Death on a dairy farm
America’s Dairyland: Risking workers’ lives for the milk we drink
The dairy farm in Dane County, Wisconsin, where an 8-year-old Nicaraguan boy died in 2019. (Jesus J Montero for ProPublica)
This story was originally published by ProPublica.
The call to 911 came in a little after 11 p.m. A man said a small boy on his dairy farm had severe head injuries. He said he thought the boy had been trampled by a cow.
Ann Ingolia, a deputy for the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, was in the middle of her shift when she heard the dispatch on this warm summer night in 2019. She turned on her siren and headed over, down winding roads and rolling hills, past the farms and fields that mark the landscape of this part of south-central Wisconsin.
Lights from an ambulance and other emergency vehicles flickered over the property. When she arrived, Ingolia could see paramedics attending to a boy on the ground near the milking parlor. His head was split open.
Ingolia approached the owners of the farm. Daniel and Kay Breunig pointed out a slender man wearing jeans covered in manure and blood who was walking in circles near a windmill — the boy’s father. Daniel Breunig said workers had told him that the child had been injured. But Breunig didn’t know more because he couldn’t speak Spanish and his three workers on duty that night, including the boy’s father, didn’t speak English.
Ingolia wasn’t fluent in Spanish, but she considered herself proficient enough to do her job. She walked up to the boy’s father, José María Rodríguez Uriarte, and tried to talk with him.
Rodríguez was screaming for his son, Jefferson, 8. He sat on the grass and rocked back and forth. “He was literally trying to dig a hole in the ground and bury himself,” Ingolia later said. At one point, she said, Rodríguez’s “demeanor went from frantic to catatonic to back to hysterical to back to catatonic to the point where I was afraid that if a milk tanker drove by, he would run out in front of it.”
In her report, she noted that it was difficult to extract information. Rodríguez told her that he “had not seen exactly what had happened.” He took her to an area near some corrals on the property and pointed to a skid steer, a 6,700-pound machine used on the farm to scrape up manure. Ingolia tried to ask about how the boy was injured and, eventually, this is what she understood: Rodríguez had been driving the skid steer, didn’t see the boy behind him and ran him over when he put the machine in reverse.
Ingolia’s interview with Rodríguez, as halting and incoherent as it was, became the foundation of the official account of the night of July 26, 2019 — Rodríguez accidentally killed his son.
That account would be repeated by other agencies, publicized by local media outlets and remembered by farmers in the area and residents who speak only English.
It is an account that torments Rodríguez because, he said, it isn’t true.
He and the other workers who were at the farm that night, along with the friends who arrived in the hours after the boy died to console an inconsolable father, know another version of what happened. To this day, theirs is the only version that many in this community of Nicaraguans and other immigrant dairy workers have heard.
What happened to Jefferson and his father is a story of an accumulation of failures: a broken immigration system that makes it difficult for people to come here even as entire industries depend on their labor, small farms that largely go unexamined by safety inspectors, and a law enforcement system that’s ill equipped to serve people who don’t speak English.
The night Jefferson died, two people in addition to Rodríguez were working on the farm. One worker told Ingolia she didn’t see what happened.
It was the other worker’s first day. Video from patrol car cameras show him standing off to the side while Daniel Breunig and then a deputy and then paramedics took turns pumping the lifeless boy’s chest. He remained there after a white sheet was draped over the body.
At some point that night, another deputy identified him as a farmhand who “did not speak very good English.” That deputy handed him a notepad, and the man wrote his name.
Nobody interviewed him, though his account could have changed the course of everything that was to come.
D&K Dairy sits on about 300 acres in the rural town of Dane, about a half hour north of Madison, the state capital. Daniel and Kay Breunig both grew up on farms, and in 1991, a couple of years after they married, they bought their own.
They lived on the property with their two adult sons in a large white farmhouse with an American flag out front. Like many farming families, they worked there, too, though they left jobs such as milking cows and cleaning stalls to their employees.
At any given time, the farm had about six immigrant workers who alternated shifts to meet the needs of an operation that milked hundreds of cows three times a day. Those who could speak some English also took on some of the farm’s day-to-day management, such as hiring and scheduling.
“I would have to say I left all of that up to the lead fellow after he was trained to oversee all the rest of the employees,” Daniel Breunig said in a deposition tied to an ongoing lawsuit over Jefferson’s death. “Just because of the language barrier.”
Workers appreciated the Breunigs’ hands-off approach, unlike some more overbearing farmers they’d previously worked for. But workers complained of cow manure and cat feces in places that were supposed to be kept clean. So many cats roamed the property that it was known to Spanish-speaking residents as “El Rancho de los Gatos,” the Cat Farm.
