FOX 17 INVESTIGATES: 'The whole system failed my dad': 82-year-old’s death ruled homicide after years of reported abuse

william fitzhugh.jpeg
Posted at 1:44 PM, Feb 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-04 10:34:05-05

PULLMAN, Mich. — William Fitzhugh was found by his son on Oct. 18, 2021, curled up in the fetal position on a bare mattress in a home with mountains of feces in the bathroom, due to lack of working septic. William had been carrying buckets of water to the bathroom to flush the toilet himself for years.

William died on Dec. 12, 2021.

The death of William Fitzhugh, an 82-year-old man from Pullman, Michigan, a small, unincorporated community in Allegan County, has now been ruled a homicide.

According to the medical examiner, the death of William Fitzhugh was due to “complications of multiple injuries, malnourishment, and neglect.”

Cory Nethery, 24, and Christopher Fitzhugh, 27, are charged with elder abuse and embezzlement of their grandfather William Fitzhugh. They were arraigned in Allegan County District Court in November of 2021.

The two have not been charged in connection to William’s death.

Family says Eula, William’s widow, still wakes up in the night wondering if she is safe.

FOX 17 has spent months bringing this story to light, looking into the legal case and pulling documents from investigators with both Adult Protective Services and the Allegan County Sheriff's Office.

william fitzhugh.jpeg

William spoke with FOX 17 before his death on Dec. 12, 2021.

He said Cory and Christopher were at one point “good boys” but a bad drug problem with methamphetamine made them angry and abusive. Family tells FOX 17 William and Eula adopted Christopher and Cory, and that they have lived in the home with their grandparents much of their lives. Things got bad after their drug addiction began roughly five years ago.

William described times when his grandsons would beat him to the ground to take his money. When he wouldn’t give them money, that’s when the abuse got much worse.

William was taken to the hospital by his children on Oct. 18, 2021. His injuries were extensive and horrific, including a broken hip, femur, multiple broken ribs in various stages of healing, a broken nose and a collapsed lung. He was malnourished, and his legs were the size of loved ones’ forearms.

Medical records, given to FOX 17 by family, said he had not been to a doctor for a few years. When renal cancer was discovered during his hospital stay in October 2021, it was too late. Doctors said William's injuries were too extensive to treat his cancer. The family chose to place him in hospice.

His family is upset the situation got to this point to begin with.

For years, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Adult Protective Services division and the Allegan County Sheriff’s Office received reports of abuse at the hands of Cory and Christopher towards William and Eula.

Allegan Co. Sheriff's Office FOIA by WXMI on Scribd

William’s son Steve Fitzhugh says his dad always got the worst of it. Steve said William wouldn’t let his grandkids hit his wife.

Eula is now under the care of her daughter Sherry and her son Steve. She has dementia.

At least four referrals were made to Adult Protective Services dating back to 2017. FOX 17 requested via the Freedom of Information Act all Adult Protective Services reports for William and Eula Fitzhugh.

FOX 17 FOIA Documents Redacted by WXMI on Scribd

They each were closed because William said everything was fine, that Cory and Christopher weren’t abusing him, taking his money or neglecting him.

Allegan County Prosecutor Myrene Koch says this is not uncommon, and what makes cases of elder abuse so difficult to pursue.

“Oftentimes we see the alleged victim is competent, but they’re not willing to admit the abuse for a variety of reasons,” Koch said.

Family says with all the contact with state agencies and law enforcement, more should have been done.

“The entire system let my dad down,” Steve Fitzhugh said.

Generally, Adult Protective Services is able to proceed in conducting investigations and support cases for charges towards abusers without a compliant victim through financial and medical records.

But because in this case, William was determined to be competent, and because he did not meet the specific requirements for a “vulnerable adult” under state law, according to the MDHHS, there was nothing more they could do.

The MDHHS gave FOX 17 the following statement:

“The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is saddened by the death of Mr. Fitzhugh. We express our condolences to his family and loved ones. MDHHS is committed to doing whatever we can under statute to protect vulnerable adults from any abuse, neglect or financial exploitation.

An adult who demonstrates capacity to make his or her own decisions has the right to decline Adult Protective Services. Adult Protective Services workers who visited Mr. Fitzhugh in-person found that he demonstrated capacity to make his own decisions. He denied any abuse (and there were not visible signs of abuse when Adult Protective Services visited him), neglect or financial exploitation and declined services from Adult Protective Services. As a result, MDHHS had no basis for filing a petition for guardianship.”

Family of William says the idea no one saw signs of abuse is ridiculous.

The last in-person visit by Adult Protective Services to William’s home was May 11, 2021. Another case was opened in June of 2021, but no in-home visit was made, as indicated in the reports given to FOX 17 via FOIA.

That report states William is “low risk” for all categories of elder abuse in the May 11 report.

He would die by homicide just seven months later.

“What they’ve done to me, they need jail time,” William told FOX 17 shortly before his death.

