Through the Freedom of Information Act, the 13 Watchdog team obtained video of a caregiver at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans rolling an 83-year-old veteran's wheelchair approximately ten feet into a desk, injuring his leg.
Despite the documented injury, for months, the caregiver was not criminally charged and still had a license to care for vulnerable adults.
In light of new information we received during our investigation, Kent County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Becker decided to criminally charge the caregiver, Laurie Botbyl, with fourth degree vulnerable adult abuse. That's a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of one year in jail and/or a fine of $1,000.
THE INCIDENT - March 27, 2016
83-year-old Maynard Mathers was battling Alzheimer's disease and was a patient in the lockdown dementia ward at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans. His family described his condition at the time of this incident as "frail" and in "failing health."
Documents show the staff had reported previously that Mathers has a "history of becoming anxious, agitated, occasionally (with staff and other members) and moody."
On the night of the incident, Botbyl described Mathers as "out of control." Due to his behavior, workers decided not to leave Maynard unattended so he was brought into an office area while the caregiver, Laurie Botbyl, could do some work.
Botbyl was at the end of a double shift at the Home for Veterans. She came in at 7 a.m. and was scheduled to work until 11:30 p.m. The incident happened at approximately 11:15 p.m.
In an interview with the 13 Watchdog team, Botbyl said she had trouble getting him out of the office because he was angry.
"I took his chair to back him out (of the office) and he started kicking and grabbing and punching whatever he could to stop me," Botbyl said
The video shows the squirmish as Botbyl attempted to get Mathers under control while he sat in a wheelchair.
Seconds later, Botbyl places both of her hands on the chair's handles, pulled the chair in tight and pushed Mathers' wheelchair forward out of her control. Mathers knees and right arm hit a desk and he's seen grasping his knees after the incident.
A caregiver who witnessed the incident is seen trying to comfort Mathers after it happened. Another caregiver, Tiffany Taylor-Strickland, reached out her hand at the last moment to grab Mathers before he hit his knees.
Documents obtained by the 13 Watchdog team show doctors examined Mathers the next day and found "a small skin tear to (the) left medial lower leg noted below (the) knee cap as well as several bruises on both hands."
Mathers also had a bruise on his right upper forearm that could have been caused by the strike to the desk but the doctors were unable "to state if bruises were from incident as member bruises easily."
HOME FOR VETERANS REACTION
Documents show administrators at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans realized the severity of the incident almost immediately. Former Home for Veterans executive Leslie Shanlian called Grand Rapids police to have the department investigate the situation.
As the investigation started, Botbyl was suspended and later terminated from her job as nurse aide at the facility. She worked for former contractor J2s and was not a state employee.
After viewing the video footage, leaders at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans wrote in documents that "the abuse allegation was found to be substantiated." It was indicated in documents that "J2S will be filing a formal complaint of abuse against (Botbyl) to the certification board."
On April 7, 2016, Grand Rapids Police Department Officer Harvey Barker presented the case to the Kent County Prosecutor's Office. Documents show it was reviewed by a prosecutor and criminal charges were denied.
MATHERS FAMILY REACTION
The 13 Watchdog team obtained the video of the incident last year but it took several weeks for us to find out who the man in the wheelchair was because of privacy laws. All faces on the video were blurred by the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
Through our investigation, though, we were able to identify him as Maynard Mathers and we were able to find his family in Newaygo County.
Craig Mathers and David Mathers, Maynard's sons, told us the family had received a phone call about the incident last March from the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.
"The message we got was somebody pushed him into a desk and he had lightly scraped his knee and it was kind of blown off as no big deal," Craig Mathers said.
Both sons told us they were not informed about a police investigation and were unaware of the prosecutor's decision not to file charges.
"I'm speechless to tell you the truth," Craig Mathers said. "I don't know why they wouldn't have contacted us."
We also showed the family the video of the incident for the first time. Two of Mathers' grandchildren started crying as Craig Mathers said "she really slammed him."
"It's shameful to consider that this is the kind of care and treatment we offer our veterans," David Mathers said. "What else has happened to my dad and to other residents at that facility?"
