TRAVERSE CITY — Marilyn Lucille Palmer hanged herself less than three months before her 37th birthday.
Palmer was three weeks into her sentence at Grand Traverse County’s jail for felony identity theft. The pants strung up in the shower ensured she wouldn’t complete it.
The mother of three died on Feb. 28, 2018 after she was found lifeless, next to an open Bible.
She was the second person to die by suicide in the jail in less than a year, the third since 2009.
Investigation reports revealed handwritten notes in which Palmer, of Gaylord, begged for her prescribed anxiety medication. She’d also submitted several health service requests before her death — the final one, just hours before she hanged herself.
Cellmates said Palmer was distraught over missing Easter and her son’s 13th birthday.
On Wednesday, the County Board of Commissioners approved a settlement offer for Palmer’s mother, Venus Telfor, and the rest of her family. It comes after “confidential,” “facilitated mediation,” said County Administrator Nate Alger.
It also comes seven months after the finalization of a $125,000 settlement for the family of Allan Halloway, who killed himself in the jail in 2017.
“Every time we talk about it, it becomes new and raw and fresh,” Telfor said.
Commissioners debated the offer in closed session and, after returning to vote on the matter, declined to publicize the total sum.
“It’s a negotiation. If some commissioner makes it seem like we might go for a higher number, it can affect negotiations,” Board Chair Rob Henschel said of Wednesday’s closed session. “It will come out eventually.”
He and Alger both declined to share the county’s reasoning for keeping the offer amount under wraps. The first $75,000 of any such settlement comes from taxpayer-funded county coffers — insurance foots the bill after that, Alger said.
The family collected evidence and built a case with Attorney Jesse Williams, who also represented the Halloway family.
“In that process, we compiled what we believe were legal cause of action,” Williams said Thursday.
They shared no plans to file litigation.
Williams declined further comment before the settlement offer hits his desk.
Commissioner Gordie La Pointe said commissioners “had very little input” during the 17-some minute closed-door discussion.
The Open Meetings Act sets guidelines for when public bodies may enter closed session — settlement discussions can be private as long as pending litigation is involved, which is not the case. However, a board can also shutter doors to discuss a matter of attorney-client privilege — a move not detailed under OMA, but allowed under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.
Michigan Press Association Legal Counsel Jennifer Dukarski said the information should instead be treated as “a matter of public concern.”
“It creates challenges for transparency,” she said Thursday afternoon.
La Pointe said getting the public involved at this point would have little use.
“It’s a discussion between two parties. Until it’s signed, there’s no value in disclosing that information from either side,” he said.
Other county commissioners — Betsy Coffia, Sonny Wheelock Jr., Ron Clous and Bryce Hundley — did not return calls for comment. Nor did Deputy Administrator Chris Forsyth, Deputy Civil Counsel Kit Tholen, Attorney Greg Grant or Sheriff Tom Bensley.
Investigations yielded by Palmer’s death revealed a troubling narrative.
Palmer’s cellmates claimed they were often described as “troublemakers,” denied feminine hygiene products and had their medications — including Trazadone, a drug used for anxiety and depression with potential for withdrawal symptoms prescribed to Palmer — withheld, according to the Traverse City Police Department’s investigation report.
Palmer wrote on her final health service request that her script had “been out several days,” the report notes.
Henschel declined to discuss whether he thought the case pointed to negligence.
“It certainly is concerning — suicide in the jail, out of the jail,” he said. “However, looking at the individual (statistics), I don’t see where we have more than average. I don’t think it’s isolated to Grand Traverse County.”
Now, the offer awaits consideration by the Palmer family.
It’s only one of the ripples of the 36-year-old’s death.
In April, commissioners approved a $15,000 bump for modifications to the jail’s showers to remove tie-off points that could be used for nooses. The county also recently entered into an expanded contract with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health for services at the jail.
They are appreciated steps forward, Telfor said.
“We were not in it for the money — we hoped they would feel some culpability and do something for the children,” she said. “It was more about getting the word out about the problems they’re facing at the jail — and there’s a lot of things that’ve gotten a lot better.
“But there’s still a ways to go.”