- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

NEW LISBON, Wis. (AP) - At night, Sharon Peterson is haunted by a recurring dream.

It takes her back outside her home in Argyle, burning with her three young sons trapped inside. She hears her boys’ horrific screams and sees her youngest son engulfed in flames as he reaches out to her from the other side of a Plexiglas window she is desperately trying to break to save him.

A different kind of nightmare haunts her days.

She’s rebuilding her life, shattered nearly three years ago by the fire set by her then-husband, Armin Wand III, which killed their three sons. Peterson herself nearly died from severe burns, and she lost the fetus she was carrying.

Disabled cognitively - and now physically due to the burns - the former Sharon Wand lives a two-hour drive from Argyle with a new man, a new baby and her special-needs daughter she saved from the fire. Jessica is now 4. She says she also lives in fear of angry former in-laws and others who she believes have made her look like a bad person in the wake of a tragedy that has stirred emotions in southwestern Wisconsin and beyond.

“I don’t want nobody’s sympathy. I just hope people will stop blaming me for things I didn’t do and leave me alone so me and my family can start to feel safe,” said Peterson, 29, at her home in New Lisbon. The home is a sort of shrine to her dead sons, Allen, 7, Jeffery, 5, and Joseph, 3: The urn carrying their cremated remains sits on a table in the corner of the living room surrounded by photos of the boys, statues of angels and other trinkets.

But, Peterson said, members of her ex-husband’s family and even some connected to her own family say she’s a bad mother, and one even told her boys were better off dead than to live with her.

In March, Juneau County Circuit Judge Paul Curran ordered Peterson’s former sister-in-law, Tammy Bickett, and the rest of her husband’s family to stay away from her and Jessica for four years after Curran said Bickett was harassing and intimidating Peterson, the Wisconsin State Journal (http://bit.ly/1Q1m21L ) reported.

Whenever Peterson catches strangers staring at her, she wonders if it’s because of the burn-damaged skin on her face, arms and legs - or her reputation, damaged during a tumultuous recovery that included theft charges and a bizarre letter-writing campaign to the media.

Peterson’s emotions are constantly stirred, and that torturous nightmare frequently jolts her out of bed, said her fiancé, Tony King. “If it wasn’t for her medicines, she’d probably never sleep,” he said.

Some understand her plight. “I believe in her and I’m proud of her. She has been through hell and back,” said Roxanne Lyght, director of Lyghthouse, which opened its doors to Peterson after she was kicked out of an Iowa County rehab center in early 2013. Peterson was charged with felony theft and other counts for allegedly stealing items from the rooms of other patients and using credit cards without permission of the owners to order flowers for herself for Mother’s Day.

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Peterson believes some don’t like her simply because of her married name.

“Wand is the baddest name ever,” said Peterson, who divorced Wand and took back her maiden name shortly after he was given three life sentences with no hope of parole in April 2013. Police said Wand, 35, set the fire to kill his family, collect on their life insurance policies and start a new life. His brother Jeremy, who was 18 at the time, also got three life sentences for helping to set the fire.

Both are appealing their cases. Armin Wand III, who is at the state prison in Boscobel, received a major setback last Tuesday when Green County Circuit Judge Thomas Vale denied his motion to change his plea from guilty to not guilty so he could seek a new trial.

Peterson said she learned while searching unsuccessfully for an apartment to rent in 2013 that many in southwest Wisconsin associate her married name with evil. She eventually gave up the idea of renting in the Monroe area and bought an old mobile home on the outskirts of New Lisbon because it’s close to her family.

“I had to change my name because I couldn’t live with it anymore,” Peterson said. “Because my last name was Wand, people figured I must be bad people, too.”

Her former father-in-law, Armin Wand Jr., responded to her comments by saying Peterson disgusts him. He’s seeking $1,330 in small claims court that he says she owes for an SUV awarded to Peterson in the divorce.

“She took a car that didn’t belong to her. She’s a liar and a thief like everybody else in her family,” Wand said. “I still think she had something to do with that fire and is lying about it.”

Wand said Peterson showed her true colors when she made comments on her Facebook page and wrote letters to a judge and media outlets, claiming she still loved her ex-husband and that she didn’t think he set the fire.

But the Facebook comments and the letters, which came just before Peterson’s divorce was final, were traced back to Bickett and the Wand family, Assistant Attorney General Roy Korte said at Jeremy Wand’s sentencing hearing.

“They did a handwriting test and it proved it was Tammy writing those letters,” said Peterson. “But I have friends who still think I had something to do with what was written in those letters and on my Facebook page. I hear about it to this day.”

Peterson’s sister said Wand had stifled, controlled and manipulated Sharon throughout their marriage, and the letters and Facebook comments showed his family was using similar behavior with Sharon to help free him from prison as she struggled with the loss of her children and marriage. “They’ll do anything to help Armin,” said Amy Peterson, of Necedah.