RE-OPENING THE CASE
Kent County Prosecutor Chris Becker said he did not personally take a look at this case when the original decision was made. Becker said his office decided not to move forward to pursue a criminal charge earlier in 2016 because they were under the impression Maynard Mathers had no injuries.
"Under the (2016) statute, if there's no injury we don't have vulnerable abuse charges," Becker said.
Becker said he did not have the documents on hand the 13 Watchdog team obtained from the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs showing the "skin tear" injury.
"It was not brought to us, so we are definitely taking a second look at this and a very hard look at the video and medical evidence," Becker said.
Days after our interview with him, Becker approved the criminal charge against Botbyl setting in motion the criminal case.
Becker also apologized to Mathers' family for not including them in the process.
"We can't say that we're perfect," Becker said. "It has to get better."
LAURIE BOTBYL'S INTERVIEW
The caregiver in focus, Laurie Botbyl, sat down with us two weeks ago to talk about the incident. She suspected at the time the case against her was closed.
Botbyl talked to us about extreme understaffing at the facility and about her long hours working there. She says the lack of workers pushed her to a place she had never gone before.
"You don't push somebody's chair," she said. "They don't have any way to defend themselves no matter how mad you get."
We asked her if she should face a criminal charge for endangering Mathers.
"No, no, no, I didn't push him out of his chair and I wasn't pushing to hurt him," Botbyl said.
She said she had remorse the incident happened.
"My intent was not to hurt him and I didn't do anything to intentionally hurt that man," she said. "I would never do that. I wanted him off of me."
Botbyl says she wants to continue to take care of vulnerable adults because her nurse aide certification is still active.
"I still enjoy taking care of people," Botbyl said.
State records show Laurie Botbyl's certification is clear of any negative findings and she can currently work as a nurse aide.
We investigated why an abuse allegation sustained by one state agency was apparently not looked into by Michigan's Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA).
We found in our investigation that administrators from the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans did provide the information about Botbyl to LARA, but that agency refused to investigate it.
LARA spokesman Jason Moon wrote a response to us: "The bureau was unable to investigate the matter because it did not occur in a state licensed nursing facility. Currently, the bureau can only investigate abuses by CNAs (certified nursing assistants) at state licensed and federally certified nursing facilities."
That means only criminal charges filed against a nurse aide at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans would result in action against a person's license.
"LARA is working closely with the Dept. of Military and Veterans Affairs to convert the state’s veterans homes into federally-certified nursing homes, which then would provide LARA with investigatory oversight through CMS (Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services)," Moon wrote in a statement.
Several sources have suggested the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans is years away from being certified, thus keeping open this apparent investigative loophole.
Late in 2016, Michigan lawmakers approved new legislation that would ensure a caregiver can be criminally charged for abuse even if the vulnerable adult isn't injured.
GET TO KNOW: MAYNARD MATHERS
Maynard Mathers served in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Korean War. After serving his military time, Mathers helped develop Michigan's vocational education program, particularly in Newaygo County. His family says he was a pioneer in the field to help generations of kids to come.
As his health faded in later years, the now 84 year old wanted to go to the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans for camaraderie with others who have served in the military.
He entered the facility in the fall of 2011 as the grip of Alzheimer's disease started getting stronger. His family members could see his mind starting to fade away as time went along. A couple of years after living there he was put into the dementia lockdown ward at the facility to ensure he got the best care.
His family members told us Mathers was beginning to fade away late last year. His weight hit a low of
approximately 95 pounds and he was given a month to live.
"It was very hard to watch a guy you looked up to your whole life, probably one of the smartest men I ever met, slowly starting to fade away," Craig Mathers said.
In the fall of 2016, the Mathers family took Maynard out of the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans and put him in hospice in another nursing home to die peacefully.
But he began to gain strength after leaving.
His family tells us since his move, he's gained 25 pounds and is now out of hospice care. They say he's up and around at times.
The 13 Watchdog team met with Mathers at his new location and he confirmed to us that his favorite hobby these days was "flirting with the nurses."