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Van, hammer, cash enough to convict, says appeals court

Circumstantial evidence -- such as leading police on a high speed chase in a van like the one described by a witness and being found with a hammer, 100 gambling cards and $336 in cash -- was enough to convict a St. Croix County man of burglarizing a local bar, according to an appeals court decision released May 30.

William D. Van Beek, now 30, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison and five years extended supervision, and ordered to pay court assessments of $7,042 after being convicted of burglary. He was also sentenced to nine months each in county jail on convictions for entry into a locked coin box and criminal damage to property. The jail sentences were to run concurrent with the prison time.

According to state prison records, Van Beek is currently an inmate at Jackson Correctional Institution, Black River Falls.

He was accused of sneaking into the Blue Moon Saloon and Eatery, rural New Richmond, after hours on Dec. 20, 2004 and smashing a video poker machine.

According to the narrative in the District III Court of Appeals decision, Vincent Steen, a tenant in the basement apartment of the Blue Moon, was watching TV late at night when he heard furniture being moved above him. He investigated and as he came around a corner of the building, he saw a video poker machine on its side over the edge of a window with a masked man banging on it with a ball peen hammer.

A van was parked nearby. Steen aimed a flashlight at the man, who jumped into the van and fled.

Steen identified the van, according to the narrative, as a "white full-size Chevy van with some writing on the side." He also got a partial license plate number.

Steen called the Sheriff's Department, giving a description of the man and the vehicle and the partial plate number.

Officer Jake McAbee saw a white Chevy coming too fast for conditions. As it passed, he saw it was a commercial van with side lettering. With McAbee in pursuit, the van ran three stop signs and hit speeds up to 90 mph.

The officer lost sight of the vehicle briefly but shined his light into a subdivision, illuminating a white Chevy van with side lettering sitting in the dark. The van's lights flashed on and the vehicle took off, running three more stop signs before McAbee and another officer stopped it.

After arresting Van Beek, the officers searched the van. They found a small ball peen hammer, over 100 gambling cards and cash consisting of a dozen $20 bills, six $10 bills, six $5 bills and six $1 bills.

Van Beek argued that Steen couldn't identify him and that a description of what he had been wearing earlier didn't match the clothing he was wearing when he was arrested. He said the state only presented circumstantial evidence.

The vehicle description, the partial plate number, the hammer and the denominations of the cash were valid evidence, ruled the appeals court.

"There can be little doubt that it was Van Beek who engaged in the high speed chase after Steen reported the crime," says the decision. "It is highly unlikely the police started chasing a different white Chevy van with side lettering and then stopped Van Beek."

Also, the court found Van Beek, who was the last customer in the saloon before it closed that night, had the chance to unlock a window when he was left alone in a dining room for five minutes.

Van Beek also argued that the prosecution hadn't proved he had a motive for the crimes.

Motive isn't an issue, said the court. Referring to case law, the court said, "Proof of motive does not establish guilt, nor want of it establish innocence."