The Shame of Sheboygan

“It was horrible.”

Sheboygan South High School student Cassandra Haen was terrified.  A social media rumor about a shooting threat at her school had incited a mild panic just a week after the massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

“We were all terrified,” she said.  “The fact that Florida just happened and even in Florida there were some people who said something but nothing was done.

“There were officers surrounding us all day and you couldn’t even talk about it because if you talked about it, you got sent down to the office.”

Cassandra and her classmates feared the worst, but as it turned out, their fears were unfounded. There was no credible threat and the Facebook post spreading the rumor was quickly pulled. So how did that rumor spread so quickly?  How did the fear grow so out of control?

As the Sheboygan Police Department explained, it was the work of the local news website and its affiliated Twitter accounts, Incident Response and Wisconsin Public Safety, which reported the rumor as fact and even included a screenshot of the discredited post after it was removed from Facebook.

“A local blogger who purports to be a media organization began to circulate unverified information on his website and social media accounts,” Sheboygan Police Chief Christopher Domagalski said in a statement posted on the Department’s website. “The Information he posted and shared was not verified in any way as true or accurate and could have been found to be completely false with very little effort. His actions are irresponsible and demonstrate a complete lack of judgment and any sense of professional ethics or common sense. His actions created unnecessary fear within the Sheboygan and South High Communities!”

Chief Domagalski was furious with the website’s owner, who he identified as a 24 year-old Sheboygan resident named Asher Heimermann, and cautioned the public to “understand that ‘having a website and Facebook page does not make you a journalist!’ False Information that is spread without being verified as accurate or factual is dangerous, creates fear and damages communities.”

Asher Heimermann.  Cassandra Haen knew that name all too well.

At 11:30 am on July 11th, 2015, Cassandra’s aunt and best friend, Haley Haen, was in a horrendous car accident. She suffered a medical emergency behind the wheel and crashed into a semi.  Paramedics tried to save her, but couldn’t.  Haley was just 19 years old.

“My world was shattered,” Cassandra said.  “My heart was ripped open and thrown on the ground and it felt like I couldn’t catch my breath.  It was just the most heartbreaking thing ever and Asher just kind of added to the mix.”

Heimermann was on the scene within minutes, taking pictures of the wreck and almost immediately uploading them to one of his websites, Wisconsin Public Safety.

“It was about 4:00 in the afternoon before I found out about [the accident],” said Dawn Zeier, Haley’s mother.  “By that time Asher Heimermann already had pictures on his page of the accident, of my daughter on the gurney with the EMTs doing chest compressions, of my daughter laying on the ground before they got her on the gurney with blood all over.  My two younger daughters saw those pictures on Facebook before they realized that it was their sister.

“The two younger girls saw it at about 12:00 and when the police came [to tell them about the accident,] both of my girls immediately knew what that picture was and both of them dropped to the floor; they couldn’t believe it. Of course they were hysterical.”    

Dawn’s younger daughters were just 15 and 16, and before authorities could even notify them of their sister’s death, they had unknowingly seen the last moments of her life.  So too did Haley’s older step-sister, Tanya Baker, all the way in Connecticut.

“My mom had called me and as my mom and I were on the phone, I was getting messages that there was an article about Haley’s car accident already,” she recalled.  “My mom’s like ‘It’s that Incident Response people, don’t look at those pictures because he’s known to not filter what he’s posting.’”

Against her mother’s advice, Baker looked...and immediately wished she hadn’t.

“All I saw was a picture of Haley, her stuff strewn everywhere, people working on her. I lost it,” she said. “Nothing can ever prepare you to see pictures of your loved one in that state.”

“We were all disgusted,” said Cassandra Haen.  “It was heartbreaking. I had to deal with her little sisters who saw it and were heartbroken by it.  It was a repercussion in our family that was just terrifying and horrible.”

“Instead of remembering her how she was,” Zeier added, “I remember her on that gurney and that picture of her on the ground with blood all over her and the EMTs hovering over her.  It’s sick.  It’s absolutely sick.”

Zeier, Baker, and the entire Haen family pleaded with Heimermann to take the pictures of Haley down, but he refused.

