MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — Four jail guards accused of neglecting an inmate as he lay dying in the Muskegon County Jail have agreed to a plea deal with the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.
The guards, originally charged with involuntary manslaughter in the April 2019 death of Paul Bulthouse, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of willful neglect of duty on Thursday in Muskegon County Circuit Court, according to their attorney, Marc Curtis.
Circuit Judge William Marietti sentenced the four — Sgt. David VanderLaan and deputies Jamall Lane, Crystal Greve and Jeffery Patterson — to 100 hours of community service, along with fines and costs.
The four still work at the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Department, their attorney told Target 8.
The original charge carried a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
The Michigan Attorney General’s Office took on the case in response to a Target 8 investigation that uncovered surveillance video showing Bulthouse, 39, suffering repeated seizures in a close-observation cell without getting medical help. The AG’s office counted 18 seizures.
The death led to out-of-court settlements for Bulthouse’s family: $2.4 million from the county and an undisclosed amount from Wellpath, the out-of-state company that provided medical care at the time.
The defense attorney said the state attorney general made the plea offer on Monday. The four agreed to it on Thursday during a pre-trial conference. A trial had been set for May.
“The defense was prepared to demonstrate that the deputies were put in a no-win situation while performing their duties with the utmost honor,” Curtis wrote in an email to Target 8. “At trial, evidence would have shown that the medical staff, not these deputies, neglected Mr. Bolthouse even after being alerted of his deteriorating condition by these same deputies.”
In that same email, he blamed Muskegon County for the death.
“Mr. Bolthouse’s death is unfortunate but one that could have been avoided,” he wrote. “The County of Muskegon admitted fault. The medical provider Wellpath admitted fault. Muskegon County has routinely failed to properly fund the Sheriff’s Department with the needed staff to ensure proper inmate supervision and proper medical care for inmates.
“Until the County Board properly funds the jail’s operations, until the Sheriff can properly staff his jail and until proper medical care providers can be obtained, the risk of another jail death will always be high no matter who is wearing the badge and carrying the keys to the cells. As Judge Marietti stated on the record at the time of sentence this is a societal issue not just a Muskegon County issue but one that must be addressed around the state and the country.”
In a press release, Attorney General Dana Nessel explained why her office pushed for a deal.
“These sentences come after a lengthy preliminary examination, dozens of pretrial motions, a lack of cooperation from critical and necessary witnesses and adverse rulings regarding key pieces of evidence,” the statement read. “Allowing a settlement of this matter in which the defendants accept responsibility ensures accountability for those responsible for the neglect of care to Bulthouse while also allowing for closure for his family.”
Nessel said the death led to “several significant changes” at the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Department.
“Those include instituting new policies to provide for better care and custody of those held in the jail. Muskegon County also changed its medical service provider for the treatment of its inmates. Additionally, the Muskegon County Sheriff’s Office now requires all deputies to wear body cameras and microphones, including those deputies working inside the jail, to ensure accountability and increase transparency,” read the statement.
She said her office is working with the legislature for more sweeping statewide changes, including requiring jail correction staff to meet accreditation standards and strengthening consequences, including termination, for when jail correction staff do not meet or violate those standards. Changes will also include creating a list of convictions that would prohibit a person from serving as jail correction staff.
“This is a tragic case that only highlights the need for legislative efforts when it comes to the care and custody of those individuals who are detained or incarcerated,” Nessel’s statement read. “This was a horrible loss of life, that may have been avoided but for the inexcusable neglect of four deputies who serve roles of public service. We have a responsibility to increase the standards of service and care in this state’s corrections facilities and we intend to pursue that.”
“Bulthouse’s family remains deeply troubled by the care he received while held in the Muskegon County Jail,” Nessel wrote. “The family has also expressed concern that the four deputies will remain in their positions with the Sheriff’s Office.”