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Wisconsin paid $150,000 in prison sex case

A Wisconsin prison guard allegedly coerced male inmates into letting him give them oral sex in exchange for bringing them contraband, according to previously confidential records obtained by The Associated Press.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Wisconsin prison guard allegedly coerced male inmates into letting him give them oral sex in exchange for bringing them contraband, and his superiors initially failed to stop the assaults despite warning signs, according to previously confidential records obtained by The Associated Press.

Now the Wisconsin Department of Corrections' handling of the three-year-old case involving Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution guard James Trentin is costing taxpayers money.

The state this year paid $150,000 to avoid a lawsuit by a former inmate who says Trentin gave him oral sex four times, according to documents obtained by the AP under Wisconsin's open records law. Four other inmates who told investigators they received oral sex or were inappropriately touched could seek payments.

Trentin maintains his innocence, but a department investigation found evidence of the assaults. A prosecutor also said he is convinced they occurred, though charges were dropped in a plea bargain the prosecutor says may have been a mistake in hindsight.

Two of the inmates at the southwest Wisconsin prison near the Iowa border said they were sexually abused as children. One feared gang retaliation for engaging in homosexual activity. Another said Trentin, a 61-year-old father of two, said the inmate "reminds him of his son."

"I think this is a memory they are going to carry for the rest of their lives," said Chris Kuchinski, the prison supervisor who investigated the assaults. "That's very sad to me, especially with the callous way that DOC looked at this case."

Kuchinski said his career was derailed after he rejected pressure from union leaders to back off the case. He said a corrections administrator also subtly encouraged him to conclude the sex was consensual, and he was later unfairly disciplined and took a demotion and pay cut.

A state Equal Rights Division investigator this month found probable cause Kuchinski faced retaliation for being a whistleblower.

Department of Corrections officials met with lawyers to discuss the case Tuesday and had no immediate comment.

Kuchinski told AP several assaults could have been prevented if the prison had acted in 2007 after receiving evidence Trentin developed inappropriate relationships with inmates. Several inmates told officials Trentin brought them illegal contraband including tobacco, candy and a camera in violation of prison policy. Video footage showed him going into cells alone, another policy violation.

One inmate cried when asked about their relationship and told investigators he didn't want to get Trentin in trouble, documents show. Trentin also teared up when asked about that inmate, who would later say Trentin performed oral sex on him several times and added, "my dad used to molest me when I was a kid."

Trentin was suspended during that monthlong investigation, but returned in November 2007 without discipline.

In January 2008, an inmate told a social worker he was upset Trentin was giving other inmates items like toothpaste, candy and chewing tobacco. That complaint prompted Kuchinski's investigation, which concluded more than 20 assaults occurred between summer 2007 and January 2008, according to his 105-page report labeled "confidential."

Several inmates said Trentin told them he "likes to give pleasure" to men and that he promised contraband if they consented. Some said they rejected advances, but three said they received oral sex in cells, the phone room or both, usually during meals when other guards weren't around.

One said he was assaulted a dozen times, including once after Trentin hit him on the head with a security stick and told him it was time for sex. Two others said they were fondled. Numerous inmates said Trentin looked at their genitals in the shower. All were in their late teens or early 20s.

Inmates said they received gifts ranging from tobacco to shoes to money. A handwriting analyst concluded Trentin had written four money orders to inmates, court records show.

Attorney Thomas Hayes threatened to file a civil lawsuit on behalf of one inmate last year, saying in a draft complaint that prison officials failed "to prevent the sexual predator/guard" from assaulting his client. State officials instead paid $150,000 in February in exchange for not filing suit, the documents obtained by AP show.

Trentin, meanwhile, says he is the victim of an inmate conspiracy. Kuchinski rejected that claim, concluding "the overall consistent pattern of behavior is overwhelming" and the inmates were credible.

Following Kuchinski's report, Trentin was charged in March 2008 with 22 counts of second-degree sexual assault and six counts of delivering articles to inmates. Trentin was fired months later. His dismissal letter said he abused his "authority over inmates to the highest level" but did not draw conclusions about criminal or sexual aspects to the relationships.

Kuchinski said he believed the department wanted to limit potential legal liability. He said Richard Schneiter, the Division of Adult Institutions assistant administrator, told him in April 2008 that he did not consider the inmates victims because "they agreed to do this because they were getting contraband."

Kuchinski disagreed, noting inmates cannot give consent to prison guards under state law.

Shortly before Trentin's trial, special prosecutor Tim Gaskell dismissed the assault charges and Trentin was convicted of three felony counts of delivering articles to inmates.

Gaskell told the AP he remains convinced there was "solid evidence" of the assaults but worried jurors would not believe the inmates over Trentin, who had served on city council and grew up in town. A judge gave Trentin no jail time and ordered him to pay $2,500 in fines and costs.

Weeks after his plea, Trentin was charged with bail jumping and delivering illegal articles. Prosecutors said Trentin had violated terms of his original bond by sending two cards to an inmate and a money order under the name "Tom Lee" seeking to start a relationship.

A jury convicted Trentin after his fingerprint was found on one of the cards, and he was sentenced to nine months in jail. Gaskell said he might not have dismissed the assault charges had he obtained the fingerprint earlier because "it would have bolstered our case."

Still, Gaskell noted, the felony conviction prevents Trentin from working in a prison again.

Trentin now runs a Prairie du Chien soda fountain and coffee shop called "The Curious Cup." In an interview, he again maintained his innocence, noted there was no video evidence of assaults taking place and expressed anger the inmate was paid $150,000.

"Are you serious? I'm screwed and he's getting paid," he said. "Oh, that's great."