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Warren Nelson leaves the courtroom Wednesday after being sentenced to nine months in jail. (Harry Baker / Fox 21 News)
Warren Nelson leaves the courtroom Wednesday after being sentenced to nine months in jail. (Harry Baker / Fox 21 News)

Big Top boss gets jail time

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region Park Rapids, 56470

Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

The founder of the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua will spend nine months in jail to do what a judge Wednesday called "soul searching" after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 56-year-old woman in her home.

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Warren P. Nelson, 62, was artistic director of and a regular performer at the Big Top, the annual spring-through-fall music venue he founded under a large tent at Mount Ashwabay between Washburn and Bayfield. Since 1986, stars such as Garrison Keillor, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez and others have performed there, drawing tens of thousands of fans annually and making Nelson a Midwest music celebrity.

Nelson reached a deal with a special prosecutor in which he entered a no-contest plea to charges of misdemeanor fourth-degree sexual assault and two counts of misdemeanor battery. A more serious charge of felony second-degree assault was dismissed as part of the deal.

Judge Robert Eaton ordered Nelson to report to the Bayfield County Jail to begin serving his sentence by Sept. 11. While in jail, he will have work-release privileges. One count of misdemeanor battery will be dismissed if Nelson follows all conditions of his probation.

The two battery counts involved injuries the woman suffered to her mouth, back and knee during the Jan. 26 sexual assault in Washburn.

Before being sentenced, Nelson turned from the defense table, looked at his victim and apologized. He also issued a prepared statement through his defense lawyer, Gene Linehan, which read, in part, "From the heart of the soul of my being, I sincerely and deeply apologize to [the victim], my family, friends, fans of Big Top Chautauqua and to all the community of Chequamegon Bay and beyond for my inappropriate behavior which has thrown such a long shadow."

In her victim-impact statement, the woman said that on the night of the attack, Nelson was "crazed, lustful," and that nothing she could say or do could stop him from sexually assaulting her. She said he was a "violent, out-of-control lunatic."

Linehan blamed Nelson's actions on alcohol abuse. He said his client has received treatment and has been sober for five months.

Iron County District Attorney Martin Lipske said Nelson had a difficult time respecting the personal boundaries of women. He asked the court to sentence Nelson to a year in jail, saying he needed to spend that time "realizing that not all women want Warren Nelson."

Eaton said nine months in jail would allow him to do some "soul searching."

As conditions of his probation, Nelson must undergo an alcohol and drug assessment and follow any recommendations, maintain sobriety, have no contact with the victim and pay a $250 fee for providing a DNA sample, as required by law.

A restitution hearing will be held in September to determine whether Nelson must pay any money to the victim. The prosecution said she has sustained between $8,225 and $10,255 in damages.

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