his living room floor.
As police and emergency responders try to help Brunner, he becomes “rowdy and boisterous,” according to court records. “Fuck off,” he says. He hits a firefighter on the arm and tells a deputy he is going to kill him, court records say. Brunner gets charged with two felonies: battery to an emergency rescue worker and threatening a law enforcement officer. In a plea deal, he’s convicted of the first while the second is dismissed.
The battery conviction carries a maximum sentence of six years.
In November of 2020, Brunner appears for sentencing and tells the judge: “If this happened, which apparently it did, I fell and hit my head. I don’t remember it. It’s not like me.” The judge, calling this a “serious offense,” sentences Brunner to a year’s probation and payment of $1,158.
In 2017, when sentenced on the federal fraud charges, Brunner received two years’ probation. The judge attached 17 conditions, one being, “The defendant shall not commit another federal, state, or local crime.” Brunner committed this battery within those two years. But it took eight months for the authorities in Waukesha County to charge Brunner. By that time, his federal probation had ended.
March 31, 2020
Angelica Belen sues Todd Brunner. Her lawsuit, filed in federal court on March 31, 2020, accuses Brunner of negligent upkeep of the rental home in West Allis, resulting in her children’s deaths.
Unable to find a lawyer, she ends up representing herself.
Belen writes her seven-page complaint by hand, in block letters. She attaches exhibits: the notice of code violations sent to Brunner (“two outlets east side of house”) and investigative reports that describe the basement’s exposed wiring and conclude the fire’s cause was electrical.
Belen also sues Guardian Investment, the real estate company put in charge of managing the house, and Tri City National Bank. After Tri City foreclosed on the house, a bank representative, accompanied by a Guardian employee, did a walk-through inspection, Belen writes. Neither “expressed any concerns” to Belen about the house’s condition, her lawsuit says. This was in February 2013, two months before the fire.
When called recently by the Journal Sentinel, a Tri City spokesman said he would research this but then never got back. Rick Geis, of Guardian Investment, told a reporter that he couldn’t recall what repairs, if any, his company may have ordered. “It was a while ago,” Geis said. “And unfortunately it brings back bad memories and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I did nothing wrong,” he said.
In November of 2020, eight months after Belen’s lawsuit was filed, her lawsuit is dismissed.
The federal court lacks jurisdiction, a judge determines. In tossing the suit, the judge — the same judge who earlier sentenced Brunner to probation on the federal fraud charges while imposing no fine — says Belen must pay a $350 filing fee. He orders the funds be collected from her prison trust account.
October 8, 2022
Wisconsin’s state prison system
Sitting across from a reporter, the sun glittering off razor wire through the windows behind her, Angelica Belen says she feels the safest she’s ever felt.
“Prison saved my life,” she says.
It’s been more than nine years since the fire, much of it spent in a cell with little more than memories and books. In comments still online, Belen is vilified, with people writing: “stupid, ignorant whorebag”; “selfish maggot”; “burn her at the stake.”
Belen clings to her pastor’s words after her children died. “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted,” he told her, quoting Psalm 34. “He saves those who are crushed in spirit.” It was what she needed to hear. Now, at 34, halfway through her sentence, she credits God for getting her through.
Since the Journal Sentinel reached out to Belen in February, she’s shared details of her life in emails, phone calls and visits. Here, you zoom out and share a bit more context about your reporting process and how Belen fits into this. Why did you do so at this point in the story? It’s really sort of a bridge to set up what follows. Her quotes and reflections below come from a mix of communications with Raquel: prison visits, phone calls, emails. She’s been open about her life, the good and the bad. We also wanted to make clear that this story originated with a reporter (Raquel) reaching out to Belen, not with Belen reaching out to a reporter.
Through counseling and a peer mentorship program, she’s processed the hurt she’s suffered and caused. She’s forgiven her abusers. Now she’s a mentor herself. In recent evaluations, staff called her an “excellent example” to others and “extremely engaging and positive.” As a certified peer specialist, Belen was recently transferred to a prison that specializes in mental health services.
“This job has given meaning and purpose to every bad thing that has ever happened to me,” she says.
Belen, preparing for her future, has saved up $4,000 in the years she’s been locked up, she says.
In Wisconsin, Belen’s sentence of 18 years stands out. Reporters analyzed 40-plus cases statewide from 2007 to 2018 in which people were convicted of child neglect resulting in death. Belen’s sentence is the longest, although she’s the only person convicted in three deaths. Wagner, the judge who sentenced Belen, several years later sentenced another mother whose toddler died in a fire after she left her three young children alone. He gave her 17 months. I find it useful how you zoom out here to situate the severity of her sentencing against the backdrop of what’s typical for these cases.