State officials who inspected the milking parlor in the months before Jefferson’s death noted manure on the walls and cows with dirty flanks and udders, signs that the milk was at risk of becoming contaminated. D&K’s violations of sanitary standards put it in the bottom 20% of dairy farms in the state, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
D&K Dairy also had a reputation for frequent turnover, which meant it was often hiring.
Over the decades, Wisconsin’s small farms have struggled to compete with larger, more efficient operations and to stay afloat amid fluctuating milk prices. When the Breunigs bought their farm, there were more than 32,000 dairy producers in the state. By the time Jefferson and his father arrived in 2019, about 7,900 remained. Today, some 6,100 dairy farms are left.
Farms got bigger to survive, adding more cows, more automation and more workers.
But the work is dangerous and dirty and it pays poorly. Few Americans are willing to do it. And so farm operators across the country have been turning to immigrants to scrape the manure off barn floors, herd the heavy animals from corrals to milking parlors, and attach cows’ teats to machines that pump the milk that fills gallon jugs in supermarket refrigerators.
It is an open secret in the dairy industry that many workers lack authorization to work in the U.S. They get jobs using fake papers that employers, knowingly or not, accept. “The less I know the better,” one farmer in Dane County told ProPublica.
Over the years, the workforce at Wisconsin dairies has shifted; where it was once mainly immigrants from Mexico, it now includes asylum-seekers and other immigrants from Central America. Around Dane County, many are Nicaraguan.
Until recently, Nicaraguans had migrated to the U.S. in much lower numbers than people from neighboring countries. But in 2019, as their government slid into authoritarianism and the economy faltered, thousands of people fled. More Nicaraguans were intercepted at the border that fiscal year than at any other time in the previous decade.
For some, the Breunigs’ farm was a first stop.
Rodríguez grew up in poverty, one of 16 children of farmworkers who moved from one rural community to another to work other people’s land. Eventually his parents bought a few acres of their own where they planted beans, corn and rice, and raised a few cows. He said he stopped going to school after the first grade.
He wanted something better for his sons, Jefferson, the oldest, and Yefari, who was four years younger.
For several years, Rodríguez traveled back and forth from Nicaragua to Costa Rica for work, a common migration pattern among Nicaraguans. While he was away working, his sons grew up with their mother, María Sayra Vargas, in Murra, a remote community in a coffee-growing region of Nicaragua’s Nueva Segovia state.
But Rodríguez said he was finding it harder to get a job in Costa Rica. In late 2018, he started reaching out to friends who had migrated north to ask about their experiences working in Wisconsin.
Rodríguez had been hearing from other Nicaraguans that adults traveling with children were more likely to get into the U.S. after making an asylum claim at the border.
But he and Vargas weren’t sure whether he should take Jefferson. Vargas feared something might happen to their son on the long, sometimes dangerous trek through Central America and Mexico. Rodríguez worried about how he would care for his son while working. But a friend eased his worries, explaining that while she worked, her children went to school.
Jefferson was eager to go to the U.S. A skinny, dark-haired boy, he liked to play with toy cars with his brother and exhausted his mother by running down the hallway in their small home. He was a second grader with a deep, personal sense of faith and a closeness to God that surprised even his parents. “He spoke about creation, sin, things I had never taught him,” Vargas said. “He asked so many questions I didn’t even know the answers to, or have the words to explain.”
Jefferson told his father he wanted to learn English so that, one day, he could share the word of God with the children he met in the U.S.
In late February 2019, they left Murra. Rodríguez was 29; his son, 8. There were times on the journey when they went without food or water. “It breaks your soul to know a child is going through that,” Rodríguez said. “Jefferson was braver than me. He would always tell me, ‘We will get there. We will get there.’”
A little over two weeks after leaving Nicaragua, Rodríguez said, they entered the U.S. late one night by crossing the Rio Grande in Texas, a few miles from a port of entry. He said they walked for about two hours before reaching a road, where a Border Patrol agent eventually picked them up. They spent several days in detention, he said, but were able to make an asylum claim and get released with a date to go to court, a common immigration path at the time. Soon they were heading to Wisconsin.
While his immigration case was making its way through court, Rodríguez couldn’t get a work permit. He got the job at D&K Dairy the way so many dairy workers do: using fake papers he’d purchased that showed somebody else’s name and Social Security number.
