Distrust pervades Flint over dropped criminal charges in advance of town hall

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
"They need to make these people be held accountable for their actions (in the Flint water crisis)," said Flint resident Jetty Walker, 61, left, seen with her mother Georgia Walker, 85, in front of the Flint Municipal Center.

Flint — Jetty Walker wasn't surprised two weeks ago when state prosecutors dropped criminal charges against eight defendants in the Flint water investigation.

Like many of the residents here in this proud but impoverished city, she had long ago come to believe no one would truly be held criminally accountable in the lead-contaminated water crisis scandal. The crisis also has been linked to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 individuals in the region. 

"I was pissed," said Walker, 61, as her 85-year-old mother Georgia Walker cringed at her daughter's answer. "Because they say one thing, they do another. They need to make these people be held accountable for their actions. I didn't create this problem. They did."

Many Flint residents said they are chagrined, saddened but not shocked by the bombshell decision by Attorney General Dana Nessel's team in advance of a Friday town hall.

While prosecutors reserved the right to refile charges as they rebooted the investigation, they also dropped charges of involuntary manslaughter against four officials, including former state Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon and former Chief Medical Executive Eden Wells.

State Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy will speak directly to residents at a two-hour Friday town hall to explain why charges were dropped. Worthy was brought in to help with the investigation.

Hammoud and Worthy have said they needed time to explore new evidence, new persons of interest and an expanded net of potential criminal culpability related to all victims of a 2014-15 Legionnaire’s Disease outbreak.

The prosecutors have already blamed former Attorney General Bill Schuette and Special Prosecutor Todd Flood for bungling the prosecutions. While Attorney General Dana Nessel is not involved in the criminal cases, she did media interviews after the announcement that also heaped blame on her predecessors.

"How strong were these cases in the first place and were they only charged to help Bill Schuette become governor?” the Plymouth Democrat told WDET.

Schuette, Flood and former FBI agent Andy Arena have defended the handling of the investigation. Schuette has argued that charging decisions were made with thoroughness and were reviewed by the Democratic Genesee County prosecutor as well as two retired state judges.

Nessel, who has been handling the civil side of the Flint litigation, and aides on Wednesday quietly visited Flint Mayor Karen Weaver. The attorney general told Weaver she backed Hammoud's decision to dismiss the charges and asked for patience throughout the process to bring justice for Flint residents.

Many Flint residents have said they want nothing less than criminal charges to be brought against former Gov. Rick Snyder. Flood got a Snyder urban affairs aide to testify that the governor was told about the Legionnaires' outbreak up to a month before it was made public in mid-January 2016, but no charges were filed against Snyder.

Arthur Woodson, a community activist in Flint who attended nearly every preliminary exam hearing for the criminal defendants in the water crisis cases, said it's a "shifting mood" in Flint in anticipation of the town hall. Emotions are high and raw, he said.

Michael Brown, 52, at Master's Beauty and Barber Shop, said, "You might as well take 'trust' out of the dictionary when it comes to how the people feel about our people in office in Flint."

"Some people are upset, some people are anxious to find out what's going on, some people are highly pissed off," Woodson said. "What really helped everybody is when we understood 'dismissed without prejudice,' meaning it (the charges) can be brought back. So I think that helped a lot of people to get over their anxiety and their fear of not anything being done."

Michael Brown, 52, sat in a north end barbershop this week and reflected about how "mentally, I'm truly affected by" the water crisis that exposed the majority black city to high levels of lead after the city switched its water source and didn't properly treat the drinking water. 

People have been dying, he said — a familiar refrain from scores of residents here who argue the lead and Legionella exposure was a trigger to illness and death.

"I was not surprised at all," Brown said of the charges being dropped. He plans on attending the town hall Friday. "Nobody is accountable for their actions."

When asked if there's anything Hammoud or Worthy could say to convince him that justice is coming, he retorted, "I have to see it in black and white. Show me. We've got to turn this into a show me better than tell me.

"There's no trust."

Weaver, who was critical of the two-week waiting period for the town hall, said she hopes Hammoud and Worthy give residents thorough answers.

"We do want explanations, and the residents of the city of Flint deserve explanations because right from the beginning that's one thing that has never changed is we've always said people need to be held accountable," the mayor said. "And that means more than charges being pressed, it means charges and convictions."

Flint Mayor Karen Weaver, interviewed in her office Wednesday, said, "One thing that has never changed is we've always said people need to be held accountable. And that means more than charges being pressed, it means charges and convictions."

The mayor said state officials told her there were new documents and devices found and "evidence that really needed to be looked at if we wanted convictions to happen."

"If what they are saying has merit, then I think they need to explain that to the people," Weaver said. "We would hate for no convictions to come."

But Melissa Mays, an activist who is part of Water You Fighting For and Flint Rising, isn't buying Hammoud and Worthy's argument that Flood and his team failed in their investigation.

"Had any of these people in the AG's office now spoken with us, they'd realize how involved we are and that's our evidence too, that we helped with," said Mays, who argues the city's water remains unsafe despite state testing of water that finds lead amounts under the federal action level.

"You're slapping us in the face saying that it's a total wreck, and it was all done badly. No, it wasn't. None of this stuff is new."

Activist Melissa May at the Totem Bookstore in Flint, said, "They want to hold us accountable for these water bills. The politicians skate and then we're the scapegoats."

Mays said with the dismissal of the criminal charges earlier this month, "how much weight are they going to have now" if the attorney general's office brings back new charges.

Mays said she worried the Attorney General's office is undermining future prosecutions.

"They've already said the evidence is garbage, charges are garbage, so any halfway quasi-defense attorney is going to be like, 'You're trying to charge them with the same evidence?'" she said. "Ummm, you tossed all this out yourself."

In addition to Lyon and Wells, charges were dropped against six other state and Flint officials, including state-appointed emergency managers who made the switch from Lake Huron to the corrosive Flint River in 2014.

Helen Brewer, 61, who lives on the north end of the city, said it was wrong for prosecutors to drop the charges as Flint is still in the midst of the water crisis. She said she can't take a shower at home because she still breaks out in rashes.

"To me, they should have never, ever, dropped it," Brewer said.

She isn't sure if she will attend the town hall meeting but doesn't believe anyone's explanations.

"All the ones that knew from (Gov.) Snyder on down need to be held accountable," Brewer said. "They want to hold us accountable for these water bills. We've got to pay or else they're going to shut you off. The politicians skate and then we're the scapegoats."


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