Wagner recently told the Journal Sentinel he barely remembers Belen’s case. As for the fire itself — and the problems with the house’s wiring — Wagner said it was for others to decide whether to assign blame to any landlords or property managers. “I would think that some other law enforcement agency or entity would seek prosecution of that,” he said. Williams, who prosecuted Belen and her mother, recently told a reporter, “The cops did not ask for those types of charges.” Pye, the fire’s lead investigator, said, “We never really went that direction.”
After the deaths of Belen’s children, the state investigated the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare’s handling of the case. The bureau violated state standards in a number of ways, including in how it assessed the dangers and provided support services to Belen, the state concluded. Were there repercussions for these violations? Did the agency have to pay fines or face reform in any way? There were reforms made to the Bureau. The state actually took over the operations. But no fines were issued that we are aware of.
After Belen’s arrest, the bureau placed her surviving child with his dad.
Belen’s son is now 11.
Soon after Belen was sentenced, she requested that he be able to visit. A family therapist, in a court-ordered evaluation, interviewed Belen and her son separately. The therapist concluded that knowing his mom would be good for the child.
But it never happens. Belen still has parental rights, but once the courts grant her estranged husband custody, he moves with their son to another state.
The father doesn’t want him in contact with Belen. “She walked out on us,” he recently told a reporter before hanging up.
Belen says she misses her son beyond words. She remembers how he’d stare her in the eye and throw food from his highchair and giggle when she’d pick it up. How he carried around a Bob the Builder book shaped like a wrench, hoping to get his mom or sister to read it to him. And how he adored Naya, who he called Ya-Ya.
Now, she wonders how he’s doing, what he’s learning in school, who his friends are, what his favorite color is, what he wants to be when he grows up. Things a mom should know.
She wants him to know that she’s always wanted to be part of his life. She wants to apologize.
She wants to be worthy of his forgiveness.
October 26, 2022
This February, a Journal Sentinel reporter goes to Todd Brunner’s home in Delafield. He declines to come to the door but calls her in her car, parked just outside. Since his stroke, Brunner tells her, “My memory’s shot.” She asks about the house on West Hicks Street in West Allis, and he says: “It’s so long ago, I don’t remember a lot. All I know is, you know, we never did any electrical work there.”
He says of the house, “I don’t even know what it looks like.”
In late August, she returns, hoping to ask more questions. Two small lion statues sit at the end of the driveway. On the side of the house, near a wheelchair, there’s a black Lincoln pickup. A sign above the garage says “Brunner Blvd.” The house appears under construction, as it has for months. Porch planks are half laid, the siding half finished. In the driveway there’s a car, covered by a tarp. Peeking out is a hood ornament so famous it has its own name. It’s the Spirit of Ecstasy, the Rolls-Royce’s crowning touch.
The reporter sees a lit candle in the window. When she knocks, a dog barks. Nobody answers the door.
Later, on October 26, Brunner picks up the phone. He says he didn’t own the house when it caught fire. He won’t answer questions and hangs up. Then he texts, asking for questions in writing. The reporter mails 11 pages of questions.
Brunner responds by fax. Some questions he addresses. Some he does not. “To the best of my knowledge,” he writes, he never knew about Belen’s lawsuit against him. Of his arrest on federal fraud charges, he says police broke down his door before his family could answer. Of his battery conviction, he says rescue workers strapped him down against his wishes: “They had no right to do that and in my opinion, they should have been charged.”
Figuring out what Brunner owns, and how he’s faring financially, has long been a challenge, even for law enforcement. Years ago, when creditors seized Brunner’s possessions after he was denied bankruptcy protection, a police detective interviewed Brunner as part of the joint task force investigation.
Brunner told the detective he’d managed to borrow money from friends, and secure a new bank loan, and with that infusion, he’d bought back “most of his property” that had been put up for auction, according to the detective’s interview notes. That 30-foot catamaran? Brunner tells the detective he bought it back for $26,000.
As for rental properties, Brunner may no longer be the owner of title, but that doesn’t mean he’s out of the real estate business.
In 2017, when Milwaukee receives a complaint of leaking pipes and loose wires at a house on North 36th Street owned by Shawn Brunner, an inspector for the Department of Neighborhood Services writes, “Talked with Todd Brunner.” In 2019, when Milwaukee receives a complaint about no hot water at another house of Shawn Brunner’s, an inspector writes, “Called owner Todd — said he drove down there today and they wouldn’t let him in so he turned off gas because they said they smelled gas.”
This year, Milwaukee gets a complaint of no heat at an apartment on West Sheridan Avenue owned by Shawn Brunner.
An inspector writes, “Called Todd Brunner, who identifies as the property manager.”
