By Ed Zagorski | Posted: Monday, October 24, 2011 3:30 am |
Battling a terminal case of cirrhosis and desperate for money to pay bills, James Pelnar, Jr. made a fateful decision.
Now, as an accused bank robber, the 38-year-old has more hanging over his head than a doctor's prediction he has less than a year to live: Pelnar Jr. faces up to 15 years in prison.
On Oct. 14, he walked into Harris Bank in Baraboo and allegedly demanded $2,000. He then ran home, where he was arrested. Pelnar Jr. was charged with one count of robbery with threat of force. If convicted, he faces up to 15 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
"I know the cirrhosis didn't give me a reason to do what I did," he said last week during a 20-minute visitation period at the Sauk County Law Enforcement Center.
Pelnar Jr. wanted to use the $2,000 for medical bills and to give his dad, Warren James Pelnar Sr., some money for rent.
"He's been living with me for 11 years," Pelnar Sr. said. "He's helped me out a lot. He's done a lot of the cooking and going to the store for me. Just a great kid."
The elder Pelnar said he can't explain why his son robbed a bank. "He's a very nice kid," Pelnar Sr. said. "I don't know why he did that. There's nothing bad about him at all."
That is, until his son received a diagnosis no one would want to hear.
"Then he changed," Pelnar Sr. "Then he didn't want to listen to anyone. He was good all his life until now. I still can't believe this."
University of Wisconsin Hospital Dr. Parul Agarwal said cirrhosis is chronic liver disease characterized by the replacement of liver tissue by scar tissue. She said cirrhosis is most commonly caused by alcoholism, hepatitis B and C, and fatty liver disease.
"Cirrhosis is generally irreversible, and treatment usually focuses on preventing progression and complications," Agarwal said. "In its advanced stages the only option is a liver transplant."
Pelnar Jr. admitted he was a heavy drinker of beer and sometimes hard liquor, but put it all aside for a year and a half while he was attending a Baraboo church.
"I didn't drink or smoke cigarettes," he said. "I went to church on a regular basis. I was always reading the Bible."
But then he relapsed.
"I wasn't taking my medication right and had been drinking a bit," he said from the jail. "I made an irrational decision. It was something - just spur of the moment - it wasn't right."
Pelnar Sr. doesn't want to lose his son and fishing companion. "We had a lot of good times," Pelnar Sr. said. "I just don't want to lose him. I watched my wife die from cancer and then I lost my brother. I have seen enough death already."
Pelnar Jr. said he isn't ready to die.
"I have a 12-year-old daughter who lives in Milwaukee with her grandmother," he said. "I also have two sisters in Milwaukee. I am leaving behind a lot of people if I do pass away when I'm locked up."
David E. Schultz, a UW-Madison professor who teaches criminal law and procedure, said Pelnar's health could be taken into consideration by the prosecutor or the judge, especially if the case goes to trial.
"The health of the defendant could play a role in the case, but there are no statutes or court-developed rules that say it has to be followed," Schultz said. "If I was the judge I have the discretion of how to sentence; and I could take the mental or physical state of the defendant in consideration in my charging decisions or plea negotiations as a prosecutor or sentencing decisions as a judge."
Pelnar Jr. said he takes medication for anxiety and depression and also for cirrhosis.
"One of them helps to keep me from becoming jaundiced," he said. "I know it's no excuse for what I've done because there is no excuse for what I've done."
Pelnar Jr. said he was looking for a job for about two years and had no luck.
"I just kind of gave up because no one was hiring," he said.
Now he is spending his time in his cell reading the Bible and books by Tom Clancy. He's also trying to complete a high school equivalency exam.
"The Bible is the only that is giving me comfort right now," Pelnar Jr. "I just made a terrible mistake and wish it never happened."