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Body found in northern Wis. ID’d as active drug informant

Mike Longaecker

Forum News Service

A death investigation is continuing in a northwestern Wisconsin county after the remains of a Hudson man, who was a confidential drug informant, were found inside a burned building.

The Rusk County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to inquiries about the incident, reported Dec. 7, at a mink ranch property in the town of Stubbs, about 130 miles northeast of the Twin Cities.

According to multiple sources, the remains found in the building belonged to Jeffrey W. Putbrese, a 28-year-old from Hudson.

The Ladysmith News reported last week that Rusk County Circuit Court documents included an affidavit listing Putbrese as a confidential informant for the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office.

St. Croix County Sheriff John Shilts said he wouldn’t confirm that information.

“My agency is cooperating with Rusk County authorities, who are investigating the death of an individual who was known to us,” Shilts said.

He said his agency is helping Rusk County look for possible witnesses from the St. Croix County area, as well as attempting to sort out Putbrese’s whereabouts prior to his death.

Whether the death is suspicious “depends on whom you talk to,” Shilts said, but noted that St. Croix County investigators have learned from some Rusk County counterparts who “certainly consider that there are some suspicious circumstances.”

The Ladysmith News reported that a postmortem examination conducted by the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office in Ramsey, Minn., “showed a charred body with abundant soot lining the airways.”

That meant Putbrese, whose remains were confirmed via fingerprint identification, was alive at the time of the fire, Rusk County Medical Examiner Jim Rassbach told the Ladysmith News.

“When a person is in a fire and they are breathing, they are going to try and inhale whatever air they can get and that drags in the chemical soot into their system,” he told the newspaper. “He was breathing.”

Putbrese’s body was found inside a processing portion of the NW Mink Rank facility, which has been closed for about a year due to a drop in market prices, according to the Ladysmith News report.

The Ladysmith News states authorities found it suspicious that Putbrese’s missing cellphone and vehicle — along with the circumstances surrounding his death — “are unexplained and suspicious in nature.”

The paper reviewed an unsealed affidavit for a search warrant in Rusk County Circuit Court that states Putbrese “was working as an active confidential informant for the St. Croix County Sheriff’s Office.”

The Ladysmith News states the affidavit describes how St. Croix County sheriff’s investigator Jim Mikla was familiar with Putbrese and that another investigator spoke on the phone with him one day prior to the fire. Putbrese was described as “erratic and paranoid” on that day, according to the paper.

A review of Putbrese’s St. Croix County criminal court files did not turn up any indication of his role as an informant, but did shed light on his contact with law enforcement.

Putbrese listed a River Falls address in 2012, a Somerset address two years later — when he was accused of fighting with another St. Croix County jail inmate — and a Hudson address in 2016, when he was convicted of obstructing an officer.

According to St. Croix County court documents, Putbrese struggled with substance abuse and ran afoul of the law on multiple occasions.

Putbrese unsuccessfully petitioned St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Eric Lundell for early release on a narcotics-related conviction in October 2015, saying he got the chemical dependency help he needed in prison and had designs on a sober-living arrangement upon his release.

Putbrese said in the letter that he planned to pursue a career as a mechanic after prison.

Lundell denied the motion in December 2015, stating it would not be in the public’s interest.

The Ladysmith News said authorities interviewed Putbrese’s girlfriend Dec. 14. She was cooperative, according to statements, but couldn’t say where his vehicle was or what he was doing in Rusk County.

Another woman interviewed by St. Croix County investigators Dec. 15, said she got a call from Putbrese’s phone Dec. 12 — five days after the fatal fire.

According to the Ladysmith News, a woman living at a home in Bruce, Wis. — where the requested search warrant was to be executed — told investigators from Rusk County and the state Fire Marshal’s Office that she and another man went to Putbrese’s Hudson home Dec. 6 before continuing on to Mystic Lake Casino in Shakopee, Minn.

Early the next day, Putbrese contacted that woman and caught a ride with her and the other man from Oakdale, Minn., to Bruce.

The woman told authorities Putbrese shot up meth at a house there and became paranoid, eventually leaving on foot. The woman drove out and found Putbrese walking in Bruce. He got in her vehicle and they headed west on Highway 8.

She said Putbrese remained paranoid during the ride, at one point brandishing a knife, before jumping out of the vehicle. The woman didn’t know where he went after that.

Officials with the Rusk County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to messages.

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