He earned $9.50 an hour and was paid by check with taxes withheld. Some days he worked six hours; others, 12. Agricultural work is excluded from many of America’s labor protections, so he didn’t receive overtime pay when he worked more than 40 hours a week. In a typical two-week period, Rodríguez and his coworkers clocked 150 hours, according to interviews and records.
The job came with free housing, a major draw for new immigrants desperate to pay down debts to smugglers who’d helped them cross the border. Rodríguez owed more than $10,000 to the man who loaned him money to get to the U.S.-Mexico border. For undocumented immigrants, who are barred from obtaining driver’s licenses in Wisconsin, there’s another benefit to living where they work: they can avoid getting behind the wheel and risking run-ins with law enforcement officers on traffic duty.
Rodríguez and Jefferson moved into one of two bedrooms in an apartment above the milking parlor, the barn where cows were milked day and night. The floors vibrated from the motor that powered the loud machinery, while the smell of manure penetrated the apartment they shared with two other workers. Rodríguez and his son shared the top bunk in one of the rooms.
“It was not a place for children,” said a worker who slept in the bottom bunk and grew fond of his young roommate.
No data exists on how many children live on the dairy farms where their parents work. But stories are plentiful: A worker on a small farm about an hour from D&K Dairy set up a crib in an unheated parlor so she could watch her infant as she milked cows because she could not afford child care. An interpreter in the area knows of several parents who leave their children alone in farm housing while they work overnight shifts. And with some regularity, records show, law enforcement officials encounter the children of workers when they respond to incidents at dairy farms across the state.
In a court deposition, Daniel Breunig pushed back against the notion that Rodríguez and his son lived above the parlor, saying workers only stayed there between shifts or when the weather was bad. “I wouldn’t say lived,” he said. “I would say — I mean, the property that they’re speaking of is built as a break room and a rest area.”
The Breunigs had a two-bedroom unit for their workers in another house a short walk down the road. But there wasn’t enough room for everybody, so the supervisors assigned some workers to live above the milking parlor, several former workers said. More than a half-dozen former workers and visitors to the farm said Rodríguez, his son and other workers lived there.
Breunig told deputies on the night of the accident that he didn’t know the dead boy’s name or age. He later said he’d told Rodríguez that his son could only be outside during the day, under adult supervision.
Jefferson never attended school in Wisconsin, though there were about five weeks left on the local school district calendar when they arrived. Rodríguez said he couldn’t get a day off or find someone who spoke English to help him enroll his son, but he planned to do it in the fall. He asked around about child care, he said, but couldn’t afford it.
Rodríguez knows some people think he was a negligent father. He said he had two competing responsibilities: working and taking care of his son. He couldn’t always do both at the same time.
Jefferson was often alone in the rooms above the parlor. There was no TV there, just a handful of toys: a small bus, a cow, a plastic water gun he’d use to shoot at the cats. His father gave him an old cellphone that had no service but could catch personal hot spots from other workers’ phones. Jefferson used it to call his mom and brother on WhatsApp, although their cellphone service in Murra was limited. He made videos of himself set in the wood-framed loft space, singing hymns he made up about creation, sin and Jesus Christ.
When he got bored, Jefferson would pull on a pair of oversized black rubber boots and wander downstairs to play with the cats and talk with the adults while they worked.
More than 100 children are killed each year on all kinds of farms, according to national estimates. They fall off their parents’ laps while riding on tractors, get crushed by the heavy metal buckets of skid steers, suffocate in grain silos. Thousands more are injured.
No national system tracks all farm injuries and deaths, but researchers with the federally funded National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety maintain a database of these incidents using information gathered primarily from news reports and obituaries. The week of Jefferson’s death, at least three other children were killed on farms across the country, including a 14-month-old girl who was run over by a horse-drawn wagon about an hour north of the Breunigs’ farm.
People who study farm safety discourage the use of the word “accident” because it “implies it’s an act of God. That it was random, a freak thing,” said Barbara Lee, a senior research scientist at the National Children’s Center. “If you ask anybody who understands this, you have an 8-year-old in a dangerous worksite: It’s something terrible waiting to happen.”
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration is responsible for investigating workplace safety. OSHA has few safety standards for agricultural work sites, and small farms get significant exemptions. Still, all employers are required to maintain workplaces that are free of hazards that can cause injury or death.
The night Jefferson died, an investigator from the medical examiner’s office called OSHA because the boy “was at work with his father when the accident occurred,” according to her report. But because Jefferson was not a worker, the investigator was told, OSHA likely would not investigate.