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How We Reported This Story
This story, a partnership between the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and ProPublica, is the product of nine months of reporting. I love that you included this section, which gives the reader a comprehensive glimpse into what went into this investigation. I imagine that the reporting process for an investigative piece of this sprawl can appear opaque or mystifying to readers. Do you often do this for stories? For me (this is Ken), this kind of lengthy source box has become pretty standard for investigative narratives. Here are three other examples, from 2021, 2018 and 2015. And same for us at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Raquel here.) We do it in many of our investigations to help readers understand our sources for all of our facts. (See here, here and here for examples.) It’s especially useful when writing a narrative to avoid having to attribute in places that would detract from the scene. And it might be worth noting: While we didn’t plug into the story one of those paragraphs numbering the people we interviewed and the records we reviewed, we did, within the framework of the narrative, give readers cues to our sources. We start Chapter 23, the first of several chapters featuring dialogue between police detectives and Belen, with this sentence: “Detective Thomas Kulinski turns on the tape recorder and waits for Angelica Belen.” That reference tells readers this was taped. There’s a record of what was said from which verbatim exchanges can be pulled. In other instances we refer to voluminous documentation, starting Chapter 12, for example, with this: “Todd Brunner files for bankruptcy, again, declaring, in court records, that he owes more than $18 million to creditors listed across 60-plus pages.”
We obtained records from at least 18 local, state and federal agencies, and from eight different municipal, circuit and federal courts. The records include notes of police detectives, code inspectors and process servers; emails among Milwaukee police and federal agents; autopsies; deeds; fire reports from the West Allis, Brookfield and Milwaukee fire departments, the Wisconsin Division of Criminal Investigation, the U.S. Fire Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; building-maintenance reports in Milwaukee and West Allis; Angelica Belen’s state Department of Corrections file; and more than 100 photographs of the fire scene in West Allis.
The story’s dialogue comes mostly from audio records or transcripts. We obtained recordings of the 911 call on April 11, 2013; the police detectives’ five interviews with Belen on April 11 and 12, 2013; and Todd Brunner’s sentencing hearing in federal court in 2017. We gathered transcripts of Dawn Sosa’s sentencing hearing in 1992; a neighbor testifying about Brunner threatening him in 2004; Brunner being questioned by a bank’s lawyer in 2012; Belen’s sentencing in 2013; and Brunner’s sentencing in 2020 on a battery charge.
This article includes accounts of childhood abuse provided by Belen and her sister Rosalie Breckenridge. We spoke with both women, separately, in multiple interviews during which they recalled similar details about their time in foster and adoptive homes. We interviewed Belen in 15-minute phone conversations spanning more than three hours and in dozens of emails and visits to prison. We interviewed Breckenridge over the phone and at her home in Iowa.
To try to verify their accounts, we inspected a voluminous file in Milwaukee County Children’s Court. (Getting access required permission from Belen and Breckenridge, and approval by a Milwaukee Circuit Court judge.) These records provided details about the girls’ biological parents, the girls’ history and health, their movement through foster homes and schools, and assessments by social workers. The documents spelled out abuse the girls endured before being placed in foster care. The records did not include information about abuse by foster parents, saying only that the girls were removed abruptly from the home in Waukesha via an emergency order.
Details about the harm to Belen in the foster and adoptive homes came, in part, from another Children’s Court file, regarding placement of Belen’s son. (Getting access to this file also required a judge’s approval.) In this file, social workers recapped Belen’s history in foster care. Referring to the home in Waukesha, they wrote, “Angelica and her sibling wanted a father and were moved to a two-parent home pending adoption, but were physically abused.”
Social workers also noted that when Angelica was a teenager, living with the mother-daughter duo, they received a referral about marks on her wrists from being grabbed.
In court, Belen’s aunt spoke and wrote of Belen’s abuse in foster care. In addition, a client services specialist in the Office of the State Public Defender wrote a memorandum saying Belen “was victimized sexually in several foster placements.”
We received limited records from the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families confirming payments to the Waukesha foster parents during the time Belen was with them. The department did not have a complete file on the family as the record retention requirement was 20 years and had expired.
We did not name the foster parents as our investigation did not turn up any court records indicating they were charged with any crime. Records from the Department of Children and Families show payments to the couple ceased at the time the girls were removed from the home, indicating they did not have additional foster children placed with them.
We interviewed the foster father from the Waukesha home. He denied they abused the girls. (We also tried to reach the foster mother. The foster father sent a text in response that he said was on behalf of both of them. “We Love them Very Much,” the text said of Angelica and Rosalie.)
The daughter and mother who twice took in the two girls — when Angelica was 5 and 10 — are no longer alive. We found no records indicating either was charged with any crime relating to the girls’ care.
We contacted Michael Guolee, the judge, now retired, who sentenced Dawn Sosa in 1992. (He’s the judge who told Sosa, “You are weak.”) He said he didn’t remember the case.
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Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.