One look behind the door to William’s home of more than 50 years, and you won’t recognize it as a home.

It’s a shell of a house. Feces mounts in the bathroom. The home hasn’t had working septic for as long as four years, says William’s family.

The kitchen is covered with dirt. William was found on a bare, dirty mattress curled up in the fetal position.

Paper mâché feebly attempts to repair portions of the walls that have holes in them — holes that Willam said Cory and Christopher punched through.

Inside William Fitzhugh's home

Even neighbors of William and Eula knew something was up when Eula started walking to the grocery store just a few blocks down from their home, saying she had “never had to walk before.”

“It’s just not right. They both worked their a**** off their whole life,” neighbor Patrick Barnes said.

Myrene Koch says it’s easy looking back and saying more could have been done.

“I think all the agencies that investigate these things do everything they can. The difficulty is, when you find out something later, you’re looking back going, ‘What else could we do?’” Koch said.

Family says a lot more could have been done. The sheriff’s office noted increases in violence at the Fitzhughs' address more than once in reports obtained by FOX 17 via a Freedom of Information Act request.

“We’ve tried everything to get help in here, and it just didn’t come,” said Steve.

The Allegan County Sheriff’s Office did alert Adult Protective Services on more than one occasion.

Both Cory and Christopher were arrested summer of 2021 for assaulting a law enforcement officer and other drug-related charges, but never faced accusations of abusing their grandparents.

Instead, the two were placed back in his home.

The abuse and neglect arrests only come after William was out of the house for good.

But getting William out of that situation would prove to be difficult. It’s something that haunts his children. They wish they had done more sooner, saying they would give anything for more time with their father.

The process has been difficult and confusing.

Repeated calls to state and county agencies proved not to be fruitful. They don’t understand why the agencies who are supposed to prevent this type of thing from happening could allow this to go on for so long without doing something, saying their father was a victim who was afraid to get help.

It wasn’t until they filed for temporary guardianship of their father that they were able to get a sheriff’s deputy to escort them into his home.

“There are systems put in place to protect people. And nobody protected him. He was being starved, beat, abused.” William's niece Charlotte Goodell said.

Steve says it took EMTs an hour to get his dad out of the house.

William was found curled up in the fetal position on a bare mattress, covered in his own excrement on Oct. 18, 2021.

It took William more than a week to admit the truth. Steve says his father believed he’d be placed back in his home with Cory and Christopher and was afraid to say what happened because of that.

After William realized he would never leave the hospital or hospice services, he began to talk.

William told authorities and Adult Protective Services he didn’t break his ribs by doing yard work; he didn’t fracture his femur from a bad fall; he didn’t break his hip on accident.

He said Cory beat him the worst, and Christopher had hit him in the past, too.

For the first time, APS doesn't close the case.

Charges from the prosecutor’s office would follow roughly two weeks later for Cory and Christopher for abusing and financially exploiting their grandfather.

Cory Nethery remains in Allegan County Jail. Christopher Fitzhugh is out on bond.

Seeing Christopher walk free infuriates Steve, who says there is nothing worse than seeing the man who is charged with abusing your father around their small town.

In the last week, a report from the Michigan Office of the Auditor General’s Office confirmed what the Fitzhughs have known all along: improvement is needed for the systems put in place to protect people like William Fitzhugh.

The 82-page audit assesses whether the MDHHS effectively supervises its Adult Protective Services department.

The audit concludes in essence that the MDHHS needs to improve the supervisory review of APS complaints and needs to better evaluate APS.

The MDHHS has stated in the audit they plan to do just that.

However, the MDHHS agrees with only some portions of the finding. The department disagrees with some areas, specifically around the wording of state law, stating the law as written prevents them from complying with what the Office of the Auditor General proposes.

The Office of the Auditor General also states that their audit of APS found that the MDHHS did not adequately report criminal activity to law enforcement as required by state law 27% of the time.

The MDHHS argues that the ambiguous laws are to blame.

The auditor general disagrees with that, claiming the law is clear.

The Central Intake Division monitored less than 1% of cases and stopped monitoring cases all together on Sept. 30, 2019, the OAG concludes.

In the audit, the OAG also stated that 25% of cases referred to APS were not reviewed when closed and that the MDHHS didn’t require them to be reviewed.

According to the recent audit, supervisors also do not conduct required reviews of:

  • 38% of cases where investigations showed moderate or high risk at the time the case was ready to close
  • 37% of cases open for more than five months
  • 29% of cases that were closed because of an adult’s death. 
  • 20% of cases were not handled within 24 hours as required by state law. 

The Auditor General’s Office also found that 40% of the Central Intake Division of Adult Protective Services did not get trained on policy and decision making.

There is no requirement for APS supervisors to be trained in a supervisory role, according to the OAG’s office.

The Fitzhugh family requested their case be handled outside of Allegan County, as they have lost their faith in county authorities.

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