Thomas Nelson of Wausau told WSAW that he was hunting on state-owned land in Marathon County in November and found the bunker by following brush marks. He saw a door but got out of the area quickly.
At the beginning of August, Nelson said, he returned because his curiosity took over and he wanted to find out why someone was potentially living there.
“There was no way you could have seen this if you didn’t know there was something there,” he said.
Marathon County Deputy Sheriff Troy Deiler told CNN that he and another deputy were dispatched Friday to a wooded area in the town of Ringle in central Wisconsin. Nelson brought them to what he described to police as a “cave dug into the side of an embankment.”
According to Deiler, he found a wooden door and began banging and knocking while identifying himself dozens of times. When he didn’t get a response, he knocked on the roof and heard Button respond.
“While on top I noticed approximately 8 solar panels on top with wires going into the bunker,” Deiler wrote in an incident report. “I also noticed a makeshift stove pipe, using tin cans, coming out of the ground.”
Deiler said Button, in head-to-toe camouflage, identified himself, and the officers discovered his felony warrant from Portage County. Button told them that he had been on the run for three or four years and that no one else had ever been to his bunker.
Sheriff Mike Lucas of Portage County, where Button had originally been charged, told CNN that in his 28 years with the department, he can’t remember seeing anything this “bizarre.”
Button, 44, was arrested Friday and taken to Portage County Jail, where he is being held in lieu of $100,000 bail, court records show. His public defenders have not responded to requests for comment.
Scouting the area
Button told Deiler that when he decided to run, he chose the area for his bunker because of the woods and its access to the Ringle landfill.
Deiler said Button told him that once he got the area dug out, he brought in canned goods, a flat-screen TV and other things he thought he would need for survival.
Button told police he took in one backpack load of supplies after another until he was ready to make the move permanently. He left his car, wallet and ID at his mother’s home along with a note that said he was moving to Florida.
Deiler said he rode in a train’s coal car to the Wausau area and then walked for two days to get to the bunker.
Inside the bunker
Over the course of three years, Button told police, he made daily and nightly trips to the Ringle landfill on a bicycle for things like clothes, food, tools, equipment and electronics. The bunker grew cluttered, which forced him to make the cave even deeper.
Deiler told CNN that the setup was “relatively elaborate” and that he couldn’t believe the “level and extent this gentleman went” to develop the area.
Button told police that he had solar power to run his TV, radio, fans and lights. He made a generator with a bicycle that he would pedal if he needed an additional power source.
“Button had explained he could find just about anything in the landfill,” Deiler wrote in his report.
In the colder months, Button kept warm with a fire pit.
For water, he told police that he created a well system by digging a hole in a wet part of the woods and lining it with sand and charcoal. He’d boil the water before using it.
Button told police he had multiple ways to get in and out of his bunker so nearby hikers wouldn’t spot him. If he did see people out hiking or hunting, he would make “small talk with them about a nice day to be on a hike, and continued on his way.”
What happens next?
Lucas, the Portage County sheriff, said that because the investigation is still active, there is no word on whether charges will be added to Button’s record.
Deiler said new charges will depend on what is recovered from a search. Officers recovered hard drives and are investigating further, according to court documents. A pretrial conference is scheduled for September 16, according to court records.
Lucas said that he hopes Button’s capture provides some sort of closure for his alleged victims.
As for the bunker, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Communications Director Sarah Hoye said the agency is assessing it and developing a cleanup plan.
The agency and local officials want the public to avoid the area for safety reasons.