“I do have concerns, absolutely. I am incredibly concerned,” – Gov. Tony Evers’ chief of staff Maggie Gau, referring to an Evers’ appointee’s decision to parole wife-killer Douglas Balsewicz. Evers, however, has yet to condemn the early release, which is scheduled for May 17.
The family of murder victim Johanna Balsewicz told Gov. Tony Evers’ chief of staff Maggie Gau in an emotional closed-door meeting on Thursday that they want the governor to remove the Parole Commission chairman he appointed and work to get the release of a convicted wife killer overturned.
They left with a promise that the governor, whom they had tried repeatedly to contact to no avail, would meet with them. That meeting is now scheduled for 10 a.m. on Friday, May 13, 2022.
See our exclusive video of Gau meeting with the family throughout this story.
“He (Evers) has to make the right decision,” said the victim’s brother Michael Binder to Gau. “Gov. Evers, who picked this guy, if I have to get on my hands and knees and beg the hell out him, this (stopping the release) is what needs to happen. You made a bad decision, you weren’t anticipating the family would kick all this dirt.”
Binder noted, “I know the governor candidates are all talking about this. This could be the undoing of Gov. Evers” if he doesn’t fire Tate.
“The way things are going and have exploded, this could be his undoing.”
Johanna’s sister Kim Binder Cornils told Gau of Evers’ appointee Parole Commission Chairman John Tate, who authorized the release: “This is to our bones. This is what I have left of my sister, the hair that I picked out of her carpet, the bloody hair (she showed Gau a locket)….This (Tate) is somebody Tony Evers wanted to put in there. This is a slap in the face from Tony Evers. He has the power, and he better do something because we are not going away.”
The family also wants Evers to suspend all paroles through the end of the year, including that of Douglas Balsewicz.
Cornils told Gau, “Evers has a hand in this. He can get rid of Tate. That’s his power. He needs to get rid of Tate, and he needs to stop all paroles from now until next year and that includes Doug Balsewicz, and I think what Evers and Tate need to do is read the transcripts” from the case.
At another point, she said, “Gov. Evers has the power to get Tate out of office and get this overturned…we are not going to stand for, ‘well, there’s nothing we can do.’ You put him in the office.”
Wisconsin Right Now was the only news outlet allowed in the meeting at Evers’ Capitol office. Gau tried to close the meeting to all press, but the family insisted that they wanted WRN to stay to document what was said. Later in the day, Evers refused to talk to Channels 4 and 12 about the parole, when they caught up with him at a Milwaukee-area event.
Evers is also trying to ban the media from the Friday meeting, the family told WRN.
WTMJ4News “tried to ask Gov. Evers about it (the parole) while he was at an event in Menomonee Falls, but he said he had to get going,” the television station wrote on Thursday night.
Evers walked away from a Channel 12 reporter who asked him about the parole.
— Derrick Rose (@DRoseTV) May 12, 2022
On Thursday, Gau told the family Evers was not in Madison because of a morning event in Marinette and an afternoon event in the Milwaukee area. The powerful chief of staff met with the family instead; they told her they had repeatedly contacted the governor’s office and the Parole Commission to no avail. Previously, someone from the governor’s office even told them Evers would call them, but he never did, they said. They also say they found out he was being released through the grapevine. The office of victim’s rights with the Department of Corrections did not call them to let them know Balsewicz was being released until it was widely reported in the news media, the family says.
Gau apologized to the family for the problems they outlined with the notifications and promised that they would be able to meet with the governor face-to-face. “I am not a liar, you have my word on this, and we will make this happen,” she told the family after a half-hour of heartfelt and heartbreaking accounts from family members about how Johanna’s murder and Balsewicz’s looming parole have devastated them.
Asked whether Evers would condemn the release, Gau would not say. Wisconsin Right Now was allowed to ask a question with the family’s permission. It was, “Why hasn’t Gov. Evers condemned this in the strongest of terms and why hasn’t he called on John Tate to reverse this?”
Gau responded by telling the family, “It’s really important for him to hear from you all, to hear from you directly. I have this document as well.” She did not answer the questions. The document referred to court records the family brought along.
So far, the governor’s only statement on the matter has been to claim he doesn’t have the power to overturn Tate’s decision. However, he does have the power to remove Tate, whom he appointed, and who serves at his pleasure. He also has the power to use his bully pulpit to condemn the release, which he has not done. For his part, Tate, who is also a Racine alderman, told the Racine Journal-Times that he won’t reverse his decision to release Balsewicz on May 17 because he’s afraid Balsewicz would sue. The family has tried repeatedly to speak with him to no avail, even traveling to the Parole Commission offices after their meeting with Gau. Tate’s cell phone has a voice message saying he won’t return calls relating to parole.
Gau also declined the family’s request that she stand at their side before television cameras.
Theresa Cook, Johanna’s niece, told Gau, “It’s just not okay, and we’re not going to stop.”