“I immediately messaged him and asked him to take them down and he would not take them down and he blocked me from his website,” Zeier said. “You don’t put pictures of family members in any kind of accident on anybody’s Facebook page or in the press.  I was irate.  I still am irate about it.  He’s done it to so many people.”

Including Joe Reklaitis; almost a year to the day after Haley’s death.

“I got a call from my sister, who asked me if I was sitting down,” he remembered.  “My parents were in a two-vehicle accident on Highway 23 and County Road TT in Sheboygan County and I found out that my mom had not made it.”

Rekylaitis was devastated, and like the Haen family, his pain was augmented by a picture of his mother that he saw on one of Asher Heimermann’s websites.

“My sister shows me this photograph and the first thing I can see is first responders and a limp, lifeless arm.  It was the body of my mother in this photograph, and that’s what I could see and I know that’s my mom.”

Shock and sadness turned to anger as Reklaitis stared at what he called the “very inappropriate, disrespectful, dishonoring of my mother.”

His sister, Angie VerGowe, told News/Talk 1130 WISN in an email that Heimermann had posted the pictures of her deceased mother before she had even been notified of the crash.

“She asked him to take it down, it’s not appropriate,” Reklaitis said.  “Her comment was deleted and she was blocked from even seeing the Incident Response page, which obviously tells me that he has no intention of taking it off and being respectful.”

The picture of Joe’s and Angie’s mother, like the pictures of Haley Haen, are still on Heimermann’s Wisconsin Public Safety site.  News/Talk 1130 WISN is not providing a link out of respect for the families of the deceased.

A lack of respect for victims’ families—combined with what appears to be an utter disregard for journalistic ethics—has been hallmark of Heimermann’s career since it began in 2012.  The previous year, a 17 year-old Heimermann ran in the recall election against Sheboygan Mayor Bob Ryan—gaining notoriety when Ryan sent him a cease-and-desist letter after Heimermann set up a parody account of Ryan on Twitter.

Heimermann received just 38 votes in the 2012 recall, but soon after launched a brief run for the State Assembly.  When that ended, he tried his hand at news reporting with a particular focus on crime and accident scene photography.

It didn’t take him long to begin terrorizing victims’ families.

"If You Don't Like it, Don't Look"

October 29th, 2013 was the worst day of Maggie Russo’s life.

“I had found out my husband cheated,” she said.  “It was already a rough day.  He had left; I had kind of kicked him out.  Less than ten hours later I got a call from my Aunt Vicky.  She said ‘I need your mom’s number.’  I said ‘What’s going on?’ because I could tell she was in distress.  She said ‘I don’t have time to talk right now, just give me your mom’s number.’

“Less than ten minutes later my mom called back just in hysterics and said ‘Michelle’s gone.’ I said ‘What do you mean?’ She said ‘She’s gone, she’s dead.’  I wasn’t registering at that point and I said ‘What do you mean?’ And she said she was hit by a car and killed instantly.”

On the same day she lost her husband, Russo lost her beloved Aunt Michelle.

“She was hit so forcefully that her shoes came off and the car that hit her was damaged very badly.  It was a pretty traumatic experience for our family.  The next morning we woke up to Sheboygan Daily, which is Asher Heimermann’s page—both his Facebook page and his regular page—said ‘Pedestrian struck and killed by car: Woman blown out of her shoes.’ And it had a picture of my aunt’s bloody shoes.

“It didn’t go over too well with our family but I, my mother, my aunt Vicky, my cousin Tiffany (whose mother was lost), my cousins Jenny and Jackie (whose aunt was just lost) all asked Asher nicely, ‘Look, this is our aunt, this is our mother, this is our sister.  Could you please take down some of these pictures because they’re a little graphic, they’re a little hard to look at.  And can you please re-word that headline?  That’s extremely disrespectful.  Can you please take this down?’

“He was very rude and disrespectful and he basically said ‘No, I’m not taking this down.’”

Then, in what would become a distinct pattern, Heimermann blocked the entire family from his pages. 

