A Vietnam vet and owner of a Wisconsin motorcycle shop was killed Saturday after fleeing a hostage situation, only to be gunned down by police. Now his longtime business partner says officers “shot the wrong guy.”
Michael “M.L.” Funk, 60, was at Eagle Nation Cycles in Neenah around 9 a.m. when an unidentified gunman wielding a MAC-10 held him and several others captive in what became an hours-long standoff with police.
When cops arrived, a suspect inside the building fired at them, striking one officer’s helmet, and the officers retreated, Neenah Police Chief Kevin Wilkinson said.
Shortly after, a man later identified as Funk exited the motorcycle shop. He was “shot at by one or more officers on scene” after he didn’t obey orders to drop his weapon, Wilkinson told reporters.
The alleged hostage-taker surrendered around 1 p.m., police said. On Monday, authorities identified the alleged gunman as Brian T. Flatoff, 45, of Neenah.
Flatoff is charged with first-degree recklessly endangering safety with a firearm related to an “incident” prior to the hostage standoff, the Appleton Post-Crescent reported. The Winnebago County District Attorney’s office announced plans to file more charges this week against Flatoff, who has a history of drunken driving offenses.
The long-haired and bushy-bearded suspect, who owns a local tattoo shop, reportedly had no connection to the shop owners.
Still, the stickup resulted in Funk being shot and later dying at the hospital. Funk was “terrified of police” following a dramatic 2012 raid on his business, his attorney, Cole White, told The Daily Beast.
Funk and Eagle Nation co-owner Steven “Mad” Erato were embroiled in a $50 million lawsuit against the city of Neenah—about 85 miles northwest of Milwaukee—over the alleged Sons of Anarchy-style crackdown.
White, who represents Eagle Nation Cycles, stressed that Funk was a hostage on Saturday, not the instigator of the standoff. “Mike was a hostage that was trying to flee the scene and was killed as a result of that,” he told The Daily Beast. “Whether it was justified or not… time is going to tell us that.”
“In my experience, just because police put out a press release and say something, doesn’t mean that’s the way it went down,” White added.
Steven “Mad” Erato had stronger words about the police response.
“He was a hostage coming out,” Erato told the Appleton Post-Crescent. “They shot him in the alley. They shot the wrong guy.”
While police haven’t released a motive in the alleged crime, White said the gunman attacked Eagle Nation because he wanted to retrieve his motorcycle, which had been sold to another person and was being repaired at the shop.
“There have been reports that [the gunman] was on probation, had another case pending, [and] sold his bike to raise money for his legal fees,” White told The Daily Beast. “Then he decided after he got that money, he wanted the bike back.”
The bike’s new owner happened to be a customer of Eagle Nation. According to White, the new owner alerted cops about the alleged gunman’s threats days before.
“If only something had been done, maybe this entire tragedy could have been averted,” White said.
The attorney described Funk as a father and grandfather who was planning to spend the holidays with family in Illinois. The military vet also planned to retire soon and travel the country with his wife in an RV, White said.
“He was not a suspect. He was not a criminal,” White added. “He was a war hero and a veteran and was a victim of crime.”
Erato told the Post-Crescent that Funk had a concealed-carry permit for a gun. He said he didn’t understand why Funk would ignore police orders.
“I can’t imagine that he had a gun on him and wouldn’t use it on the shooter and would run out and threaten the cops,” Erato told the Post-Crescent. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
The grieving shop owner told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was in the store’s basement when he heard a gunshot. He called Funk, who was working upstairs, and said he was calling police.
“An active shooter is in the building,” Erato told the 911 operator before climbing up the stairs, the Journal Sentinel reported. Funk shooed his fellow biker back into the basement during the commotion, Erato said.
The 64-year-old said he prayed as he stayed on the line with a dispatcher, and heard a single gunshot five minutes later, according to the Journal Sentinel.
“They’re both Vietnam combat veterans and both suffered injuries in war,” White told The Daily Beast. “They’ve been friends and partners for over 20 years. I know Mr. Funk’s family and Mr. Erato are devastated by his loss.”
Over the weekend, investigators with the Wisconsin Department of Justice were reviewing footage of the incident recorded on the chopper shop’s security cameras.
“After 2012, I advised them [Eagle Nation] to install cameras round the shop, specifically in the area where Mike had been exiting,” White told The Daily Beast.
White said he and his clients are concerned about Saturday’s video footage and are eager to retrieve it from Wisconsin’s DOJ—especially because the bikers have run into troubles with law enforcement in the past.
Last year, Funk and Erato filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Neenah and its police department, alleging an unlawful search warrant, emotional trauma, and biased judge, court records show.
In the search warrant, authorities claimed Eagle Nation “was being used in a complex drug manufacturing and distribution operation in conjunction with the Hells Lovers motorcycle gang,” according to Funk’s suit.
Police detailed the alleged activities “as if it were an episode of the television series, ‘Sons of Anarchy,’” the complaint stated.
Authorities targeted Eagle Nation after a task force of four sheriff’s departments observed a heroin deal in an alleyway behind the bike shop. (The alley also abuts two bars, including one that’s nicknamed the “Crack Shack” for its alleged drug use and sales, the lawsuit alleges.)
“The hyper-militarized force parked an armored tank-like vehicle outside of Eagle Nation, stormed the building, bombarding the occupants with assault weapons drawn, screaming profanities and abuse, all while wearing plain clothes and facemasks,” the lawsuit charges.
The use of force was unnecessary given the bike shop’s longstanding cooperation with law enforcement, the complaint alleges. And in the end, cops came away with a small amount of marijuana—not a drug trafficking enterprise.
Lawyers for the city and Winnebago County have repeatedly moved to dismiss the case since it was filed in December 2014.
“The officers claimed to have found a small amount of marijuana in one of the offices of Eagle Nation Cycles,” the federal complaint stated. “However, suspiciously, the video recording in that office cuts out following the police entry into the room and then resumes only after the alleged discovery.”
Police charged Erato with 15 felonies, including one count of maintaining a drug trafficking place and six counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Erato was convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession. All other charges were dismissed.
According to the suit, the judge shouldn’t have signed the search warrant because of a previous dispute with Erato.
In 2005, the state’s Crime Victims Rights Board ruled in favor of Erato against the aforementioned judge, as well as the district attorney, in a trial involving Erato’s wife, Merica Kabke.
Kabke, now 39, was sentenced to 18 months in jail for a January 2004 auto wreck that killed the couple’s 5-year-old son, according to the Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wisconsin. A blood test revealed she had THC (a chemical found in marijuana) in her system.
Erato was not permitted to make a statement during court proceedings, which violated his rights as the victim of a crime.
The mechanics also made news for launching a new political faction: the American Biker Party.
In 2004, Erato told the Post-Crescent he was offering a motorcycle-centric alternative to Democrats and the GOP, though members didn’t have to be bikers. His group planned to emphasize even less government interference than Republicans and combat NAFTA, as well as laws requiring cyclists to wear helmets.
Back then, Funk said he would attend the party’s first meeting. “I want to be a part of something to make a difference,” he said.