Booby Trap Nailed Crook, and His Victim


What was he supposed to do?

It’s not a question so much as a challenge. A challenge to anyone who thinks Lenny Miller was wrong to booby-trap his cabin with a shotgun.

Three times in eight months, the cabin had been burglarized.

His hunting rifles had been stolen. His fishing gear too. And his tackle box. His new chain saw and his leaf blower and his Christmas present, a fillet knife still in its box. His boat had been vandalized. His outhouse trashed. His all-terrain vehicle had been torn apart. Clothes. A BB gun. A fold-up cot.

Even the Hershey bars he’d been saving for s’mores.

“It had to be stopped,” Miller said.

His locks didn’t help. Neither did the sheriff.

“Enough was enough,” Miller said.

So he loaded his 12-gauge shotgun. He bought string, a pulley and some hooks. And he rigged up a booby trap to catch himself a burglar.


Authorities Call It Wrong Choice

Miller figured he had no choice.

Authorities, however, say he just made the wrong one.

Oh, Miller caught himself a burglar, all right. But he also landed a six-month jail sentence. And a scorching rebuke from a judge who accused him of “taking us back to the days of the Wild West,” the days of “vigilante justice.”

The case has raised an alarm out here, in the remote woods of northwest Wisconsin.

Many residents express outrage that a man could go to jail for guarding what’s his. Authorities are equally riled--at the idea that anyone would value property above life, would set a potentially lethal trap to keep a burglar away from his stuff. Miller should have worked with the sheriff, they say. He should have tried Neighborhood Watch. He should have been patient, let the system catch the crook.

That’s what he was supposed to do.

This, however, is what he did: He wedged his shotgun under his ATV. Then he fixed it so anyone opening the door to his shed would get shot.

He did build in some precautions. For one, he aimed the gun low. He wanted to wound, not to kill. For another, the shed door was padlocked, so a kid couldn’t yank it open on a lark. Getting in--getting shot--would take work. The way Miller had it figured, only a burglar would make the effort.

“The next time he came by,” Miller vowed, “he was going to be sorry.”


He was.

But, as it turned out, Miller was too.

Shotgun Pellets Into the Shin

First, the burglar: He came early one July morning. The cabin was silent. Miller was home in Red Wing, Minn., working his job at a shoe factory. The burglar punched a hole in the wooden shed. He ripped out the padlock. He opened the door. Shotgun pellets tore into his shin.

Some time later, he was crouching by the side of the road, blood soaking his right pants leg, when a sheriff’s deputy drove up. The deputy, naturally, was curious. The burglar, naturally, wasn’t talking.

But another deputy remembered all those thefts at Miller’s cabin. He also remembered Miller’s vow to do something about it. So he drove over for a look.

He saw the shed door broken open. He saw the gun aimed at his shin.

And he knew he had two crimes to deal with.

Arlin P. Zuech was charged with attempted burglary. (There was no evidence linking him to the other break-ins.) He pleaded guilty and will be sentenced next month.

Leonard E. Miller was charged with setting a spring gun--in other words, a booby trap with a firearm. That’s a felony, but the prosecutor knocked it down to a misdemeanor. In return, Miller pleaded guilty.

He was sentenced to six months in jail. Plus two years’ probation and 100 hours of community service.

He arranged work-release privileges so he can keep his job at the shoe factory. But he has to pay the jail $11,775 for the right to come and go. Add in legal bills and court fees and the $5 booby trap cost Miller about $14,000.

That’s more than half his annual salary.

That’s more than he paid for the cabin.

That, plus six months in jail? Folks around here don’t think it’s fair.

They point out that Miller tried to work through the system long before he set the booby trap. He called the sheriff after each burglary. Investigators took fingerprints, even measured tire tracks. They never identified a suspect.

Miller couldn’t install a burglar alarm--his cabin has no electricity. And he didn’t take down the cutesy touches that make his cabin so welcoming, like the teddy bears tacked up to hug tree trunks. Still, he barricaded the place as best he could with padlocks and chains, a reinforced gate, “no trespassing” signs galore. None of it worked.

And so, folks here ask, what was he supposed to do?

“Who the hell is going to protect him except himself?” asked Jack Krisik, a retired heavy equipment operator. “I think he was 100% right.”

Jim Bell, publisher of the local Barron News-Shield, added: “Deep down, in all of us, there’s a little bit of . . . ‘Damn it all, we want to get even.’ And that’s just what Leonard Miller did. It’s not like he shot Little Red Riding Hood.” His readers, he said, sympathize with Miller--and resent his six-month jail term.

Bell understands why too: “There’s a whole bunch of potential Leonard Millers out there.”

So authorities fear.

As Circuit Judge Edward R. Brunner told Miller at his sentencing: “[This is] taking us back to the days . . . where there were no rules and everyone carried guns . . . and handled their problems as they saw fit. . . . And that can’t be condoned, no matter how terrible you feel about the loss of your property or the invasion of your space.”

Although Zuech suffered only minor injuries, Brunner warned that the booby trap could have been lethal. It could have severed an artery. It could have caught a crouching intruder in the chest.

Miller was also lucky that his gun nailed a bad guy. What if firefighters had broken into the shed to save it? What if a child, desperate to find a lost puppy, had pried open the doors to peek inside? “A spring gun is indiscriminate,” Dist. Atty. Jim Babler said. “It doesn’t know who is opening the door.”

That’s why it’s illegal in Wisconsin to set spring guns. It’s illegal in most states, in fact, to use any lethal force to protect property. If Miller encountered an intruder in his cabin, he could shoot to defend himself. But he can’t rig a gun to save his fishing tackle.

“Aside from being illegal, it’s immoral,” Babler said.

Miller, of course, is far from the first to set a booby trap. In perhaps the most celebrated case, a Miami shopkeeper in 1986 bolted two metal grates to his ceiling and wired them to a wall outlet. The crude device electrocuted a burglar. A grand jury, however, refused to indict the shopkeeper on manslaughter charges.

Other vigilantes have drawn less sympathy. People have been sentenced to death, or to life in prison, for killing intruders with booby traps.

“We have a misplaced belief, I think . . . that we can use any means we can” to stop crime, Brunner said. “We can’t let people think that, or we’ll have total chaos.”

In the abstract, folks here agree with the judge. No one wants his neighbor settling scores with a shotgun. Yet many figure the law has to bend to accommodate people like Miller.

A truly just society, they argue, wouldn’t require Miller to act the stooge, to sit back and wait for burglars to help themselves, especially after the sheriff has proved unable to help. It isn’t fair either for the bad guys to win--for Miller to retreat from the cabin, valuables in hand, giving up his dream of weekends in the woods.

“What Lenny did was wrong, yes, but I might have even done the same thing,” said Jerry Kleinschmidt, a brick restorer. “The laws have to be changed to give homeowners the right to protect their property.”

Miller, who reports to jail in January, agrees. But he’s not one to wait on changes in the law. He vows that he’d set another trap in a minute--although not with a gun--if he thought his cabin was under threat.

“I’ve been asked if I have regrets,” he said. “No.”

True, he’s going to jail. But he put a burglar behind bars too. And he stopped a crime in progress. The way Miller has it figured, he did just what he was supposed to do.

“Society’s way failed,” Miller said. “My way didn’t.”