Mich. rep found dead after drunk driving arrest

Jonathan Oosting, and Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan state Rep. John Kivela was found dead Tuesday in an apparent suicide less than 24 hours after his arrest on suspicion of “super drunk” driving in Clinton County.

After 1 p.m., the Lansing police were called to a residence in the 200 block of Chestnut Street.

The Marquette Democrat had battled alcoholism and sought treatment after he pleaded guilty to a similar drunken driving charge in 2015.

Lansing police were called Tuesday around 1 p.m. to a residence on the 200 block of Chestnut Street, where a man was discovered not breathing, said Public Information Officer Robert Merritt. The body was identified as that of Kivela.

“We are still doing an investigation, but there are no obvious indications of foul play,” Merritt said, adding that no cause of death can be determined until an autopsy is done.

Kivela’s body, covered in a white sheet, was wheeled out of a dark brick house several blocks from the Capitol on a stretcher by Lansing emergency first responders. A Lansing Police crime scene investigator would not share any further details.

Michigan state Rep. John Kivela

The mood in the House was somber following an announcement from House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-Dewitt, and House Minority Leader Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, and the House adjourned for the day. Democrats and Republicans emerged from separate emotional closed-door caucus meetings, and Democrats hugged each other and offered condolences to colleagues. Several lawmakers had tears in their eyes.

Democrat State Rep. Robert Kosowski of Westland and Democrat Sen. David Knezek of Dearborn Heights were often in and out of the house where Kivela’s body was found. Neighbor David Waymire, a partner in the public relations firm Martin Waymire, said the 47-year-old Kivela stayed there during the week while in session as other lawmakers have in the past to avoid long drives back to their district.

Knezek wrote on Facebook that he was a roommate in Kivela’s house on Chestnut and that they had talked on Tuesday morning. Kivela mentioned resigning from office and seeking treatment, the senator said, adding that he and others would have supported Kivela if he sought help.

“I gave you a hug, I said that I loved you, you said that you loved me,” Knezek wrote. “Those were our last words to each other.”

Others hailed Kivela as a unifier.

“He was someone who tried to bring us all together,” Rep. Andy Schor, D-Lansing, said with tears in his eyes. “This is just a tragedy. It’s tragic.”

Schor served with Kivela the past five years in the state Legislature, and the Upper Peninsula lawmaker stood beside him in February when Schor announced he was running for mayor of Lansing.

“I had not had the chance to check with him recently — which is going to haunt me — but he had been getting treatment,” Schor said, noting he had been at multiple receptions and events where Kivela abstained from drinking alcohol.

“But I don’t know the last week or two what happened or what was going on. Clearly I missed it, others missed it, and getting pulled over last night must have been the tipping point.”

Leonard said members were devastated by the news.

“He was a good friend and partner to everyone he met in the House, and he was an absolute joy to work with. He cared deeply about his family, his community, and his work as a public servant, and it came through strongly in every conversation we had,” Leonard said in a statement.

“I am deeply saddened at the passing of state Rep. John Kivela,” Singh said in a statement. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife, Sandy, and his two children. He was a champion for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and a strong advocate for working people throughout Michigan.

“He was my friend, and I will miss him. We will always remember the impact that he made on this institution and the state of Michigan.”

Gov. Rick Snyder shared the “sad news” at a news conference announcing his nominee for the Michigan Supreme Court to replace retired Justice Robert Young Jr.

“We’ve been told that Rep. Kivela has passed,” Snyder said. “...He’s had a number of issues in his life and apparently he took his own life. Our thoughts and prayers are with he and his family. He was a great guy. Brian and I were both with him most of Friday (in the Upper Peninsula). We’ll miss him.”

The apparent suicide followed the Monday incident, when Kivela was traveling south Monday on US-127 north of Lansing. “Numerous” motorists reported his erratic driving, said Clinton County Sheriff Lawrence Jerue.

Kivela’s blood alcohol was more than twice the legal limit of 0.08, which qualifies him for prosecution under the state’s so-called super drunk law, Jerue said. He was released early Tuesday after posting a $500 bond.

Kivela pleaded guilty to super drunk charges in 2015 after he was pulled over for swerving in Clinton County, which he passed through when traveling between his district and the state Capitol. He said at the time he was battling alcoholism and had checked into a treatment program.

“It’s a sad situation,” Jerue said of Kivela’s latest arrest. “Fortunately no one was hurt.”

A sheriff’s deputy pulled Kivela over Monday on US-127 near Maple Rapids Road in northern Clinton County, Jerue said. The deputy conducted field sobriety tests and Kivela was taken into custody. He spent most of the night in jail and was released after sobering up and posting bail.

Kivela was sentenced to 12 months probation in the 2015 super drunk case and ordered to pay fines of roughly $1,500. He also had been charged with transporting an open container of whiskey, but that charge was dropped before sentencing.

Knezek said he hoped some good could come from Kivela’s tragedy.

“I hope that others will learn from your story and get the help they need when they need it,” he wrote on Facebook. “Mistakes were made but that’s not the John I’m going to remember. Warm smile, salt and pepper hair, Upper Peninsula charm, a bear in the Legislature.

“That’s my John Kivela.”