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Big Top Chautauqua founder arrested for sexual assault

Warren Nelson, 61, founder of and performer at the Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wis., was arrested Friday on sexual assault and aggravated battery charges.

The founder and artistic director of the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua was arrested Friday on accusations of two felony charges of second-degree sexual assault and aggravated battery.

Warren P. Nelson of Washburn was released Monday from Bayfield County Jail and will face formal charges Feb. 24.

Nelson, 61, was ordered to have no contact with the alleged victim and to maintain sobriety, according to the Daily Press in Ashland. Nelson and the victim know each other. He was released on a $5,000 signature bond.

Nelson performs on Tent Show Radio, a nationwide weekly public radio program that hosts Big Top performances. The show is aired in Duluth at KUMD-FM 103.3, along with many other stations across Minnesota and Wisconsin.

"He is taking a temporary leave of absence from his position as artistic director," said Ruth Goetz, the president of the Big Top Chautauqua board of directors, in a prepared statement. "Our board is dedicated to do whatever is necessary to keep the Big Top Chautauqua organization healthy and strong."

Bayfield County District Attorney Craig Haukaas declined comment on details of the allegations, but said more information will be in the criminal complaint that will be filed before the formal charges are made.

"He was a big part of Chautauqua," Haukaas said. "This is very unfortunate for everyone involved."

Nelson's attorney, Gene Linehan, declined comment until formal charges are filed.

Nelson failed to play at a benefit fundraiser Saturday night because of the arrest. Other band members had said Nelson couldn't make it because he was in jail.

In 2003, Nelson was found guilty of disorderly conduct and fleeing an officer in two separate incidents. The disorderly conduct charge resulted in an order that he have no contact with a female involved and undergo psychological counseling, according to the Daily Press.

The maximum penalty in Wisconsin for felony second-degree sexual assault is a fine of up to $100,000 and/or imprisonment of up to 40 years. The maximum penalty for aggravated battery is up to 25 years and/or a fine of up to $100,000.