Sarah Merchant (right) hugs a family member Wednesday during a sentencing hearing for her boyfriend, James Mileski, at the Marinette County Courthouse. Mileski was given a stayed prison sentence. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
Sarah Merchant (right) hugs a family member Wednesday during a sentencing hearing for her boyfriend, James Mileski, at the Marinette County Courthouse. Mileski was given a stayed prison sentence. EagleHerald/Rick Gebhard
MARINETTE - Tears of sadness were followed by tears of joy Wednesday at a sentencing hearing for James Mileski in the Marinette County Courthouse.

Instead of a long prison term, Branch 1 Circuit Judge Dave Miron issued a stayed prison sentence, along with extended supervision and some jail time.

Mileski, 23, Marinette, in late September was convicted of two felony counts in connection with the New Year's Day stabbing of Dennis Vanabel, 37, at the Dunlap Square Apartments in downtown Marinette.

"Probably the easiest thing for me to do is justify a long prison sentence," Miron said. "I can do that. I know how to say the words. I can get that by the court of appeal with no problem. Am I doing my job if I don't look at the other aspects of your life? I don't think I am."

"I know this is a serious offense and it's easy to say it cries out for imprisonment, but I don't think that gives you credit for who you are and what you've done up to this point. And I really believe this is an aberration in your behavior. I don't think it's something that's going to be repeated again.

"Because of that I can't see sending you to prison today. I think you deserve that opportunity to prove to all of us, to prove to all these people who are supporting you, that you are worthy of that chance."

Mileski certainly had supporters - roughly 75 people were in the county board room, which was utilized instead of the courtroom in order to accommodate more people.

Mileski's parents - Jim Mileski Sr. and Kristi - were relieved following the hearing.

"Our family's whole life was at stake today," Mileski Sr. said. "It's like we've lost a big part of our life for the last 11 months. To have him come back and take care of his daughter and support his family, that's the most important thing."

Kristi Mileski said she had no idea what to expect entering the hearing.

"I went up and down," she said. "I was trying to be positive thinking that he may be coming home, but then I would think maybe it would be the four years. That they would want to make an example of him."

The felony counts - first-degree recklessly endangering safety use of dangerous weapon and aggravated battery intend great bodily harm use of a dangerous weapon - carried a combined possible punishment of 28 1/2 years in prison and/or $35,000 in fines. Mileski also was found guilty of misdemeanor charges of disorderly conduct, battery and possession of THC.

Mileski was found not guilty of two other felony charges exactly the same as the two he was found guilty.

Mileski stabbed Vanabel, 37, multiple times at about 4:30 a.m. Jan. 1 after Vanabel and his friend, Michael McDowell, were returning to the Dunlap Square Apartments where they were roommates. Vanabel had testified he saw Mileski punching his girlfriend, Sarah Merchant, and came to her defense.

Mileski and Merchant, who also lived in the building, along with their friend, Holli DeLorme, also were celebrating New Year's Eve.

A fight occurred in the lobby area in which Vanabel said Mileski stabbed him several times in the back. Vanabel fled down the hall and through a security fire door and he contends Mileski followed him and stabbed him again in the chest and arm.

The not guilty felony verdicts were related to the fight in the lobby, while the guilty verdicts were a result of the fight down the hall by the security fire door. The guilty battery verdict was the result of Mileski punching Merchant.

On Wednesday, Miron sentenced Mileski to five years prison, followed by five years extended supervision for the recklessly endangering safety charge and three years in prison, followed by three years extended supervision for the aggravated battery charge. Both sentences were stayed, meaning that as long as Mileski follows the guidelines of the rest of the sentence and stays out of trouble, he will not go to prison.

The sentence also included one-year jail, with credit for 317 days served. He also received jail time for the misdemeanor charges (to run concurrent with the longer jail sentence) and he must pay more than $7,400 in restitution.

District Attorney Allen Brey recommended a combined sentence of six years in prison, followed by seven years extended supervision for the two felony charges. He declined comment following the hearing.

Miron said he took into account Mileski's spotless criminal record, his work ethic and the strong show of support from family members, friends, former teachers and co-workers. The judge said he received more than 60 letters of support from people from all walks of life and people who knew Mileski during varying stages of his life - including Vanabel, the victim.

"I think what we've got here is an aberration of your behavior," Miron said. "It's a shame how something that happens in 10 or 15 minutes is going to be the event that you're judged by for the rest of your life.

"Take a look at everything you've done up to this point, and it's all been good. Nobody has a bad thing to say about you."

In determining the sentence, Miron said he also took into account that the jury found Mileski not guilty of charges relating to the fight in the lobby, which is where the stabbing took place and the life-threatening injuries happened to Vanabel.

"The jury agreed with you, that you were defending yourself at that time," he said.

Miron said another key factor was what Vanabel stated in the presentence report.

