Troy Deiler didn’t know what to expect when he went to look for a man reported to be sleeping in a bunker dug deep in the woods of Wisconsin.
The Marathon County deputy sheriff certainly didn’t think he would find the hideout rigged with a tin-can chimney, eight solar panels and an antenna taped to a tree that snaked down to a flat-screen TV, he told The Washington Post.
Those oddities Deiler noticed as he climbed atop the bunker last week were just the first clues to a wanted man’s meticulously planned effort to avoid incarceration. Authorities say 44-year-old Jeremiah Button dug the refuge and packed it with supplies to evade, for three years, charges of child sexual assault, possession of child pornography and incest. The bunker was hidden away on state lands where Button claimed he sometimes made small talk with hikers.
Colleagues at the sheriff’s department with more than 20 years’ experience would later tell Deiler they’d never seen anything like it.
“To see somebody be able to make that commitment to not being found and surviving in the woods and using a little bit of ingenuity to survive. … This is probably a once-in-a-career kind of thing,” Deiler said.
Button, who was convicted in 2005 of possessing child pornography and marijuana, vanished from his mother’s house in Richfield, Wis., in 2016 — less than two weeks before his trial on his new charges was to begin, according to the Wausau Daily Herald. Button, who was released from jail in July 2014 after his mother paid a $25,000 bond, was accused of having intercourse with a girl and forcing her to perform oral sex. Prosecutors also said Button photographed the girl nude with him.
The Post was unable to reach Button on Saturday, and two public defenders representing him did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Deiler said that he isn’t sure exactly when Button began hatching his plan but that Button spent the trip back to deputies’ squad cars explaining how he managed to remain a fugitive.
According to Deiler, Button said he picked out his bunker spot in the town of Ringle amid hundreds of acres of woods — a 150-mile drive from Richfield — for its remoteness and proximity to the Marathon County landfill, which he would scour daily for food and supplies.
He worked away at digging the shelter and bought canned food in bulk, hiking his items out to the bunker in a backpack.
When the time came to flee Richfield, Button left his ID, car and wallet behind, telling his mother in a note that he was headed for Florida, according to deputies’ account of his story. He hopped on a train, burying himself in coal rather than taking a boxcar, in the hopes of eluding any surveillance cameras, then trekked two days to the bunker that he had outfitted for an extended stay.
Until this month, the plan worked.
Deiler marveled at the contraptions Button crammed into his small space, which the deputy estimates was dug 12 to 15 feet deep into an embankment. The TV — positioned so that Button could watch from his makeshift bed — was set up with both a DVD player and a VHS system. The space was fitted with LED lights and fans, and Button fashioned a bicycle into a generator he could pedal when he ran out of power. Food, pots and tools lined the walls from floor to ceiling.
He even dug a well and remodeled the bunker at one point, making it bigger when he ran out of room, Deiler said.
Button rode out freezing winters with stockpiled wood and a fire pit designed to give off minimal smoke, he reportedly told deputies. When it snowed and he had to go outdoors, he walked extra loops and erased his tracks with branches to avoid leaving a trail someone could follow. He transplanted dozens of pine trees to further obscure a shelter already hard to find.
Deiler is not sure of the source of Button’s apparent electronics expertise, but he said the bunker was filled with books on mechanical engineering. Button told the deputy at one point that he had a high IQ but that he often “makes poor decisions in other ways,” Deiler said.
Eventually, despite the elaborate precautions, Button’s past caught up with him.
A Wausau resident stumbled upon the bunker last year while out scouting for hunting, according to an incident report. The man alerted authorities, but nothing came of the report, Deiler said, adding that he does not know exactly why but that he thinks officials were not able to locate the hideout.
The Wausau man happened to check on the shelter again on Aug. 9, the incident report says. Cracking open the door, he found a man sleeping.
This time, deputies arrived to investigate.
Button stayed put in his bunker as deputies called for 20 minutes for him to come out, Deiler said. According to Deiler, the runaway later confided that he considered setting himself on fire when deputies arrived.
But after Button finally emerged and was taken into custody, he was friendly, Deiler recounted. He seemed relieved to be talking with someone after years of mostly uninterrupted solitude.
Among his first comments: “Boy, it’s actually really good to have some human contact,” Deiler paraphrased. He told the deputies he was a “wanted man.”
Button was turned over to the Portage County Sheriff’s Office, which had warrants out on him. He is being held on a $100,000 bond, according to court records.
Portage County Sheriff Mike Lucas told the Wausau Daily Herald that authorities put Button at the top of their most-wanted list after his disappearance. But tips led nowhere. The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the case Saturday.
Authorities have said it’s not yet clear if any of Button’s family members or acquaintances knew of his whereabouts after he went into hiding. But Button reportedly told officials that he didn’t tell anyone about the bunker, and Lynda Miller, Button’s mother, told The Post that she had no contact with her son after he fled. She said she’s back in touch with him now but declined to speak further.
Investigators who searched the bunker with a warrant discovered hard drives and other devices that may yield further evidence in Button’s case, Deiler said. But the items are still being processed, and it’s not clear whether they will lead to additional charges.
The state’s Department of Natural Resources will be dismantling the bunker and has advised people to stay away for safety reasons, given the shelter’s makeshift nature.
As Button’s case pends — he is scheduled to appear in court Sept. 16 — Deiler says he is glad that law enforcement was able to “hold somebody accountable for their actions” and provide the prospect of some further closure for the victims.
“A really bizarre call, and a bizarre thing to happen or be part of,” he said.