PORTAGE COUNTY, Wis. (WSAW) -- “I spent my childhood trying to survive, and my teenage years looking over my shoulder.”
Photo of Ali Button, September 23, 2019. (WSAW Photo)
The first assault Ali Button remembers happened when she was five years old, but it occurred so many times that court documents say she wasn’t able to remember each one during an interview as a 14-year-old.
"He took away my childhood from me, and that's something I can't get back--ever."
Ali Button is calm as she tells her story. She recently turned 19, the same month that her father, Jeremiah Button, was arrested in Ringle. His story as told by NewsChannel 7 made national headlines, describing the way he’d lived off the Marathon County landfills for more than three years after he’d disappeared just weeks before his jury trial for child sexual assault charges in 2016. He reached a plea deal last week, pleading guilty to repeated first-degree child sexual assault and possession of child pornography. Portage County called him their most wanted fugitive; Ali calls him her abuser.
Now, she’s taking back the story with her own: a story that showcases her strength of survival while under the roof of the man who would rape her repeatedly before she reported to a school counselor in eighth grade.
“I lived most of my childhood just trying to survive and do what made him happy, because I was scared,” she recalled. It affected every part of her life—she never felt like she fit in with her classmates, and Jeremiah didn’t let her join in activities like volleyball that other children participated in. He pushed her towards drugs and alcohol and the students who used them, she said—when she wasn’t confined to his home.
The pattern of manipulation she describes matches the pattern of grooming that officials familiar with child sexual assault have described to 7 Investigates. It started with tickling games, Ali said—anything that would normalize him touching her—but it progressed very quickly into something much darker. He used gifts, bribes and threats to buy her silence.
“He would always use my pets against me, saying if I didn’t do what he wanted, he’d take one of my cats down the road and throw it out the window,” Ali said. “I stayed silent because I cared about them more than anything else, at that age.”
Jamie Button, Ali’s mother and Jeremiah’s ex-wife, left him soon after Jeremiah was convicted of possession of child pornography back in 2005. She got 50-50 custody of Ali and Ali’s younger brother, meaning the children spent half their time with either parent. Jamie had no idea what was happening to Ali.
“He never did anything by mistake,” Jamie noted. “He always planned everything.” His behavior in building the bunker in Ringle and then evading law enforcement there for more than three years doesn’t surprise her.
“He wasn’t very social,” Jamie said. “He always went shopping at the dump, as he would call it. So to live off the land and to be able to thrive—that is someone who he is.”
The assaults were first reported to law enforcement early in 2014. Jeremiah Button was released on a $25,000 bail later that year, during which time he would later tell deputies he build the makeshift bunker in Ringle just off the Ice Age Trail. He disappeared there weeks before his jury trial in 2016.
“It was devastating when he went missing,” Jamie recalled. "We were scared all the time, looking over our shoulders just waiting for him to show up...We relocated [Ali] to my sister’s house; she had moved recently so he didn’t know where [her sister] lived.”
It was the safety plan that would be most secure for Ali, who still couldn’t live a normal life—and now lived with the fear that Jeremiah was out there, waiting.
“One of the places I worked, I couldn’t go outside ever by myself,” she explained. “They didn’t want me going missing.” Even though the assaults had stopped, she still wasn't able to find a normal life.
"It’s very hard to recreate somebody who’s just been trying to live off their survival for their entire childhood," she explained. "[His disappearance] made me very anxious as a person, and scared. It’s hard to live when you’re not really allowed to, because you feel like you’re in a cage all the time."
Ali recently graduated high school, and moved out of state because Jeremiah was still in hiding, and the distance made her feel safer.
Button’s sentencing is set for October 10, and state prosecutors are recommending 30 years behind bars. Ali is set to read a victim’s impact statement in court.
“I think I can do this, for myself,” Ali explained in response to how she felt about being in the same room as her abuser. “When I was younger, I needed someone to believe in. It turned out that had to be myself… putting him away will make it a bit easier.”
Today, Ali is rebuilding her life on her own, and Jeremiah doesn’t define her story. She overcame drug abuse and suicidal thinking, and is proud that she has graduated high school and is a budding artist with a sense of humor. And while healing and rebuilding her life is still a work in progress, she already knows she wants to help others in similar situations.
“I want to show people what it was like to go through what I went through and the things that I went through. And I want to teach people who haven't gone through it--that this is something that happens, and it’s really bad. And I want to also help the people that have gone through similar situations, and make them feel like they’re not alone.”
Editor’s note: As a rule, NewsChannel 7 protects the identities of sexual assault victims by not naming them. In this case, Ali Button has come forward to share her story openly in the hopes that it can help others.