Joe Wand of Platteville has endured two living nightmares in the past two months.
The first was early Sept. 7, when he received a late-night phone call that a house fire had killed his three young nephews and severely burned his sister-in-law.
The second came two days later, when Joe’s oldest brother, Armin, and youngest brother, Jeremy, were arrested on first-degree intentional homicide, attempted first-degree intentional homicide and arson charges.
In the months since his brothers’ arrests, Joe Wand has had to juggle his preexisting roles as husband, father and college student with visiting his sister-in-law at UW Hospital in Madison and helping her and her surviving daughter with putting their lives back together. He has also had to endure, if not guilt by association, then perhaps suspicion by association because of having the same last name as two people accused of a heinous and well publicized crime.
“It’s life-changing, I guess,” said Wand. “My wife and I are probably changing our last name. I’ve had to change our phone number. We’re going to change our last name and not have to worry about family ties.”
Even before the fire, Joe Wand has not had an easy life. He was born with congenital cataracts in his eyes. He grew up with four brothers, including Armin and Jeremy, and one sister. He lived in foster care and briefly lived in Colorado.
“I moved out when I was 17 and I never looked back,” he said.
His eyesight is limited because of a detached retina that has required four surgeries since June.
Wand and his wife, Jennifer, have three children — Sophie-Ann, 7, a second-grader at Westview Elementary School; Lilianna, 6, a kindergartener at Neal Wilkins Elementary School; and McKenna, 2½.
“My wife is the most amazingly supportive person I’ve ever met in my entire life,” said Joe. “She’s my best friend.”
Joe is a senior majoring in art education at UW–Platteville, and is a work–study tourism assistant at the Platteville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Joe received a phone call from Armin early Sept. 7.
“We had sort of a casual relationship,” said Joe. “I wouldn’t call us super-close, but Allen was a week older than our oldest daughter, and Jeff was a few months younger than our middle daughter. It seemed like every time Sharon was pregnant, Jenny was pregnant.”
Two days later, Joe called Armin, who told him that he couldn’t find Jeremy.
“I didn’t think about it,” said Joe. “I assumed it was all electrical and I didn’t think about them doing it.”
Joe visited Jeremy in the Lafayette County Jail. The next day, Sharon Wand’s sister called Joe to tell him that Armin had also been arrested.
Joe and Jennifer Wand had custody of Jessica for a short time. “The social workers thought because it was a public event-like thing that she’d be safer somewhere else,” he said.
Jessica is now in foster care, in part for her medical issues. Because she was born premature, she needs a nebulizer for occasional breathing problems. She also has a feeding tube, although it is not used now.
One reason for seeking custody was that Sharon Wand was not expected to survive her burns. However, she has awakened from her medically induced coma, is off a ventilator, and has started walking. Jessica is now able to visit Sharon at UW Hospital.
“My sister-in-law had burns over 65 percent of her body, and was not expected to survive,” said Joe. “It’s awesome how courageous she is and perseveres.”
Sharon Wand is expected to be in the hospital until after Jan. 1. After she’s released, she will be living in Tomah near her parents, Jeff and Sharmaine Peterson of Necedah.
Joe’s goal now is to help his sister-in-law and niece after Sharon leaves the hospital. “They’re going to need a lot of stuff,” he said.
Joe describes Jessica as “adorable,” adding that she and McKenna “play together, but every once in a while Jessica will take McKenna’s toy, or McKenna will take Jessica’s toy. She’s a healthy two-year-old.”
The unwanted attention from being the brother of two people accused of an infamous crime has been more noticeable in Argyle than in Platteville.
“Mostly around here, no,” said Joe. “But when I went back to Argyle, I feel like our family has some, ‘stigma’ is the best word I can think of. Here it’s been really great. There’s been a lot of supportive people.”
The day of the memorial service for the Wand children in Argyle’s baseball park, Joe Wand stopped to get gas in the village.
“They didn’t say anything, but they were looking at me,” he said. “It was almost like an Amish shunning or something.”
But Joe Wand is not Armin or Jeremy Wand.
“How can I be completely different if my entire family is that way?” said Joe. “I can just give this answer: I never really felt part of the family.”
Joe would like to become a middle-school art teacher. “That’s where I had a lot of my problems growing up, and that’s where I think I can relate,” he said. “I had so many awesome teachers.”
Joe does not plan to attend his brothers’ trial. Armin and Jeremy Wand face life sentences if they’re convicted of the four first-degree intentional homicide charges with which they’re charged.
“For my sanity, I don’t think it’s healthy to have to wake up in the middle of the night and have to check my doors,” he said. “They write me letters, and I just throw them away. I can’t read them.”