"He said that, emotionally, this event no longer affects him," the judge said, adding that Vanabel told the agent he would like to see Mileski get mandatory counseling, including anger management and domestic violence, and he would like a letter of apology. He also told the agent it would not bother him if the defendant does not go to prison.

"Very magnanimous indeed for an individual who was on a Flight for Life, in a hospital, and of course prayed that he wasn't going to die," Miron said. "It would appear certainly Mr. Vanabel has recovered from his wounds and really is very generous of his thoughts toward you the defendant."

Mileski's father said he's grateful for Vanabel's words to the presentence agent.

"That was huge," he said. "I applaud Dennis for having the wherewithal to take the time and write that information down. That was huge. He knows what happened that evening as well as what Jimmy knows. There's always two sides to the story. I want to thank him for making that statement because it was big on Jim's behalf."

The judge spoke highly of Mileski's character and his ability to hold a job.

"I look at you I see a young guy on the cusp of his life," Miron said. "You've got a girlfriend who loves you. You've got a family started. Your parents obviously love you."

Seven friends and family members - including Mileski's parents and Merchant - addressed the court prior to sentencing. They told of his character and his need to be with his young daughter.

Defense attorney John D'Angelo of De Pere requested a stayed prison sentence with extended supervision, along with counseling. He urged the judge to look at Mileski's entire life.

"They say a picture's worth a thousand words, but a picture is a snapshot of a moment in time," D'Angelo said. "Mr. Mileski, as you can see by all the letters and all the people in support of him today, shows that he has a greater volume of work in his life."

The attorney said his client has learned from his time in jail.

"I think Mr. Mileski understands how precious freedom is, how precious is family is and how precious his little girl is," D'Angelo said.

He also pointed out the significance of Vanabel's forgiveness to Mileski, calling him a "gentleman among gentlemen."

Vanabel was not at the hearing.
EagleHerald editor

MARINETTE - Marinette County District Attorney Allen Brey declined comment following Wednesday's sentencing of James Mileski, but he had plenty to say when he addressed the court during the hearing.

Brey recommended that Mileski get at least four years in prison, followed by fours years extended supervision on a felony charge of first-degree recklessly endangering safety use of a dangerous weapon and two years in prison followed by three years extended supervision for the aggravated battery intend great bodily harm use of a dangerous weapon charge.

That's a combined total of six years in prison, followed by seven years extended supervision. Branch 1 Circuit Judge Dave Miron issued a stayed prison sentence.

Brey said in reviewing the presentence report he failed to see any acceptance of responsibility or remorse from Mileski.

"I think he's sorry he got convicted," he said. "I think he's sorry he's in jail. I think he wants to get out. But I don't think he gives a hoot about what happened to Mr. (Dennis) Vanabel."

Brey said he read the more than five dozen letters of support for Mileski, but he said that doesn't excuse his behavior on New Year's Eve.

"I'm quite certain everyone who wrote meant what they said," the DA said. "But I'm also equally convinced - as is the case with way too many people - when you get them intoxicated they become different people who are unrecognizable to the folks who know them. I think that was clearly the case here."

Brey said when Mileski is intoxicated he has no trouble "taking the woman (Sarah Merchant) he supposedly loves and punching her in the head so people can see it."

"Is this the same guy all these folks write about in these letters? Well, it's the same body, but it's a different person. I think when he's highly intoxicated, he's one nasty fellow that bears watching because if you cross him, whether by word alone, much less deed, the fists are bound to start flying and the knives come out."

Brey acknowledged that Vanabel is a very forgiving man considering that he was stabbed and flown to a hospital for surgery.

"The guy got stabbed 10 times for what?" the prosecutor asked. "For being a good citizen. Those fellows could have just watched the show and not done a darn thing because there's no requirement under the law to be the good Samaritan and step in. They did it because it was the right thing to do."

Brey called the felony charges against Mileski one rung down from murder.

"People have to know that if you engage in conduct regardless of life, while armed with a dangerous weapon, there is a price to be paid," he said. "This isn't a little slap on the wrist. This isn't a little lecture and go home to momma. This is big stuff."

Brey said people are watching to see what happens in a case like this. He said to issue probation would unduly depreciate the seriousness of the offense.

"As a district attorney, I'm glad there are men in this community like Mr. (Michael) McDowell and Mr. Vanabel who stepped up to the plate when they saw something happening that was absolutely wrong," Brey said. "I'm quite certain there are other people in the community who would do the same thing. But they've got to know that the court's going to back them up."

Brey acknowledged that Mileski has a lot of positive qualities and has done plenty of good things. He said, as a prosecutor, he's obligated to make the recommendation for prison.

"It would be an easy thing for me to just come in and say, 'lock him up and max him out,'" he said. "There are plenty of good things. ... The bad is so bad that I just feel I have no choice but to make this recommendation."