Rhinelander police have launched a criminal investigation into whether an alleged incident that occurred on Aug. 12, detailed in a video posted on Facebook last Tuesday morning, should be charged as a racially-motivated hate crime.
The video, posted by Rhinelander resident Julie Zippay, features her 14-year-old daughter, Cailee. In the video, widely viewed on social media this week, Cailee holds a chronological series of handwritten placards detailing her version of the incident that occurred in front of her uncle’s home in the City of Rhinelander. In the video, the placards allege that a neighbor of Cailee’s uncle came out into his front lawn holding a noose and broomstick, and yelled at Cailee and her cousin “I’m going to hang you little N___(expletive) girl.”
According to the placards, Cailee’s uncle asked the girls to go inside, then pointedly asked the offending neighbor to discontinue his hateful actions. A family member of the noose-wielding man then allegedly called the Rhinelander Police Department to make a disorderly conduct complaint against Cailee’s uncle. When the police arrived, they frisked and questioned the uncle (according to department protocol), and then asked about the situation. In the video timeline, the uncle informed the officers of the hateful actions of the neighbor. The officers then left to question the other party, and the video alleges that they did not come back to question Cailee or her uncle further.
According to Julie Zippay, she made several attempts between Aug. 13 and 15 to attain the police report of the incident, before speaking directly with Rhinelander Police Captain Ron Lueneburg on Aug. 17. According to Zippay’s version of her interaction with Lueneburg, the captain had just returned from vacation, and hadn’t yet had the chance to review the file.
“The captain said he was trying to prioritize his work, and hadn’t gotten to us yet,” said Zippay in an interview with the Star Journal Aug. 23. “He said he’d have a report for us by the end of this week. I walked out thinking he wasn’t taking this seriously.”
Frustrated, Julie and Cailee talked over their options before deciding that filming an Internet video detailing the incident was the best way to get the word out the fastest. They filmed the 3+ minute video Monday morning, Aug. 20, and Julie posted it on her Facebook page early the next morning. The video began going viral almost immediately, and by noon on Tuesday had been shared more than 100 times. In the several days since, Julie has gotten unsolicited responses from people she doesn’t know from around the world.
“I’ve gotten people from Texas, California, Europe who have seen the video and said they were happy we posted it,” said Julie. “Obviously our goal was to get the word out on this, but I’m surprised by how quick it’s happened.”
The video has spurred action, too. Julie has talked with politicians on both the state and local level, many of whom have vowed to help. She has also spoken extensively with Rhinelander Police Chief Michael Steffes and Detective Josh Pudlowski, who’s heading up the investigation.
“Both the chief and the detective were very nice, and both were taking the matter very seriously,” said Julie. “It was a much different response than what I received the first time around.”
According to Steffes, the incident would have been investigated regardless of the video and subsequent media attention.
“We treat hate crime allegations as we would a violent crime allegation, as I consider that an extreme safety issue,” said Steffes. “The investigation into this situation is ongoing, and there will be a full report when it is complete.”
Pudlowski said, based on the video, that police are looking into whether the incident could lead to possible criminal charges. He had an interview scheduled with Cailee Friday morning, (The Star Journal goes to press Thursday evening) and expected to move forward with the investigation, including possible criminal charges, on Friday.
“This is not something we take lightly,” said Pudlowski. “Obvously the incident being alleged here is very serious in nature. We recognize that the family wants immediate action, and there are times when families do get frustrated by how slowly the system is perceived to operate. I can assure you that this situation is far from being ignored.”
According to Cailee herself, she hopes that the video brings attention to something she believes should not happen anywhere. The shy 14-year-old, who’s entering her freshman year at Rhinelander High School, said she was initially very hesitant to shed additional light on what she called an “ugly incident,” but felt compelled to do something at the urging of friends and family.
“There are several little black kids that live right down the road from my uncle, and who knows if they’ve had situations like this,” she said. “I don’t want the attention, but I think letting people know what happened is right.”
Julie adopted Cailee when she was just 5 months old. The family, which also includes another adopted son who’s 16, has lived in Rhinelander since 2000. She believes this was an extremely isolated case of racially-motivated hate.
“We haven’t dealt with anything like this for years,” said Julie. “That’s why it was so surprising, and I guess why I’m taking it so seriously. I thought we as a society were past this.”
Both Cailee and Julie said that they have never once considered leaving this area, despite some prompting from friends from outside the area.
“There is no way we’d let something like this sour the way we look at this city and this area,” said Julie. “This is home. We love it here.”
Cailee concurred with her mother. “I’ve always felt safe here, and I still do,” she said. “If anything, the people that have seen the video and voiced support helped that. I think something like this could happen anywhere. It’s just really surprising it did here, I guess.”
Editor’s note: To view Cailee’s video, visit the Star Journal’s Facebook page. We intend to follow up on this story when and if charges are filed.