Peterson was devastated to learn after she awoke from a coma nearly two months after the fire that Armin and Jeremy Wand were charged with arson and killing her children, said her mother, Sharmaine Peterson. She had an even stronger reaction when she was told that a neighbor stopped Wand from trying to put Jessica back in the fire after she had saved her. “That almost killed her,” her mother said.

Most of Peterson’s memories of the Sept. 7, 2012, fire surround trying to save her sons.

“I still don’t know who the neighbor was who stopped Armin,” she said. “I’d like to thank them, whoever they are.”

As the Wand brothers’ cases were resolved, Peterson was kept out of the spotlight by her legal guardian and prosecutors, her only comments coming in impassioned statements at the Wands’ sentencing hearings.

While many following the tragedy may have been bewildered by Peterson’s actions in the aftermath of those cases, Amy Peterson said those helping her recover were finally understanding how a disability gone unchecked for most of her life was hampering her transition to a new life.

“She is labeled legally mentally disabled,” Amy Peterson said. Her sister took prescription drugs to help her when she was young, but their father stopped the medications because he thought she had become “a zombie,” especially in school, she added.

“That’s why Sharon is the way she is today,” Amy Peterson said. “Nobody ever did anything for her.”

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As the Wand brothers moved on to state prisons, Amy Peterson said her sister was getting the help she needed and began to heal physically and mentally and learn her way. “It definitely wasn’t easy,” Amy Peterson said.

Peterson, who’s on full disability, regained custody of Jessica in April 2014; she said she had to learn cleaning, cooking and other housekeeping skills to prove she could take care of her. Jessica had been in protective custody following the fire that she survived uninjured despite her father’s efforts to put her back in the inferno after her mother saved her.

Last December, Peterson completed a year of probation and completed payment of $265 in restitution related to the rehab center thefts. She ended up pleading guilty to three misdemeanor theft charges; the felony identity theft and other misdemeanor counts were dismissed.

“I’ve been working hard. I had to do so much to get Jessie back, I didn’t think I’d get her back,” said Peterson. Her bond with Jessica was apparent during a warm afternoon at their home recently as they traded spontaneous hugs and repeatedly said to each other, “I love you.”

Peterson believes her fiancé’s steady, positive influence helped her get Jessica back and meet her court obligations in Iowa County. “He helped me stay strong when my world was upside down,” she said.

Sharmaine Peterson agreed. “She thought nobody would ever love her again and nobody would have anything to do with her. Then he walked into her life,” she said.

King, a quiet, self-employed handyman who will be 30 on June 5, was good friends with Peterson as they grew up in Monticello. He said their friendship ended when Wand started dating - and controlling - Peterson when she was a 17-year-old high school sophomore. Her father, Jeff Peterson, said the family didn’t like Wand and hoped they’d split up when they moved to Tomah. But Wand followed Sharon to Tomah and they got married a year later and immediately started having kids.

King and Peterson got back together after Peterson moved to Monroe in the final part of her rehabilitation and King stopped by to see her. “He asked me to marry him two days after we started dating,” she said with a smile.

Social workers keep tabs on Peterson and her efforts to take care of her daughters - Isabella was born six months ago - and keep up her home, which includes a dog, Snickers, and two cats. She said just about everyone advised against getting pregnant, but that stirred Peterson’s feistiness - a quality that helped her survive burn injuries that doctors said would have killed many others.

“They said I couldn’t go full term anymore because of the fire, but we proved them wrong,” Peterson said. “I’m happy for Jessica because now she has somebody to play with and grow up with and to protect like her brothers protected her.”

King plans to begin the process of adopting Jessica and giving her his last name as soon as Armin Wand’s parental rights are terminated, which he said could happen within the next month or so. Jessica already calls him daddy. “He has loved Jessica from the first day he met her,” Peterson said.

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Jessica does not remember the fire, and her memory of her brothers comes from the photos and other mementos of them that cover the walls of their home, her mother said. But Jessica started having nightmares recently because she was overhearing Bickett and the Wands talking about the fire, Peterson said. “That was another reason we had to get that restraining order.”

Still, Peterson said, she will continue to fear the Wands. When she went to court in March for the restraining order, she told Curran that Armin and Jeremy were trying to get around orders by the state not to contact her or Jessica by using Bickett as a messenger to send them disturbing letters and cards.

Before granting her request, Curran told her to use common sense to avoid the Wands’ controlling tactics. “Don’t wallow in it,” he told her.

Peterson said that’s easier said than done. Wherever she goes, there’s usually something that triggers memories of the screams and images of her boys dying in the fire.

“I wallow in that,” she said. “I got burned in the fire that I won’t fully recover from. But that doesn’t compare to the hole I have in my heart from losing my boys.”

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Information from: Wisconsin State Journal, http://www.madison.com/wsj

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