Michael Binder, Johanna’s brother, put the emphasis back on the victim.
“All we are hearing about was the act…I want people to understand who Johanna Rose was,” he said. “Johanna Rose was a spunky little girl with a free spirit. She met this guy at a young age against my parents’ wishes… and she was adamant that he was her knight in shining armor.. she was trying to live the American dream; they bought a house, they had two beautiful children, she had presence of mind to go to Concordia University to get a degree as a medical assistant. And this guy because of his selfishness, his ignorance, because of the fact he couldn’t deal with being a father, and she gave him ultimatums, on his birthday he decides to break into her house and stab her 42 times.”
He continued, “I will never forget my father calling and asking me if I could go to the medical examiner’s office to identify her body. I thought by doing plea bargain this clown would be sitting there and would maybe pull 40 years when he would be 77 years, I might have been able to live with that, but he’s 54 and probably has 20 years ahead of him.”
Binder, a military veteran, concluded, “Right now I don’t have trust in our system; I don’t have trust in the parole board.”
Karen Kannenberg, another of Johanna’s sisters, told Gau: “Can you imagine these two little kids with their mom dying a slow death, from midnight until 8 in the morning…they were in this bed just clinging with fear, no one can even imagine what they went through all this time. This man stabs her, kills her and he leaves knowing his two kids are there as well.” One of the two toddlers, Christopher, then 4, later died in a car accident.
Cook called the pending release a “gross injustice.”
“I understand,” said Gau.
Michael Binder told Gau he served in the military for 30 years and retired as a command sergeant major. He said he had fired people who showed bad judgment or made major errors. “I’m smart enough and savvy enough to know this thing can be turned around and the right decision can be made,” he said.
As for the notion that Balsewicz might sue, Binder said, “So be it because no one can put a price tag on a loved one’s life.”
Gau told the family she was “so incredibly sorry on the notification piece in particular. That is not ok. That is not the system we have. You can mark my words, we are absolutely going to go back to have a conversation about that. I’m going to find out what the hell happened here.”
She told the family that parole is not like pardons, where the governor reviews testimony and is involved in the review and approval process.
“That is a decision made by John. We do not have an approval, the governor is not involved,” said Gau.
“Who is John’s superior?” Cook asked.
Gau said the Parole Commission is located within the Department of Corrections, but Cook asked, “Who is his boss?” Gau said, “John runs the commission.”
Cook responded, “We want to get to the meat of this. He (Tate) is not infallible, and he deserves to be disciplined for this.”
Gau said the family “have a commitment from us” that Evers would meet with them.
Cook asked why Evers’ office “never contacted us before.”
Gau said that in some situations families did not want contact, but Cook said the family had made it clear they did “in every message.”
Gau said that it wasn’t “passed on to me that there was a request for a meeting” but said she rearranged her schedule to meet with the family and would be “absolutely” having a conversation with the governor and work on getting a meeting set up between Evers and the family.
Cook told Gau, “I voted for Evers. I was a union member for MTEA, which is very close to his heart. It’s almost personal for how hard I knocked doors and worked for him.”
The family noted that the 25th anniversary of Johanna’s death is coming up.
Cook said the family is “sickened” by past statements Tate made in the press about not wanting victims’ families to show pictures of victims in their coffins at parole hearings.
The family expressed that they have suffered great trauma that reignited after the news of the parole broke.
Gau said, “I am sorry for the trauma you all had to endure; from the bottom of my heart, I am truly, truly sorry.”
Cook touched her own chest and said, “This heart is not mended and this right here is just pouring acid on it….please hear our cry.”
“Can Tate reverse this?” asked Binder.
Gau stammered, “I’m not sure; I’m, I’m, I’m – I need to look.” [Experts have told Wisconsin Right Now that Tate could reverse himself by citing additional input or new concerns about the offender’s ability to reintegrate into the community, for example.]
Cornils said, “Tate is more for the criminal. He believes after 20 years of knifing, stabbing, gashing that they’re going to be good for society if they’re let out. They made a mistake.”
Cook told Gau she also did not have confidence in the decision-making of Jennifer Kramer, the parole commissioner who recommended Balsewicz’s release to Tate, who had the final say.
They described Balsewicz as controlling, jealous, and a drug user. “He would call her 50 times a day,” said Kannenberg. They also say he made up that she was dancing with black men, something the criminal complaint said angered him, giving him a racist motive.
Cornils said Johanna told her that Balsewicz told her, “If I can’t have you nobody will” and she told her sister, “he’s going to kill me.”
“If I have to go to Fox Lake and stand out there with JoJo’s picture, I will. I called Biden’s office. We’re not playing around,” said Cook.
Cook noted, “We have been calling this week non-stop; all of us called this office, the parole commission, John Tate, Victims’ rights of DOC, and I’ve actually talked to someone from this office three or four times… I voted for Evers. I worked for MPS for 15 years, and I am very disappointed and feel let down. This is not what I voted for him for. It is insensitive and disrespectful.”