It didn’t. In a statement, an agency spokesperson said OSHA’s jurisdiction is limited to incidents that affect workers. “A fatality involving a non-employee, regardless of age, would not generally result in an OSHA investigation unless such workplaces also have employees where hazardous conditions, such as those that may have been a factor to the non-employee’s death also exist,” she said.
The notoriously understaffed and underfunded agency has, in recent years, attempted to inspect fewer than a dozen Wisconsin dairy farms each year. The year Jefferson died, six of the nine inspections that OSHA initiated ultimately did not take place because the farms were too small to fall under the agency’s jurisdiction; three of those six involved fatalities.
As a result, it’s usually up to local law enforcement and, sometimes, child welfare agencies to investigate deaths of and injuries to children on farms. Records show that Dane County’s child protective services division, which is charged with investigating the deaths of children due to suspected maltreatment, was notified the night of Jefferson’s death.
It does not appear the agency opened an investigation. Jefferson’s death is not listed in a state registry of deaths and other serious incidents investigated for possible abuse or neglect. Rodríguez said nobody from child protective services spoke with him. The agency denied a request for records regarding its response, citing state laws that protect juvenile records.
Lee, the researcher, said child welfare and law enforcement agencies are rarely trained in farm safety. That makes it difficult for investigators to recognize whether those deaths or injuries could have been prevented.
“Who was legally responsible for the child at the time of the injury or death? In that case it was the father,” Lee said. “But was the employer turning a blind eye to the fact that the child was spending time at night in the dark in a work environment?”
In the hours after Jefferson died, the farm filled with deputies and other officials who used flashlights to inspect the darkened property. About a half-dozen of Rodríguez’s friends and acquaintances came, too.
Deputies took photographs of Rodríguez standing against a white door, his face red and puffy from crying, his mouth twisted into a grimace. They escorted him to the rooms above the parlor so he could change out of his blood-smeared shirt, pants and boots.
As the night progressed, Rodríguez tried to make sense of the investigation that was unfolding in a language he didn’t understand. He said he didn’t know then, and he wouldn’t know for several days, that authorities believed he had killed his son.
Deputies and other officials seemed to treat Rodríguez gently, records and interviews show. Several officials said Jefferson’s death was one of the saddest incidents they had ever responded to.
Rodríguez said he remembered talking briefly with Ingolia and telling her that he didn’t see what happened. He said he understood what she said in Spanish but did not think she understood everything he said. At one point, Ingolia asked for his phone number but didn’t seem to catch it; it wasn’t until one of his friends repeated the numbers in English, Rodríguez said, that she wrote them down.
At another point, Ingolia asked Rodríguez when he and Jefferson had immigrated to the U.S., as well as about the boy’s mother. She wrote in her report that the boy’s mother had returned to Nicaragua three months earlier. It wasn’t until a native Spanish speaker talked to Rodríguez the following afternoon that authorities learned Jefferson’s mother had never been in the U.S.
Rodríguez said he has no recollection of being asked by Ingolia or anyone else if he was driving the skid steer. He wonders if it was because he was so clearly devastated that they didn’t want to cause him more pain.
But “if they had asked me how I did it,” Rodríguez said, “then in that very moment I could tell them that it wasn’t me.”
That night, he asked a friend to send word back home. He wanted to tell Vargas himself that their son was dead, but knew she had no cell service where they lived.
About 5 a.m. in Murra, Vargas awoke to loud banging on her door. A woman she knew had come to deliver the news: “Your son has been killed in the United States.”
Vargas said she was in disbelief, convinced it was a cruel prank. Then her younger brother arrived. He walked toward her then stood there for a few moments, unable to speak. That’s when she knew.
She cried and screamed, then fainted.
Ingolia learned Spanish in school, taking classes starting in the fifth grade in her native Louisiana and continuing through her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. After graduating in 1991, with a degree in history and secondary education, Ingolia used her Spanish intermittently at work, first as a correctional officer and then, after joining the sheriff’s office in 2003, as a deputy.
Although much of her job consists of traffic stops, Ingolia has interpreted for colleagues and officers at other agencies. She was commended in 2014 for her role in helping detectives investigate a stabbing involving Spanish-speaking workers at another dairy farm.
Ingolia considers herself proficient in Spanish, though she acknowledged she struggles with legal and medical terminology. “Asking someone what happened here, basic type of questions, information gathering questions,” she said in a deposition, “I have no issues.”
The Dane County Sheriff’s Office does not test the language skills of employees; they self-report their proficiency. The office has no written policies on what officers should do when they encounter people who speak a language other than English or when to bring in an interpreter, said Elise Schaffer, a spokesperson for the department.
