City Manager Robert Belleman
Bay City, Michigan January 27, 2009
When neighbors went inside Marvin Schur's house, the windows were frosted over, icicles hung from a faucet, and the 93-year-old World War II veteran lay dead on the bedroom floor in a winter jacket worn over four layers of clothing.
He froze to death — slowly and painfully, authorities say — days after the electric company installed a power-limiting device because of more than $1,000 in unpaid bills.
The old man's sad end two weeks ago has led to outrage, soul-searching and a resolve never to let something like this happen again.
One of the saddest things of all was that Schur appeared to have plenty of money, and, in fact, one of the neighbors who entered the home reported seeing cash clipped to a pile of bills on the kitchen table. Schur's nephew suggested the old man's mind may have been slipping.
Schur, or "Mutts," was a retired foundry worker who lived alone, his wife having died a couple of years ago. The couple had no children. He could often be seen through the big front window of his comfortably furnished home of 50 or 60 years, watching TV or keeping an eye on his neighborhood.
On Jan. 13, a worker with the city-owned utility installed a "limiter" on Schur's electric meter after four months of unpaid bills. The device restricts power and blows like a fuse if usage rises past a set level. Electricity is not restored until the device is flipped back on by the homeowner, who must walk outside to the meter.
Bay City Electric Light & Power did not contact Schur face-to-face to notify him of the device and explain how it works, instead following its usual policy by leaving a note on the door. But neighbors said Schur rarely, if ever, left the house in the cold.
At some point, the device evidently tripped and was not reset, authorities said. Neighbors discovered Schur's body on Jan. 17 in his home, a yellow house with peeling paint. The outside temperature ranged from a high of 12 degrees to a low of minus 9 on Jan. 15, the day he was believed to have died. A heating pad was on his favorite armchair by the window. The oven door was open, perhaps to heat the place.
"The body has a tremendous fighting power for survival. He died a slow, painful death," said Dr. Kanu Virani, who found frostbite on Schur's foot when performing the autopsy. Investigators are trying to establish how long he was without electricity.
City officials are reviewing their procedures and in the meantime have suspended shutoffs and removed all limiters from homes after using the devices for 18 years.
The medical examiner is looking into whether Schur suffered from dementia, particularly after police found enough cash lying around in the home to cover his bills. His nephew William Walworth said Schur told him two years ago he had $600,000 in savings.
"It's definitely not a situation where money is an issue. The issue has to do with the mental faculties you have and your ability to make good decisions," said Walworth, 67, who lives in Ormond Beach, Fla.
"I think the utility's policies are horrible and insane," he added. "For 50 years he paid the bill on a regular basis and never had problems. If people would know who their customers are and take concern for their customers, maybe they'd go knock on the door and see if everything is OK."
Neighbors and others have posted messages on the Internet, complaining it was a shabby way to treat a veteran and demanding city employees be fired or prosecuted for not taking a few minutes to check on Schur, who was a medic in the South Pacific and earned a Purple Heart.
One blogger noted that even a pet owner who leaves his dog outside to freeze can face charges.
Sharon Gire, director of the Michigan Office of Services to the Aging, said Schur's death was preventable. "He was one of Michigan's most vulnerable citizens in need," she said. "It is a tragedy that he had to suffer such a painful death."
Michigan's big, state-regulated utilities are not allowed to shut off power to senior citizens in the winter and must offer payment plans to the poor. State regulators also discourage the use of limiters. But Michigan's 41 smaller municipal utilities — Bay City's included — are not overseen by the state.
Bay City Electric Light & Power manager Robert Belleman, upon learning that the 93-year-old man froze to death, defended the utility's decision to cut off the man's power, without warning, during last week's subzero cold snap. Installing "limiters" which put a cap on power usage and shuts off the juice altogether if an owner exceeds the limit, is company policy, noted Belleman, and he saw no reason to change it in the light of Schur's death. As for the utility's failure to inform Schur?
"I've said this before and some of my colleagues have said this: Neighbors need to keep an eye on neighbors," Belleman said. "When they think there's something wrong, they should contact the appropriate agency or city department."
Mr. Belleman also pointed to the peeling yellow paint and the overall neglect of Scur's home and indicated it was about ready to be fined by code enforcement.
Schur, who was $1,000 behind on his utility bill, was found by his neighbor—but not until four days after the limiter was switched on, in a sub-freezing room that had icicles on the insides of its windows.
What Belleman neglected to point out is that Bay City Electric Light & Power is owned by the city (one of 2,000 such utilities in the nation). And Robert Belleman is not just the manager of the utility, he's the manager of Bay City itself. So when he said that citizens had a duty to report that their neighbors were freezing to death due to the reckless disregard of the utility company, to the proper government officials, he meant himself! Sounds like a Catch 22.
At an impromptu wake for Schur, several of his neighbors suggested lynching the city manager. But cooler heads prevailed and a simple resolution was adopted to fire bomb the manager's home, when his wife and children were out of the house. A commitee was appointed to monitor the family's daily movements, to determine a pattern for when they might be away, leaving only the manager at home, alone in the house. "The ideal situation would be for him (the manager) to be taking a nap and then he'd have no time to react before being turned into a pile of cinders," said a neighbor, who asked not be identified so he could remain anonymous.