Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 4, 2013

Charges loom for Benzie woman in murder-suicide attempt


— TRAVERSE CITY — A Benzie County woman who for years desperately battled insurance companies and bureaucrats to secure help for her acutely autistic, physically abusive daughter could face charges of trying to kill the girl in a failed murder-suicide attempt.

Kelli Stapleton, who penned a blog, “The Status Woe”, to chronicle her experiences with daughter Issy Stapleton, 14, remained hospitalized in Grand Rapids late Wednesday after she allegedly tried to kill herself and Issy on Tuesday in Elberta, near Frankfort.

Benzie authorities said they expected to charge a woman with attempted murder. Police found and rescued Kelli and Issy from a van. Both already were unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Kelli Stapleton and her husband Matt — community leaders in the Lake Michigan shoreline communities of Elberta and Frankfort — shared their harrowing story of life with Issy, an intelligent but abusive autistic child, in a February story in the Record-Eagle.

Issy often attacked her mother and a sibling, and her parents continually ran into roadblocks with insurance companies, treatment facilities and various government agencies in a quest for help that devastated them emotionally and financially.

“She is a great kid with a lot of potential,” Kelli told the Record-Eagle in February. “She’s so smart. She started reading when she was two. She’s got so much to offer, but her aggression is going to limit her life as much as anything.”

Kelli Stapleton rallied neighbors and strangers alike through her blog, an online journal laden with family stories of challenge and heartbreak. Issy's attacks twice sent Kelli to hospital emergency rooms, and Kelli voiced fear for Issy's siblings, particularly a sister.

“I felt like I needed witnesses," she told the Record-Eagle. “If I didn’t survive this situation, I wanted people to know that I was a good mom and I did everything I could do, and I asked for help from all these resources. … I’m grateful people read it and wanted to help.”

Her husband Matt — principal at Frankfort High School and the school's athletic director and varsity football coach — spoke with a Record-Eagle editor Wednesday evening and declined comment.


Mother, daughter found unconscious

Benzie County Prosecutor Sara Swanson would not confirm Stapleton as the suspect nor her daughter as the victim, but said she authorized a felony attempted murder charge. The mother is expected to be arraigned yet this week in 85th District Court.

Swanson said family members reported the woman, 45, and her daughter missing on Tuesday. An extensive search conducted by sheriff's deputies and Michigan State Police eventually located them in a parked, full-size van on Tuesday about 6:30 p.m. in a remote area in Blaine Township.

State police Lt. Kip Belcher said two portable charcoal grills were burning inside the vehicle and the woman and child were unconscious when authorities came upon it. He said the van's windows were shut and investigators believe the woman tried to kill herself and her daughter.

"I'm not aware of any information that she was bound or restrained," Belcher said of the girl.

Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Tang-Anderson said authorities don't believe the incident was an accident.

The mother and daughter both suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning and were transported to Munson Medical Center before being transferred to a Grand Rapids-area hospital.

Belcher said the woman is expected to fully recover, but the girl may have suffered permanent brain damage. He said doctors should have a better grasp of the teen's condition today.

"Hopefully, we'll get some good news," he said.


A 'tragedy'

The incident sent shock waves through the tight-knit Frankfort and Elberta communities.

Reggie Manville, who sits on the Elberta Village Council and coaches varsity basketball at Frankfort High School with Matt Stapleton, said the community was well aware of the family's financial struggles and raised funds to pay for Issy's expensive therapy. He said their thoughts were with the Stapleton family.

"This news that we just had today is really disappointing," Manville said. "I haven't had a chance to talk to Matt, but he knows he has the support of the community and school system."

Wes Blizzard is a close family friend of the Stapletons and a member of the Frankfort-Elberta school board. He called the news of the attempted suicide a tragedy.

“I’m sure everybody will be stunned,” Blizzard said. “It’s a tragedy and we just hope for the best for them.”

Stapleton family members declined to comment, citing the criminal investigation. But Dave Stapleton, Matt's brother, said:

"We can just say our thoughts and prayers are with Issy," he said.

Swanson said the investigation could yield additional charges.

"It's always possible, once we have more information," she said.

Attempted murder carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment with parole.

Matt and Kelli told the Record-Eagle in February they were determined to have Issy live with them for the rest of their lives.

“She’s gotten to that point where she can’t help herself,” Matt said. “She’s hurting herself and she’s hurting others. She’ll always be autistic and she’ll always be with us, but unless we’re able to get some help for some of these behaviors she has, I don’t even know how to predict how the next 20 years will look like. Right now, this is the first time in a long time we have hope.”

“If she was permanently broken, maybe we could have given up at some point,” Kelli said. “But she’s really not.”

Staff writer BRIAN McGILLIVARY contributed to this story.