But in general, Schaffer said, patrol deputies are supposed to put out a call to ask if any of their colleagues speak that language and, if none are available, ask for help from other agencies in the county. According to agency records, on the night Jefferson died, Ingolia was the only Dane deputy on the scene who self-reported speaking Spanish at any level.
Law enforcement agencies that receive federal funding, like the Dane County Sheriff’s Office, are required by the Civil Rights Act to ensure that their services are accessible to people who speak limited English.
In 2021, the Department of Justice settled a civil rights investigation into a Pennsylvania police department over a complaint from a Spanish-speaking resident who spoke limited English and had to rely on his young son and a co-worker to communicate with the police. Under the settlement, police agreed to assess the language skills of its bilingual officers and train staff on when to use interpreters, among other measures.
In Wisconsin, what happens in practice can vary wildly from department to department and officer to officer. Law enforcement officials routinely acknowledge language barriers when they respond to incidents on dairy farms, ProPublica found. Sometimes they call interpreters or seek the help of bilingual colleagues. Just as often, records show, deputies rely on Google Translate, workers’ supervisors, co-workers and even children to interpret for them. Sometimes they fail to even do this.
In Madison, the Dane County seat and the state’s second-largest city, department policy calls for police officers to request bilingual officers when they need interpretation or translation. If one isn’t available, officers can consider a bilingual civilian employee. As a last resort, they can turn to a certified interpreter who works over the phone.
Zulma Franco, a police detective in Madison who immigrated from Colombia as a child and whose first language is Spanish, said there is a difference between speaking enough of another language to “muddle your way” through a traffic stop and having the skills to respond to a complex, emotionally charged or high-stakes situation.
Even in the Madison Police Department, which takes pride in its Latino outreach group, Amigos en Azul, there is no way to measure officers’ proficiency in another language. As in Dane County, the city relies on officers to self-report their ability.
In contrast, the state’s court system has guidelines to ensure access and provides qualified interpreters for people who need them.
But even for experienced interpreters, a number of factors — including the speaker’s country of origin, dialect and education level — can hinder understanding. When a police officer is involved, communication can be even more challenging, especially in a crisis. The results can be life-changing: a victim’s inability to make clear what has happened to them, a suspect’s difficulty in explaining their side of the story.
As part of a broader investigation into conditions for immigrant workers on dairy farms across the Midwest, ProPublica began looking into Jefferson’s death last summer. We heard repeatedly from Nicaraguan community members that law enforcement got the story wrong. Rodríguez has consistently said, in Spanish, to friends, acquaintances and even complete strangers, that another worker accidentally ran his son over that night. That worker has also openly spoken about what happened, though the sheriff’s office never interviewed him.
In January, we found that worker.
ProPublica is identifying him by his last name, Blandón, a common surname in Nicaragua. He agreed to explain what happened on the condition we not use his full name, identify his hometown or say where he is today. A soft-spoken man, he said he doesn’t want to be publicly named because he hasn’t told his family about the incident and worries about scaring his elderly parents. As an undocumented immigrant, he is also aware of the ever-present possibility of deportation.
There is no criminal investigation into Jefferson’s death.
Blandón grew up in a part of Nicaragua that, like Murra, has seen an exodus of residents seeking opportunities in the U.S.
Unlike Rodríguez, he went to a private Catholic school and attended college. He studied civil engineering and got a job in that field after graduation. But he decided to immigrate to the U.S. because his family struggled to get ahead in Nicaragua, and he wanted to better support his parents financially.
Blandón was 27 when he entered the U.S. in the late spring of 2019 and moved to Wisconsin, where he had relatives who worked on dairy farms. He found a job on another farm that paid $8.50 an hour to milk and corral about 500 cows, duties he shared with just one other worker each shift. He said he was shown how to operate a skid steer on that farm but was still learning to use it when he quit after about a month because of the exhausting working conditions.
He then got the job at D&K Dairy. He said he was hired as a “corralero,” tasked with corralling cows in and out of the milking parlor, feeding them, and using a skid steer to clear the ground of manure. He said it was a different type of machine than the one he’d been learning to use at the other farm.
Blandón said he met Rodríguez and his son earlier on the day of the incident, during a 12 p.m. to 6 p.m. shift, in the rooms above the milking parlor. He remembered noticing that Jefferson was a chatty and active boy, but said their interaction was brief.
He said he sympathized with Rodríguez for having his son on the farm. He knows many immigrant parents have no choice but to have their children with them at work.