“I had a second Facebook account,” Russo explained, “and I went in under that one and said ‘Asher, please, please delete those.  You don’t understand the hurt that you are causing my family.’  His response to me was ‘I have an obligation to report the news.  If you don’t like it, don’t look.’  He then blocked me from that account as well.”

The pictures are still up on Heimermann’s Wisconsin Public Safety site.

Though he would over the next five years cycle through various websites and Facebook pages—starting new ones as soon as his old ones would be reported and banned for posting inappropriate content—Heimermann’s pattern of behavior would remain largely the same: Upload crime and accident scene photos, ignore complaints from victims’ families, and then block them so that other visitors would be unable to see them.

News/Talk 1130 WISN received more than a dozen similar reports, and Heimermann’s antics are well-known in the Sheboygan community, as is his penchant for appearing at crime and accident scenes dressed alarmingly like a law enforcement officer, complete with his own “Incident Response Photographer” badge. 

Photos he has posted of himself on his various social media sites show him dressed very similarly to a law enforcement officer—so similarly, in fact, that someone at a crime or accident scene could very reasonably believe that he is a law enforcement officer. He even bought an old police vehicle and affixed spotlights and a dashboard camera to it to complete the look.

While Wisconsin Statute § 946.70 provides that “whoever impersonates a peace officer with intent to mislead others into believing that the person is actually a peace officer is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor,” Heimermann seems to stop just short of doing anything illegal.

“Until he takes some action—pulls over a car or does something like that—that’s when he’s now crossed the line,” said Sheboygan Police Chief Chris Domagalski.  “And I’m not aware of anybody reporting any of those kinds of activities to our department for us to investigate.”

Because he is doing nothing illegal and is working as a journalist, Heimermann is protected by the First Amendment’s freedom of the press, and thus law enforcement officers like Chief Domagalski are largely powerless to stop him.

“It’s a fine line because I can’t tell him what he can write, I can’t force him to take anything down, and I really can’t take any legal action against him for it, yet at the same time these people [who Heimermann photographs] are victims and have rights that we need to try to protect,” Domagalski explained.  “We do that in setting up crime scenes that take care of that, but anyone with the right of camera equipment or who has the ability to respond in a fast enough way can get themselves in a place that they can take pictures that someone with ethics or good judgment wouldn’t be putting out there.”

Heimermann declined News/Talk 1130 WISN’s request for an interview, but said in an email: “I have one simple statement on the matter.  I think people that willfully, purposefully, and gleefully lie to people in order to damage someone’s reputation should, like a registered sex offender, be required, by law, to come with that warning label for the rest of their lives.”

Chief Domagalski appreciated the irony of that statement, since he says Heimermann made up an August 2017 story about misconduct complaints to the Sheboygan Police Department even though he fairly obviously knew that there was no police misconduct whatsoever.

“He made an open records request that was made within the first day of an investigation so I denied his request,” Domagalski said. “He was mad that I denied his request and essentially in retaliation he made up a story that there were complaints about police abuse in this incident where I didn’t release squad video.

“At the same time, in his story that he posted on his site, he had a picture that he took from an open source video that was posted by somebody else on YouTube that I know he had because he took the picture from the YouTube video.  And the YouTube video demonstrated that there wasn’t any misconduct, so he knew that there was no misconduct, but he still printed the story to insinuate that there was just to get back because he didn’t get his way.”

"It Felt Like He Didn't Respect Anything"

Heimermann’s conduct raises pointed questions about ethics and standards of behavior in the age of digital journalism.  When everyone with a cell phone camera and a Twitter or Facebook page can record and create news, literally everyone is a journalist.

Yet not everyone operates by the same ethical standards and some, sadly, operate by none.

“While we like to sit around and think that there is one ethical standard that applies always to all situations, it doesn’t, and we live in a very complex, dynamic, difficult world,” said Dr. David Allen, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who teaches Media Ethics.  “And new media forms such as internet digital technologies have made establishing and holding onto those ethical norms much more difficult.”

According to the Radio Television Digital News Association’s Code of Ethics, “responsible reporting means considering the consequences of both the newsgathering – even if the information is never made public – and of the material’s potential dissemination. Certain stakeholders deserve special consideration; these include children, victims, vulnerable adults and others inexperienced with American media.”

