Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 6, 2013

Elberta woman arraigned on count of attempted murder

BY MATT TROUTMAN mtroutman@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — ELBERTA — An autistic teenager from Benzie County remains hospitalized after what authorities termed a failed murder-suicide attempt committed by her mother.

Kelli Stapleton, 45, of Elberta, was arrested and arraigned Thursday in 85th District Court on one count of attempted murder, Benzie Prosecutor Sara Swanson said. District Judge John Mead ordered Stapleton held without bond in the county jail.

A sheriff’s deputy found Stapleton and her daughter Issy, 14, unconscious inside a van Tuesday and suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

“It appears quite clear that this was a purposeful and intentional effort on the mother’s part to extinguish the lives of herself and her daughter,” said Michigan State Police Lt. Kip Belcher.

Benzie County sheriff’s deputies and state police were dispatched at 1:45 p.m. on a missing persons report. Belcher said Stapleton left her husband Matt a distressing voice message and he called authorities about 1:45 p.m. to report his wife and daughter missing.

“I don’t know the content, but he found it disturbing,” Belcher said. “Thereafter, the family van was found missing from the residence.”

The full-size van was found about 6:30 p.m. off a wooded two-track near St. Pierre Road south of Elberta. Kelli and Issy Stapleton were unconscious inside and near two portable charcoal grills that had been lit but appeared to have burned out.

Both suffered carbon monoxide poisoning and were transported to Munson Medical Center before being transferred to a Grand Rapids-area hospital. Kelli Stapleton was arrested upon her release from the hospital, but Issy remains hospitalized and doctors fear she suffered permanent brain damage.

Matt Stapleton was in Issy’s hospital room Thursday afternoon when reached by a Record-Eagle reporter. He didn’t want to speak about Issy’s condition while he sat by her side, but expressed appreciation for the public’s concern.

Belcher said three detectives are conducting “background work” on Kelli Stapleton to determine whether she previously displayed indications of erratic or criminal behavior.

‘Battle fatigue’

Hours before authorities found the unconscious pair, Kelli wrote on her blog, “The Status Woe,” that she suffered a “severe case of battle fatigue.”

The blog details Stapleton’s experiences raising Issy, an intelligent but abusive autistic child. She characterized herself in one post as a victim of “domestic violence” and described the bruises and injuries at the hands of her daughter.

“I don’t like to be hit. It hurts me physically, and it hurts my feelings,” she wrote. “I know my abuser loves me. I also know my abuser will kill me. But I still can’t leave.”

Stapleton also wrote about the family’s struggles with bureaucratic and financial roadblocks that stood in the way of therapy to help Issy’s behavior. The Frankfort and Elberta communities rallied behind the Stapletons and helped them pay for months of expensive therapy at the Great Lakes Center for Autism Treatment and Research in Portage.

Scott Schrum, CEO of the autism center’s parent company, Residential Opportunities, Inc., refused to comment beyond a written statement that cited privacy concerns.

“We’re still trying to wrap our arms around this,” he said.

Local schooling denied

Issy recently returned from therapy and prepared to start classes in Frankfort Junior/Senior High School, where her father is principal.

But Kelli Stapleton’s account in Tuesday’s blog post cited a volatile series of meetings with a teacher and school officials who, in her telling, decided Issy could no longer attend classes. She wrote that one official recommended home schooling or a program more than two hours away.

“So less than a week before school is to start, she is uninvited,” Stapleton wrote. “I am devastated. My husband is gutted.”

Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District oversees special education and other services for local school districts, including Frankfort-Elberta Area Schools. Students with disabilities receive individual education plans, or IEPs, based on their specific needs from a “team” of school officials and parents.

Carol Greilick, TBAISD assistant superintendent for special education, said all decisions are data-driven and strictly follow federal and state law. She said sometimes decisions are made that a student’s needs are better served at “center-based” programs in the local ISD or other services that may involve residential placement.

“Sometimes meeting those needs involves an educational program or services that parents object to,” she said. “In the end, the district is obligated to meet students’ needs. If there’s a disagreement, the district must make the decision based on data and meet the student’s needs.”

TBAISD Superintendent Mike Hill said federal law prohibits him from commenting on individual students. He said the district does not believe any illegal activity occurred at any recent IEP team meeting and the ISD conducting its own investigation into the blog posts.

“We’re tying to gather as much information as we can that may be out there in the media and social media,” he said.

Stapleton’s blog post acknowledged the meeting was “perfectly legal”:

“Pulling this rug out from under us was done the right way, well, legally anyway. Yes, we can appeal. Yes, they are offering us an alternative option. It is a program she was in before. She was not successful in that program. Also, did I mention that it’s a 2 and 1/2 hour bus ride – one way? We aren’t going to do that to her again.”

Swanson, Benzie’s prosecutor, said the Stapleton family’s circumstances may affect how a jury looks at the case, but won’t factor into application of the law.

Attempted murder carries a penalty of life imprisonment with parole.