During that first shift, another worker showed him how to use the skid steer and perform his other corralling duties. Before he knew it, Blandón said, he was expected to return two hours later to do the job on his own. It all felt rushed, he said. “Farms need workers and they’re not going to have you practice before getting to work,” he said. “Everything is risky.”
At 8 p.m., Blandón — who said he had been assigned to live in the house down the road — returned to the farm alone for the overnight shift.
Rodríguez was in the milking parlor, along with another employee, Sandra Rosales Torres, according to Rodríguez and Blandón. Rosales declined to speak on the record with ProPublica, but, speaking through an interpreter in a deposition, she also said Rodríguez was in the milking parlor.
Blandón said it was very dark in parts of the corrals. In her deposition, Rosales said Blandón didn’t have a cellphone and asked to borrow hers to use as a flashlight. She said he told her the lights on the skid steer didn’t work.
At some point, Jefferson came down from the loft and into the milking parlor. He was wearing a blue T-shirt, swim trunks printed with an American flag design and a necklace made from a red shoelace tied around a rock he’d found on the farm. Jefferson chatted briefly with his father, asking for a towel to dry his hands, Rodríguez said. Then he wandered outside.
Blandón said he doesn’t know exactly when Jefferson appeared, but he remembers spotting the child while clearing the corrals. “I didn’t expect to see the boy in a work area,” he said.
It was difficult for Blandón to hear what was happening around him; the skid steer was loud and he was enclosed in its cabin. Blandón said he was focused on getting to the next corral quickly to clean it so that he could then move the cows on time. He began moving the skid steer in reverse to turn it toward the corral.
It all happened within seconds: The skid steer’s movement felt strange, like the ground became uneven beneath him, he said. Suddenly he saw the boy’s body in front of the machine.
In horror, Blandón ran to the parlor where Rodríguez and Rosales were milking the cows. “Accidenté a su niño,” he remembers shouting to Rodríguez. I accidentally hit your son.
Rodríguez followed Blandón outside and saw Jefferson on the ground near the skid steer. Rodríguez said he attempted to do CPR. His mouth filled with blood and what seemed like a piece of a tooth. He felt his son suck in a breath before his tiny body went limp. Rodríguez carried him back toward the milking parlor.
Meanwhile, Rosales hurried across the driveway to the Breunigs’ house. She let out a “terrifying scream,” Breunig would later recall. She said she used some of the few words she knew in English: “José’s baby.”
Breunig said he looked out and saw Rodríguez near the parlor, holding Jefferson. He ran over and called 911. A deputy from neighboring Columbia County arrived less than 10 minutes later. His headlights shone over Breunig, who knelt on the ground as he pumped Jefferson’s chest with his hands.
The boy’s head was scalped and a piece of his skull was detached. His eyes and lips were swollen. Jefferson’s boots and a red baseball cap had fallen off near the skid steer.
As paramedics and Dane County sheriff’s deputies arrived, Blandón stood nearby.
“He was saying things to me like, ‘Sandra, Sandy, I’m going to end up in jail, I’m going to die in jail, never go back to Nicaragua,’” Rosales said in the deposition. “He was very scared. … He was just waiting for a policeman to call him, but they never spoke to him.”
Another deputy identified Blandón and Rosales by asking them to write their names in his notepad. In his report, he noted that he “was not able to communicate with them, as I do not speak Spanish.”
Blandón nervously wrote his first name, middle initial, and last name in the notepad. Then he waited to be questioned.
About an hour later, he said, Breunig asked him to get back to work. The cows needed to be milked.
More than three years after Jefferson’s death, Ingolia said her memory of what happened is clear. “You can never unsee what you saw,” she told us in an interview. “You can never unsmell what you smelled. And I can never unhear José screaming and trying to dig a hole in the ground.”
She said it took her a half hour to get Rodríguez to stop screaming. Finally, she said, she asked him to show her where it happened. He took her to an area near some corrals on a hilly part of the property and pointed to an orange-and-white Bobcat skid steer.
Ingolia said she didn’t know the word for skid steer in Spanish. So she tried to ask whether he hit his son with the machine.
These are the words she said she used: “¿Golpe su hijo con la máquina?”
A reporter told her what those words actually mean: Hit your son with the machine.
The word “hit” in this construction is a noun, as in a “blow” or a “hit,” and not a conjugated verb that would indicate a subject.
The sentence in Spanish has no subject. It’s not clear if she’s asking if Rodríguez hit his son, or if it was somebody else, or if it was the machine itself that hit his son.
