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Prison ordered for New Richmond church burglar

The man who burglarized several St. Croix County churches last year once had designs on becoming a youth pastor, but eventually became sidetracked and consumed by drugs — a divergence that delivered him a prison sentence last week.

William D. Rushford told St. Croix County Circuit Court Judge Michael Waterman that the past several months of sobriety he's experienced behind bars have refocused him and his priorities. He's been sitting in jail after pleading guilty to three burglary charges in November stemming from break-ins to churches in Hudson, New Richmond, the town of St. Joseph and the town of Star Prairie in August 2016.

"It's drugs, your honor," the 42-year-old New Richmond resident said at his sentencing hearing Friday. "They got a hold of me."

The mea culpa didn't sway Waterman, who followed prosecution's recommendation and sentenced Rushford to three years in prison and three years on supervised release. The judge said that if he followed defense counsel's recommendation — lengthy probation and additional jail time — then "the public wouldn't take the justice system seriously."

"You did some awful things," Waterman told Rushford. "I cannot place you on probation."

Assistant St. Croix County District Attorney Alexis McKinley said she had interacted with Rushford in previous court cases and never found him to be a violent, or even bad, person. But she described an escalating criminal behavior that was fueled by an addiction problem that had gone unrecognized.

"I was incredibly disappointed" to learn Rushford was behind the church burglaries, McKinley said, recalling his Aug. 19 arrest after a photo from one of the burglaries was circulated on various media.

The offenses were "egregious," she told Waterman, saying they had a lasting effect on the affected churches, parishioners and community members.

"He entered a place of sanctity, he entered a place of worship and he took from them," McKinley said.

And yet, the faith community was just what Rushford once pictured in his future, he told the judge. He said he's spent his time in jail asking himself how he got there, after being raised in a loving household, leading Boy Scout groups and attending a seminar on becoming a youth pastor.

Waterman acknowledged Rushford's departure from the straight and narrow.

"One would be very surprised to find you in a place like this" considering his upbringing, the judge said.

But once drugs entered the picture, they never left, Rushford said. He said he tried hard to be a functioning addict, though it wasn't until he came off the drugs in jail that he realized he's powerless over their influence.

"I've never wanted to live a sober life more than I do right now," he told Waterman.

Rushford sobbed as he recalled the look on his daughter's face when he was arrested and the pain the incident put his mother through.

"Those two things alone will haunt me the rest of my life," he said.

Rushford told Waterman he already had a job lined up that would help pay for the $14,830 in restitution he must pay the churches. He broke down further as he imagined how his own congregation might have felt if victimized by a burglar.

"They deserve that money," he said.

Waterman pointed out the irony of Rushford stealing from a faith community that would have otherwise offered him help in his addiction struggles.

"When that happens we lose something intangible in society," the judge said.

Rushford was accused of burglarizing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Hudson, First Lutheran Church in New Richmond, Redeemer Lutheran Church in the town of St. Joseph and Prairieview Church in the town of Star Prairie

Waterman told Rushford he should have known better. The judge pointed out Rushford's age — noting that his 42nd birthday fell on Feb. 11 — and said he wouldn't consider the case the same way he would an 18-year-old in the same circumstance.

"You're also old enough to know right from wrong," Waterman said.

The judge also challenged Rushford on his assertion that he learns from his mistakes. Previous misdemeanor cases bore "striking similarities" to the burglaries, Waterman said.

"You said you learn from mistakes," the judge said, "but apparently not that one."

Mike Longaecker

Mike Longaecker is the regional public safety reporter for RiverTown Multimedia. His coverage area spans St. Croix and Pierce counties. Longaecker served from 2011-2015 as editor of the Woodbury Bulletin. A University of Wisconsin-River Falls graduate, Longaecker previously reported for the Red Wing Republican Eagle and for the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau. You can follow him on Twitter at @Longaecker

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