Marathon Co. man arrested in Rhinelander child sex stingSubmitted: 10/24/2016
RHINELANDER - A Marathon County man who drove to Rhinelander to meet up with a 15-year-old girl for sex told police he nearly turned around.

Instead, Dustin Zernicke pulled into the Shopko parking lot Friday night and found officers waiting for him.

The 35-year-old Zernicke made his initial appearance in Oneida County Court Monday afternoon.  Undercover officers posted an ad on Craigslist pretending to be a 15-year-old girl.  The post said "Mom sent me [to] Rhinelander for the weekend and I have nothing to do."

Zernicke responded to that ad, calling the girl "baby" and asking her to text him. Zernicke and the undercover officers texted for about an hour. They talked about the 15-year-old's age, whether she was with the cops, and about using a condom so she didn't get pregnant. The texts included a message from the "girl" that said she, "...would have to ride her bike to meet [Dustin]" as she was not old enough to drive.

Zernicke drove to Rhinelander Friday where he was arrested and charged with two felonies, including Use of a Computer to Facilitate a Child Sex Crime and Child Enticement.

In a recorded interview, Zernicke initially told police he came to Rhinelander for a hunting trip with a friend. Zernicke said he ended up near Shopko because he blew a tire.

Officers interviewing Zernicke said based on text records they knew he came there to meet with an underage girl. Zernicke responded that was true, but said "I wasn't gonna."

Oneida County Sheriff's Captain Terri Hook said this is the first sting her department has done on its own.

"Even though 'To Catch a Predator' has been on [TV] for many years and there have been stings like this across Wisconsin, this continues to be an issue," Hook said.

Zernicke also told police he had talked to girls online before, but that he had never gone to actually meet them.

Zernicke's attorney, Richard Lawson, told the court his client is married with two young children, but is currently separated from his wife. Lawson says Zernicke has learning disabilities, asking for a $10,000 signature bond with $1,000 in cash paid up front.

Zernicke already faces a child enticement charge in Marathon County Court. Monday afternoon, Judge Patrick O'Melia set a cash bond at $10,000. Zernicke is not allowed contact with anyone under 18 aside from his two children.

Zernicke is due back in Oneida County court for his preliminary hearing Thursday afternoon.

Story By: Lane Kimble

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