“I did the best I could for José and Jefferson the night of the incident,” Ingolia said, “and I can’t really account for what anyone else did or didn’t do.”
Does she think it’s possible that she got it wrong?
“It’s possible that I did not get the question laid out so José understood exactly what I was asking,” she said. “When I asked, ‘Did you hit the child with the machine?’ I pointed at him and the machine. I thought I made it clear I was asking, ‘Did you do this?’”
News of Jefferson’s death spread in Spanish on Facebook and WhatsApp. Latino groceries, bakeries and restaurants in the area put up donation boxes to raise money to send his body home.
People who had never met Jefferson showed up to his viewing at a funeral home in Madison. They were moved by Rodríguez’s quiet sadness. “He told me he felt an enormous frustration that he had brought his son here only to die,” said María Teresa Villarreal, who got to know Rodríguez after Jefferson’s death.
The Breunigs attended the viewing, as did Timothy Blanke, the detective on the case. He gave Rodríguez the red shoelace necklace his son had been wearing when he died.
A few days later, Villarreal saw a news article in English based on the sheriff’s office’s account of what happened. By that point, an autopsy had ruled Jefferson’s death an accident. Nobody would be charged criminally.
But Rodríguez was blamed.
Villarreal said she called Rodríguez and told him, but he had already seen it. He told her it made him feel even worse than he already did.
Rodríguez found Blanke’s card and gave Villarreal his phone number to try to set the record straight. Unlike Rodríguez, Villarreal spoke English. She said she called Blanke. “I told him, ‘Your report says José caused the accident, and it wasn’t José,’” she said. “He asked who did it. I told him it was the other guy who was there.”
In an email, Blanke called Jefferson’s death “one of the most emotionally difficult investigations of my career.” He recalled getting a call about the case and handing it off to another detective. According to a sheriff’s report, that detective tried following up with the caller in early September but never heard back. Villarreal said she was never contacted by anybody from the sheriff’s office.
The detective also talked to a bilingual county official about setting up a meeting with Rodríguez, but that meeting never happened, according to the report. It does not appear that anybody contacted Rodríguez directly.
A year after their son’s death, in August 2020, Rodríguez and Vargas filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Dane County against D&K Dairy, its insurer, and the skid steer driver, first identified as “John Doe.” The sheriff’s office is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in June.
Rodríguez said he wants to clear his name. He also wants the Breunigs to take responsibility for what happened; he doesn’t think a new employee should have been driving a skid steer alone at night just hours after learning how the machine worked.
One of the key facts in dispute in the lawsuit is who was driving the skid steer. Rodríguez’s attorneys have questioned whether Ingolia knew Spanish well enough to understand him. In 2021, Blandón gave a statement to a private investigator working for Rodríguez’s lawyers acknowledging that he was driving, but the statement was pre-printed with the wrong name and wasn’t properly notarized. A judge struck it from the court record. Since then, lawyers from both sides have been unable to locate Blandón, who has been dismissed as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Rodríguez’s attorneys declined to comment on this story.
Attorneys for the farm and the insurance company, Rural Mutual Insurance Company, have pointed to the sheriff’s department’s report as proof Rodríguez was driving.
Meanwhile, an engineer hired by Rodríguez’s attorneys to inspect the skid steer two and half months after Jefferson died said the machine’s horn, back-up alarm and rear lights didn’t work. “Each of these systems by themselves is designed to make the skid loader more visible, or get the attention of persons near the machine,” the engineer wrote in an August 2022 report. “Had these systems been functioning, it is more likely than not that this accident would not have happened.”
Attorneys for the farm and the insurance company have said in court filings that Daniel Breunig inspected the machine twice a week, on average. In a deposition, Breunig said that, as a new employee, Blandón would have been assigned to the milking parlor that night, while Rodríguez was supposed to corral the cows and drive the skid steer.
Breunig said he had trained Rodríguez on the skid steer months earlier and that, “generally every shift he worked, he was the one pushing the cows to the milking facility and cleaning up their stalls with the Bobcat.”
Rodríguez and three other workers told ProPublica that Rodríguez’s job had always been in the parlor.
The insurance company’s lawyers have said Rodríguez has a financial incentive to claim somebody else was driving. In court filings, they said he “would be unable to recover any damages arising out of [Jefferson’s] death if Jose was driving the Bobcat. If someone else was driving the Bobcat, however, Jose could recover damages.” An attorney for the insurance company declined to comment for this story, citing the lawsuit.