Established news organizations generally follow some variant of this guideline: Crime and accident victims must never be exploited and their wishes must be honored, except in a few extreme circumstances.  Should these ethical standards be violated, journalists can expect to face significant consequences from their respective employers.

“The problem we have when you get into citizen journalism is that there is really no institution, it’s oftentimes a person trying to decide what that is,” Dr. Allen explained.  “The thing that makes it so interesting is that that person—much like any other form of media—operates within a community and within that community there are norms.  And when you violate those norms, there’s going to be community pushback about what you ought to do and how you ought to do those jobs.

“And that’s what sounds to me like what’s going on right now; the community—at least some members of that community—perceive that there is some sort of violation taking place.”

Leah Gruenke certainly feels violated.  Just over one month ago, on January 18th, her home in Sheboygan burned to the ground.

“It was about 5:30-6:00 in the evening and I was home with my two children just kind of winding down from the day,” she said.  “I had left the living room for a couple of minutes and as I came back I was met by my seven year-old frantically screaming that he saw fire and flames in our house.”

She grabbed the children and her dog and sprinted outside to see flames engulf the house.  She remembers standing in her driveway in a panic, screaming as firefighters arrived.

“Probably at the time I was still outside screaming while the firefighters are trying to save my house, we came to find out that there was a video of this being posted of this at that very moment on MySheboygan,” she said.  “I had noticed that I had gotten some messages from some people that I would have no idea how they would even what was going on—I had called nobody, I was still in the middle of this—and came to find out that that was posted.

“What really bothered me was that it had my husband and my full name with the video posted on MySheboygan.  Thank God that none of my family members or loved ones had seen that before they could have been contacted.  No one had any way of knowing if we were okay, if my children were okay, where we were, anything like that.  It was devastating to know that such a horrible, horrible situation was, I felt, taken advantage of just to be the next guy getting a good video for [his] website.”

Gruenke felt victimized and, like dozens of others in Sheboygan, felt as though Asher Heimermann had gone too far and too personal to get his story.

“It hurts my heart that he can’t just look at us as human beings.  I understand that everyone has a job...well, I don’t know if you want to call it a job, maybe a hobby, but come on, this is my home, this is my life that is now turned upside down for the next year, and well good for you, you got to put it out first.  I hope he feels good about himself for that.”

“It felt like he didn’t respect anything,” said Cassandra Haen.  “He has no sympathy or empathy for anyone.  He lacks common sense to not do certain things and even when it’s brought to his attention that he did something wrong, there’s no apology, there’s no answer for what he did. He just simply does what he does best and ignores it.”

“What concerns me is that a normal journalist—everyone that I’ve worked with in my 25 years in policing—tries to confirm information and find corroboration and independent sources to corroborate any information that they’re going to use,” Chief Domagalski said.  “He doesn’t do that.  He doesn’t even make the effort.  All he does is run with the information and if it turns out to be wrong, then he twists his story a little bit.  He doesn’t retract it and say ‘I made a mistake, I was wrong,’ he just keeps going with it.”

And, it seems, he doesn’t much care for those he hurts along the way, like Joe Reklaitis.

“As far as me, I’m angry about it,” he said.  “That’s my mother and she deserves respect.  I’m thinking more of my mom and she can’t defend herself right now, but I can defend her.  And I’m angry about it.  You know, I’m sad enough the way it is, thinking about it once in a while, and we don’t need other people seeing this.”

“I’m the type of person [who says] ‘okay, if you want to put in pictures of the car or the semi or the actual accident, I’m okay with it,’” Dawn Zeier added.  “But I’m not, however, okay with putting pictures of my daughter who did not make it and passed away getting chest compressions on her and laying on the ground with blood all over and the EMTs working on her.”

“These are people whose lives are torn apart maybe forever,” said Leah Gruenke.  “It hurts my heart that he can’t just recognize that these are people; it’s people’s feelings, it’s people’s lives.  You know what?  Let the person going through this horrible experience have a little bit of privacy, have some time to grieve with the people that they love, not random people who chase fire trucks or chase ambulances.”