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Bunker suspect’s friend: He’s a nice guy who chose to live a different way

A friend of a Milwaukee man found living in a bunker near Estabrook Park is speaking in the suspect’s defense.

Jeff Dowhen said he met Geoffrey Graff, 41, seven years ago when Graff offered to help Dowhen and his friends build a skate park at Estabrook Park.

“The first summer that we were building, he was coming around pretty much every other day,” Dowhen said.

Dowhen said he and his BMX friends knew Graff lived in the woods somewhere, but they didn’t mind.

“The nice thing about having a hobby with people who are not like you is that you get to meet people who are not like you,” Dowhen said. “Our shared passion with hanging out, building things, creating and seeing the city really helped us get to know Geoff.”

Dowhen said he had no idea Graff lived in a bunker filled with weapons and ammo.

“We were riding at Estabrook (once) and he shows up with this bicycle part that he had forged out of aluminum cans the night before and shows up with this janky cranks that he built. But he forged a bicycle part overnight over a fire with aluminum cans. He’s smart, he’s wicked smart,” Dowhen said.

Graff was arrested Wednesday after allegedly firing a handgun into the Milwaukee River.

He told deputies he was frustrated that his dogs ran away.

Investigators found the bunker Graff lived in near Humboldt and Capitol.

It was filled with tools, a cot and a cache of weapons, including guns, knives and a bow and arrow.

Graff told investigators he had been living there for seven to 10 years.

Deputies said when Graff was arrested, he made veiled threats, such as saying he “could’ve cleared (the police) pretty easily if I wanted to,” and, “one of those innocent college kids” in a nearby park-and-ride lot could have been shot.

Dowhen doesn’t think Graff meant those threats.

“The guns surprised me to the extent that he would have more than a pistol,” Dowhen said. “The threats, obviously when you’re backed into a corner, you say things you might regret tomorrow or have a photo taken you might regret tomorrow.”

Dowhen referenced the menacing mug shot of Graff shows him glancing to the side.

“When you see a headline and a mugshot like that, the story has already written itself and I don’t think that’s fair,” Dowhen said. “Seeing someone that I know being portrayed in such a negative, condescending light, that people judge him and write his story before they really knew him, that’s what made me speak out.”

Graff was charged with possession of a short-barreled shotgun and second-degree recklessly endangering safety with the use of a firearm.

“This guy is not some kook living in the woods. He’s a guy that chose to live in the woods. He’s just a nice guy who chose to live a different way,” Dowhen said. “There’s positive stories to him that outweigh the negative and you talk to any people around town, he’d go to businesses, people see him on the river. They’d say he’s peaceful, they’d say he was nice and this is shocking to them that he would do anything negative.”

In his first court appearance Saturday, Graff’s bail was set to $20,000.

Graff protested the bail amount, saying, “$20,000? Just give me the death penalty. That’s more than I’ve made in about ever.”

He’s being held in the Milwaukee County Jail.

If convicted, Graff faces up to 21 years in prison and $35,000 in fines.

He’s scheduled to be in court again Dec. 3.

Neena Pacholke

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