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'It was a nightmare': Innocent man spends seven years in prison

SPARTA — Fred Saecker, believed to be the first person in Wisconsin exonerated of criminal convictions by DNA testing, tries to focus on positives and not on the "nightmare" he endured.

It was almost 20 years ago that four felony charges against Saecker were dismissed in Buffalo County Court, but the trauma of nearly seven years of incarceration has never left him.

"There are things that happen in life that maybe aren't in the best of circumstances, and they happen for a reason," a reserved Saecker said in a recent interview from his Sparta home. "In some ways, what happened to me, as awful as it was, kept me from a life of maybe alcoholism and drugs, and maybe saved my life in general. I was doing drugs pretty seriously back then, which was dangerous and could have killed me.

"My life has changed, and there's nothing you can do about it. There is no reconciling what happened, no putting it back together. It was all a nightmare."

Charges related to a brutal early-morning attack of a Bluff Siding woman in 1989 were officially dismissed against Saecker in October 1996, based largely on DNA testing that was not readily available in the late 1980s.


Saecker now tracks accounts of others who have been exonerated by DNA testing. He, like many others, is paying close attention to the state's Steven Avery murder case, which has drawn national attention. Avery's conviction was portrayed in the popular 10-episode Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer."

"The general public doesn't think things like this happen," the soft-spoken Saecker said. "They believe that if you are in prison, you probably did something wrong. But you don't deserve 15 years in prison just for a lifestyle that's not up to other people's standards."

Evil vs. good

Saecker has attended meetings for the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which seeks to exonerate the innocent and reform the criminal justice system.

One of the group's success claims is the exoneration of Evan Zimmerman of Eau Claire, whose first-degree intentional homicide conviction related to the 2000 death of Kathleen Thompson in Eau Claire was overturned in 2005, due in part to failure to examine DNA evidence. Zimmerman died in 2008.

"I will do what I can to let people know that not everyone in prison belongs there," Saecker said.

"When you spend that long in prison and finally get out and how many years later you're still asking why, how did this happen, eventually you just have to say, 'I gotta stop,' " he stressed. "I have to move on with my life, otherwise it will just keep me in that same situation forever.

"Then, there is forgiving and forgetting that those people did anything to you, because nobody really did anything to you; it's the evil in the world against the good, and you can't control everything that's evil."


Saecker, 65, said he was injured by inmates while incarcerated but declined to discuss "horrible events" in prison.

"I don't so much have nightmares and all that, but it has affected me, and I have PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) issues that used to be worse. I am almost to the place where I consider myself back in the world," Saecker said, mentioning that certain noises continue to bother him.

"When a person has been through something like that and been traumatized, you are psychologically affected by it. It preys on you in different ways," he said, likening the event to walking down stairs and finding the last step missing. "There are trust issues. You develop a trust in the judicial system and the police, and when all of that just fails, you wonder what you have left to trust in."

'I had no guilt'

Saecker prefers not to resurrect memories connected to the 1989 episode in which he was charged with kidnapping a woman from her home in the wee hours of the morning and then beating and raping her before leaving her near a bridge toward Winona, Minn.

Saecker, who had severe drug and alcohol problems, was at a nearby tavern and was given an early-morning ride to a Winona motel, where police found him around 3 a.m. June 29, 1989. Buffalo County authorities knew of Saecker, having arrested him for drunken driving two days earlier.

Neither the victim nor her husband, who came to the scene as his wife was being dragged outside the residence, identified Saecker as the culprit, either by voice or visual recognition. The two selected a police officer out of a six-person lineup and said the assailant was stocky and about 5 feet 8 inches tall, while Saecker was 6-foot-3 and 165 pounds.

The perpetrator repeatedly struck the woman, who was wearing only undergarments, giving her a swollen eye and broken rib, according to reports. The perpetrator threatened to kill the woman if her husband interceded.


After arrest, Saecker, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, made self-incriminating statements.

"When I was arrested, I was drunk, and they (police) were being absurd, bugging me," Saecker said about those statements. "I was just saying things to be flippant and misleading. At that point, I had no idea why I was there. I had no guilt because I hadn't done anything.

"Most of the time, I'm just thinking, 'What do I have to worry about?' I knew I wasn't involved with anything like they were accusing me of. None of it fit, but when they fed it to the jury, they bought it."

Saecker, a native of La Crosse, attended the same Winona school as the victim but didn't know her. He was a member of the school's swim team, which routinely swam a channel near the Mississippi River bridge where she was released. The perpetrator told the victim they were going to swim that channel.

Also, microscopic testing by the state crime lab linked pubic hairs of Saecker to the victim's undergarments.

"I remember bits and pieces, but I was drinking like a fish back then, and I can't remember the whole night," he said. "I know I would never had done what they accused me of. To be as drunk as I was and accomplish all they said I did in that time, I'd have to have been like Superman or some kind of mastermind, and that doesn't make any sense."

Saved by DNA

A jury convicted Saecker, and he was sentenced to prison, eventually serving time in four facilities.


Current Pierce County assistant district attorney Bill Thorie, who was Saecker's defense counsel at trial, declined to comment for this report.

DNA testing became prominent in the early 1990s, and in 1994 an appeal was made of Saecker's conviction. Then-Buffalo County Judge Dane Morey approved a new trial, and FBI tests in 1996 indicated DNA evidence in the victim's undergarments did not belong to Saecker.

Several months later, the then-Buffalo County district attorney, now Judge James Duvall, requested the charges be dismissed, even though he believed there was enough other credible evidence for the convictions.

"There never clearly was a smoking gun, at least to my way of thinking, that this guy is innocent," Duvall recently said. "I opposed the request for a new trial. I did not feel the DNA evidence established his innocence because of problems laboratories had with the DNA testing and results.

"This was not the picture-perfect case for vindicating someone. There never was something for sure indicating he did not do it, but it did raise questions."

Duvall said his dismissal request was based in part on the victim's unwillingness to participate in a second trial.

That woman, now 66, in a recent interview said she had no particular feelings about Saecker's guilt or innocence.

"I've been on the wrong end of the deal for a long time," she said. "I've had to deal with this for years and years; you kind of get used to it, but you never really do.


"What I care about is that hopefully the guy who did this didn't get worse and is still out there doing stuff like this."

'You're just afraid'

Saecker received $25,000 from a state compensation fund. He is working on efforts related to increasing funding for conviction exonerees and changing online court records for those whose convictions have been dismissed.

"Our system is a very complicated process, and somebody's life is at stake," he said. "People need to make sure they have it right. They need to realize what happened to me can happen to them."

Saecker was at his brother's house in Minnesota when he learned that charges against him were being dismissed.

"I was out on bail when I heard, and I felt there was a sense of relief that something's been accomplished, but what's next? I'm kind of a basket case by then," he said. "You're just not able to really enjoy life because you're just different; you're just afraid to go out in public.

"It's all psychological things you can't explain, but all caused by what you went through. I wouldn't wish all this on anyone."

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