In court, the farm’s lawyer has repeatedly cast doubt on Rodríguez’s credibility, in part because he used an alias to get the job, even as the Breunigs’ business depended on undocumented workers who used aliases to get hired. In his deposition, Daniel Breunig said he did not know the citizenship status of Rodríguez and his son.
Through an attorney, the Breunigs declined to comment about the accident and the operation of the farm.
In his deposition, Daniel Breunig described Jefferson’s death as “an awful tragedy.” He said that, as a father, he, too, felt Rodríguez’s pain. He said he was not aware there was another account of what happened until he heard from Rodríguez’s attorneys.
The farm ceased operations in April 2022; it’s unclear what prompted the closure, though records show that the farm had been struggling to meet state sanitary standards for years.
Jefferson’s death did not attract any additional attention from authorities.
In response to ProPublica’s findings, the sheriff’s office issued a brief statement.
“Our hearts go out to the Rodríguez family on the loss of their young son,” wrote Schaffer, the sheriff’s department spokesperson.
She said investigators would welcome any new information from any witnesses or parties who wanted to come forward. “Our goal is always to conduct a thorough and factual investigation.”
In an interview, Ingolia said she was unaware there was anybody else on the farm that night that she should have talked to.
“José never said, ‘Did you talk to [Blandón]?’” she said. “Never brought up anybody else’s name.”
At one point that night, Ingolia asked Rodríguez for consent to do a blood draw to test for drugs or alcohol in his system. She said she began the question by stating that he was “the driver of the machine that killed Jefferson.” Rodríguez gave his consent, though he later said he thought the purpose of the blood draw was to prove his paternity. “I suspect that by the time I asked José about the blood test he was so inside his own head,” she said. “I don’t know if he wasn’t listening or it wasn’t sinking in.”
On an accident scene that size, she said, it would have been up to a supervisor or a detective to decide who needed to be interviewed or re-interviewed. Not her.
Ingolia said none of her native Spanish-speaking colleagues were working the night Jefferson died. She mentioned a phone-based interpretation service available to deputies, but she said it’s not always reliable in rural areas with few cellphone towers.
She knows some agencies test employees’ language skills — and pay an incentive to those who are or become fluent. The sheriff’s office doesn’t do that, she said. She isn’t sure if testing would have been helpful.
Ingolia said the case is “one of the ones that sticks with you. At the end of the day, there is a small child that is dead for no good reason. It’s a very complex situation and, you know, I’m sure José was trying to do the best he could for his family.”
Even if authorities had gotten it right, though, and spoken with Blandón the night Jefferson died, it’s unclear whether much would have changed. More than likely, Jefferson’s death would still have been ruled an accident. OSHA wouldn’t have examined conditions on the farm. Immigrant parents would continue to live and work on dairy farms with their children.
A few days after Jefferson’s death, Blandón said, he met with Rodríguez at the farm and apologized. He said he told him he was so sorry. “That I never …” Blandón paused. “That it wasn’t intentional. It was an unexpected accident. It wasn’t something I meant to do, but it was something that just happened.”
Rodríguez said he knows that what happened wasn’t intentional. He doesn’t want to see Blandón, another immigrant like him, punished. “It’s not something that just goes away. I know he didn’t do it on purpose, but …” he trailed off. “It is difficult.”
Blandón continued working at D&K Dairy for about two weeks after Jefferson died, until he found a job on another dairy farm. He wanted to get away from the horrors of that night.
For some time afterward, he said, any loud noise or sudden movement would startle him and make him want to cry. He said he talked with a psychologist, a pastor and a priest to try to process what had happened.
About a year ago, Blandón left Wisconsin. He now lives in a small city in another state and works in a different industry. He said he doesn’t want to return to work on a dairy farm but he knows that he might have to one day if he has no other option.
Rodríguez never went back to work at D&K Dairy. He works on another dairy farm nearby.
When he looks back, he said, he’s still baffled by the investigation. It’s not just that law enforcement incorrectly concluded he was driving the skid steer, he said, but that they missed the bigger picture.
“Shouldn’t they have taken a closer look at what was happening on that farm, after seeing what a disaster that place was? Shouldn’t they have paid more attention?” he asked. “Don’t the police have to do that?”
If he was still alive, Jefferson would now be 12. Rodríguez said he thinks about him daily and wonders what he would be like today. He imagines that, by now, his son would have accomplished his goal of learning English in school.
He remembers how Jefferson would tell him to work hard and save up enough money so they could return home quickly. He talked about hugging his little brother again.
Lately, Rodríguez has been thinking about going back to Nicaragua. He wants to be with the only son he has left.
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