STURGEON BAY, Wis.—Growing up, Colleen Nordin would use the dispatch radio as a play telephone, walk down the street to the police station after school and ride to the movies with her friends in the squad car.
Her dad, Sturgeon Bay’s chief of police, even used to put her on the polygraph machine for fun. So it seemed inevitable that Nordin would end up working with law enforcement in some way.
Almost 500 miles away from Franklin College, strong-willed Door County District Attorney Nordin is the prosecutor in the case against former Franklin College president Thomas Minar bringing a lifetime of law enforcement to the table.
A gravitational pull
While Nordin’s father was chief of police, her mother served as a probation agent in Sturgeon Bay. Nordin was always proud to be her parents' child.
She had already started to take after them by high school. Nordin was involved in mock trial, youth in government and student council.
“I think I always kind of gravitated that way and just having sort of cop talk all the time at the table,” Nordin said. “I didn't grow up thinking I would do it. I didn't look into it in high school and, in fact, I think I wanted to be in the FBI, and then it just pulled me that way.”
Her junior year of high school, Nordin was a rotary exchange student in Venezuela where she lived and studied with a host family. While she was there, her father passed away. Because of this, she had to come home months earlier than planned.
Nordin’s older sister, Kelly Hoernke, said it was a really difficult time.
“Especially as a teenager, you know, you're away from home, you're 16 years old and you lose your father. So that was really difficult for her, but she was able to really bloom from it almost,” Hoernke said. “She decided what she wanted to do and really, really stuck with it.”
After graduating from law school at Marquette University, Nordin was hired by a law firm in Green Bay where she practiced criminal defense.
There she met Megan Carollo, a fellow attorney, and they became fast friends. They bonded over being young women in the field and having a Spanish-speaking background. Together they opened a firm where they would do immigration work, criminal law and family law practice.
“There's a whole lot of people who need a lot of help,” Nordin said. “So we worked with the Hispanic population in depth, and we even participated in events in that community and stuff, and so we kind of got to be part of that community.”
Taking the leap
In 2016, her home town reached back out to her. Nordin said after law enforcement approached her, asking her to run against the prior DA, she threw her hat in the ring.
“It was sort of like the decision to be an exchange student or the decision to go to law school and once I thought of it, the idea was in my head,” Nordin said. “I couldn't shake it, and I just went with it because not doing it—I was afraid I would regret not doing it.”
Nordin said there were still difficulties in making the decision, like leaving her partnership with Megan and running for office for the first time.
“I had never been in a campaign,” she said. “I had never had to get signs and donations and all of that. But with the help of a lot of people, it ended up working out really well.”
Hoernke joined other family and friends in helping Nordin during her campaign. Nordin is now in her second term as district attorney.
“I printed shirts for the kids, and we went to the fair and handed out buttons, and they really got involved in things,” Hoernke said.
“When she won her campaign, we were all there, my kids too. And they were all dressed up in their red, white and blue, and it was just really exciting. They got really excited too because that's their aunt and they look up to her.”
Working with law enforcement
Despite growing up in and around the police station, Nordin said she was surprised by the camaraderie she found there, enjoying “that team feeling.”
“I didn't know what it was going to be. There's two lawyers in this office and, you know, five or six support staff, and I kind of thought that's all it would be. And it doesn't feel like that at all,” she said. “It feels like this whole building plus over on the other side of town, it all feels like one big team, so I like that.”
Nordin is also proud to say that Door County is one of the only counties in the state of Wisconsin with a female sheriff and a female district attorney. She said that she’s enjoyed collaborating with Sheriff Tammy Sternard on matters that are important to them both.
“We’re both very passionate, very driven individuals,” Sternard said. “We process things similarly. And we’ve worked on a bunch of projects collaboratively. Both of our offices are political, and I’m a Democrat, she’s a Republican, but we’ve always been able to put that aside and focus on the issues and the best way to handle those issues to benefit our community.”
Nordin said being able to support local law enforcement and show them that their work matters is very important to her personally because “law enforcement puts a lot of hard work into what they do every day.”
Part of the Sturgeon Bay Police Department’s work falls under the Internet Crimes Against Children task force—and that’s when Nordin first heard about Franklin College.
It fired Minar after he was arrested in January 2020 on 15 counts including using a computer to facilitate a sex crime, child enticement, and exposing a child to harmful narrations. An undercover Sturgeon Bay police officer conducted an ICAC investigation using interactions from the dating app Grindr. Minar was in Sturgeon Bay visiting his mother and thought he had arranged to meet a 15-year-old named Tyler.
According to the Wisconsin Department of Justice, the Wisconsin ICAC Task Force is a national leader in fighting Internet crimes against children.
Grounded in her decision
Nordin said she thinks her previous experience as a defense attorney helps her navigate her prosecution with a fair and measured approach.
“I understand that people can make mistakes, and I understand that even good people make mistakes,” Nordin said. “So I do appreciate that experience, and it helps me, I think, approach these cases from a fair perspective. I'm not just trying to hammer everybody that comes across my desk.”
Nordin said the most rewarding part of her job is being able to help victims “through the system, through the process and an outcome that they feel is fair.”
“I get a lot of satisfaction out of developing relationships with victims and making them feel like they've got a voice,” Nordin said, “when I get off the phone with someone and they feel like someone took the time to explain everything to them to help them through it.”
Hoernke said she thinks her younger sister wants to do her job for all the right reasons.
“I think ultimately Colleen does her job because she wants to, No. 1, make sure our children are safe,” Hoernke said. “But also I feel like she wants to search out truth and help people that are in trouble.”
Keeping the community where she grew up safe is a big priority for Nordin. She maintained that stance March 17 in court for Minar’s settlement conference, when she motioned to revoke his bail.
“As a prosecutor, these are the cases that are not a lot of negotiation for me because I find that folks who commit these kinds of crimes are a danger to the community,” she said. “And I think that people who engage in this kind of behavior, even if it wasn’t, it didn’t get to the point of hands-on, it can get to that point. So I take these types of crimes probably the most serious.”
Nordin said the big takeaway from the Minar case for her is how these crimes “affect not only the defendant but the people who surround him, and the folks that he works with—just the shock and awe that comes along with not realizing or knowing that that’s going on behind closed doors.
“I think seeing you all and how it’s affected the school and the community, I think just reminds me of how much this can really kind of have a trickle-down effect.”