Heroism is a double-edged sword

Some weeks writing a humor column is tough. The jokes aren't flowing, the zingers have no zing, and Britney Spears hasn't done anything embarrassing for several days.

But sometimes it's the easiest job in the world. Like when a good Samaritan hears screams and, in an effort to stop what he believes is a rape in progress, grabs a saber and breaks into an upstairs apartment, only to interrupt his neighbor's enjoyment of an adult film. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Funnier, too.

So it was recently in Oconomowoc, the most fun-to-pronounce Wisconsin locale this side of Chequamegon. James Van Iveren said he broke into an apartment with a cavalry sword because he thought he heard a woman being raped. But the sound actually was from a pornographic movie his upstairs neighbor was watching. Turns out there was no rape and no call for a rapier. Heroism, as this Zorro-meets-Dudley Do-Right learned, is a double-edged sword.

According to a criminal complaint, the neighbor told police that Van Iveren pounded on the door and kicked it open without warning Feb. 12, damaging the frame and lock. "Where is she?" Van Iveren demanded, thrusting the sword at the neighbor. "Where is she?"

The neighbor told police Van Iveren became increasingly aggressive as he repeated the question, insisting he had heard a woman being raped. The complaint said that, with the sword pointed at him, the neighbor led Van Iveren throughout the apartment, opening closet doors to prove he was alone.

The neighbor was identified by the Waukesha County assistant district attorney as Bret Stieghorst, and by upstanding Lutherans across Wisconsin as a total perv. Stieghorst later played for police the part of the DVD he believed Van Iveren heard downstairs, which made for the cops' most enjoyable day on the beat ever. Shockingly, Stieghorst did not return a call from the Associated Press. He probably knew they weren't calling to offer him a job as a film critic.

Contesting his neighbor's account, Van Iveren said he didn't look anywhere in the apartment except the front room, and he never threatened Stieghorst with the sword. But he did allow that "I had the sword extended." Sounds like a line from his neighbor's DVD.

Van Iveren, who lives with his mother, said he did not call police when he heard the noises because he does not have a telephone. Police seized Van Iveren's sword, which he said is a family heirloom.

It's tempting to ridicule a 39-year-old man who lives with his mother. And who owns a sword but not a telephone. But this guy has been through enough already. "Now I feel stupid," Van Iveren said. "This really is nothing, nothing but a mistake."

Don't be so hard on yourself, man. Who among us hasn't burst into a neighbor's apartment while wielding a sword?

Besides, you thought you were saving the day. We all dream that, if given an opportunity to rescue a damsel in distress, we would take heroic action like you did. Only in our dreams, there aren't any guys sitting around watching porn. And there sure aren't any criminal charges.

How was Van Iveren rewarded for his bravery? He was charged with trespassing, damaging property and disorderly conduct, all while using a dangerous weapon. Together, the misdemeanor counts carry a maximum sentence of 33 months in jail.

The filing of charges is almost as baffling as the incident itself. Does a good samurai ... er, Samaritan deserve to do time for executing a comically misguided rescue mission? Other than damaging the door, his only offense was outing his neighbor as a porn fan.

Van Iveren should be rewarded for looking out for public safety. And for making life easier for humor writers everywhere.

Contact columnist Ben Bromley at bbromley@capitalnewspapers.com

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