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Four Michigan Jail Guards Guilty in Detainee Death, Family Paid $2.4 Million

by Matt Clarke

Just weeks before their trial was to begin on charges of involuntary manslaughter in a detainee’s death, four guards at Michigan’s Muskegon County Jail pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of Willful Neglect of Duty on
April 20, 2023.

That means Crystal Grove, Jamal Lane, Jeffery Patterson and David Vanderlaan will not face jail time; instead each was immediately fined $1,000 and sentenced to 100 hours of community service. All four are still employed at the lockup. A nurse formerly employed by Wellpath, the jail’s privately contracted healthcare provider, escaped charges earlier in the case.

Their victim, Paul Bulthouse, 39, died on April 4, 2019, after suffering what surveillance video showed to be 18 seizures in just over four hours. The first five seizures were fairly evenly spaced over two hours, while the last 13 came at intervals of about 15 minutes. All the while Bulthouse lay naked and unconscious on the bunk in his cell.

He had been arrested for probation violation on March 22, 2019, and taken to the jail. There he was placed on suicide watch, which requires guards to check on him every 15 minutes. But even though the guards could observe Bulthouse on a video monitor, surveillance video showed they ignored his distress, despite sitting just a few feet from his cell. They apparently made lightning-fast round trips to his cell, attempting to satisfy the requirement for every-15-minute checks, yet they still did nothing to help him. In fact, video showed the third seizure occurred in a different observation cell, where Bulthouse’s unconscious body was apparently moved while a custodian mopped up his urine from the first two seizures.

Nurse Aubrey Schotts wrote progress notes saying she checked on Bulthouse around the time of his third seizure and that he was lying on his stomach and had stable vital signs. After a lengthy hearing in October 2021, the four deputies were bound over for trial, but Schotts was not. Unlike them, she is no longer employed at the jail.

A press release by Sheriff Michael Poulin said the jail’s observation cells were designed to allow continuous monitoring by staff. Undersheriff Ken Sanford testified in the 2021 hearing that checks every 15 minutes were required when prisoners are in observation cells. He also said that staff is required·to perform lifesaving measures on prisoners in distress, rather than waiting on medical staff as the four guards did with Bulthouse. Nevertheless, all four remain on the job, despite the negligent death of the detainee and a settlement reached in the complaint his family filed over it.

That lawsuit accused jailers and the nurse of ignoring the detainee’s “hallucinations and vocal outbursts [that] were becoming more frequent and disturbing other inmates” as his withdrawal symptoms worsened. It further alleged that a Wellpath doctor made a note in Bulthouse’s medical file that accused him of faking symptoms. [See: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.1.]

The Bulthouse family reached a settlement with Muskegon County on October 22, 2021, for $2.4 million. Their attorney, Marcel Benavides of Royal Oak, received $791,381.73 in legal fees and another $25,854.81 in costs. Three surviving family members divided the remainder in equal shares of $527,587.82 each. They also reached a separate settlement with Wellpath, the details of which were sealed.

Both agreements were approved by the federal court for the Western District of Michigan on May 27, 2022. See: Bulthouse v. Cty. of Muskegon, USDC (W.D. Mich.), Case No. 1:21-cv-00281.

Since he died, the jail has instituted several new policies regarding medical care and observation. It also fired Wellpath, replacing the firm with a competitor, Kansas-based Vital Core Health Strategies, under a $1.95-million contract that is $500,000 higher. Sheriff Poulin also now issues jail guards body-worn cameras with microphones, which they must activate.

Additional sources: MLive Media Group, WOOD, WXMI, WZZM