Losing a loved one is hard enough, but on Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, when Renee Klein lost her mother, the typical grief and pain quickly morphed into a year-long hellish nightmare.
When Alma Pluth, 91, died at her residence at St. Luke’s Home in Dickinson, Klein received gratitude for caring for her ailing mother and sympathy from friends and family — followed by accusations and interrogation by family and law enforcement, culminating in formal charges from the Stark County State’s Attorney in October of 2018 for aggravated assault and reckless endangerment related to the death of her mother.
After nearly a year of being the subject of extensive investigation, all charges against Klein were dropped at the request of Assistant Stark County State’s Attorney James Hope.
Not allowed to grieve
Through tears, Klein spoke with The Press by phone from her home in South Range, Wis., about the worst year of her life.
“Throughout this entire ordeal, I have not been allowed to grieve for my mother,” she said. “This has taken my entire family from me. I lost my mother, which is hard enough, but as a result of these charges and the publicity they received, I’ve lost my family, who hasn’t talked to me since the funeral.”
It was after speaking with nurses and representatives of St. Luke’s that a sibling of Klein first took the allegations to the police — allegations purporting that Klein purposefully turned her mother’s oxygen machine down, causing her death.
After being charged, Klein said her siblings enjoyed vacations while she struggled daily with nightmares and anxiety, never knowing what the next day would bring.
“A 10th wedding anniversary, birthdays, Christmas and Easter only brought more pain,” Klein said. “A year of living under false accusations of this nature takes away health, happiness and the freedom to plan ahead because of constantly changing court dates. Your life is no longer your own.”
Klein added, “My mother requested I sing at her funeral, and I agreed. The night before the funeral, I was being interrogated by Detective Shane Holtz and accused of murdering her for hours on end. The funeral was beyond difficult.”
According to a July 9 motion to dismiss, the Stark County State’s Attorney Office requested that all charges be dismissed against Klein on the grounds that, “The deposition of the State’s primary witness revealed that the said witness terminated her employment with St. Luke’s under circumstances that would call the witness’s credibility into question at trial.”
The information available to the public following the charges being filed painted Klein as a heartless daughter responsible for the death of her mother.
“The charges levied against me hinged on a single person’s testimony. Testimony that even the most rudimentary digging into would have been exposed to be false,” Klein said. “The Press reported what was given to them by my accuser. My siblings, the nursing home, the police and state’s attorney all had opportunities to take a better look at this and see that there were huge discrepancies.”
An opaque transparency
Compounding the public’s ability to gather information on the matter is that in North Dakota, a copy of a death record may be issued to the general public only in certain circumstances and never with a cause of death listed.
Klein provided a copy of the death certificate of her mother to The Press, which doesn’t list the immediate cause of death as a homicide, but as natural causes.
“Five different entities share the blame for the ball that started rolling with a lie, the ball that turned into a runaway freight train that slammed into my husband and me,” Klein said.
According to Klein, her siblings had the chance to hear both sides before making a judgment but did not do so. Klein says she tried to talk to St. Luke’s administrators but her calls went unanswered.
“Police went down the ‘guilty’ path without giving me the opportunity to show why this was false,” Klein said.
At one point, Klein reached out to the detective to ask him to take a better look at her accuser.
After the news broke of the charges, the internet filled with commentary and opines on Facebook, Twitter and multiple blogs — each circulating speculation and vilification.
Klein’s attorney, Lloyd Suhr of Bismarck, said that the truth of Klein’s case should be brought to light in a public forum.
“From the first moment I spoke to Renee, up until the order of dismissal in the case, I was convinced that she was innocent of the charges that had been brought against her,” Suhr said. “I am very glad that we were able to bring successful closure for her in the criminal process. (The media) will hopefully help bring positive closure for her in the public forum as well.”
According to the Dickinson Police Department, when the charges were first filed, the case centered heavily on an investigation “leading detectives to believe that Klein had intentionally turned down the oxygen level on her mother’s oxygen machine causing her mother’s oxygen levels to drop.”
When first commenting on the case in April, the Dickinson Police Department stated that evidence collected in the form of medical records, St. Luke’s employee records, DNA, an oxygen machine and video and photographs from the day of Pluth’s death resulted in the formal charges.
After the dismissal of charges, Capt. Joe Cianni of the Dickinson Police Department, issued a statement.
“Unfortunately, when the investigation was initiated by the DPD, the victim’s body had already been prepared for funeral services and her room had already been sanitized by nursing home staff, putting us behind the proverbial eight ball from the onset,” he said. “Regardless of the immediate hurdles this case presented, detectives conducted a thorough, extensive investigation due to the serious allegations of nefarious activity surrounding the death of Ms. Pluth. During the course of this investigation (spanning nearly 8 months) detectives conducted many interviews and expended countess hours completing reports, acquiring search warrants and organizing facts. When this case reached the point of culmination it was presented in its entirety to the Stark County State’s Attorney Office (SCSAO) for criminal review.”
Cianni continued, “How this case ultimately proceeded through and ended in the judicial system was at the hands of the involved attorneys and judges. Yes, this case was dismissed, but I assure you the dismissal had nothing to do with shoddy or less than thorough investigation conducted by the staff of the DPD. This type of case is inherently difficult to prove/prosecute.”
Documents that became public after the charges were dropped suggest that the investigation relied heavily on the circumstantial testimony of one individual -- Tabitha Mauri, a then-licensed practical nurse with St. Luke’s, who has since terminated her employment and ultimately surrendered her license to the North Dakota Board of Nursing.
The key witness
According to a deposition of Christopher Haseleu, director of nursing at St. Luke’s Home, Mauri quit, but she would have been fired for multiple medication discrepancies and supporting video evidence showing that Mauri’s statements concerning the discrepancies were patently false.
The North Dakota Board of Nursing confirmed that Mauri’s license has been surrendered and that she is no longer permitted to work in any nursing or nursing-related roles in North Dakota.
According to the disciplinary paperwork on file with the Board of Nursing, Mauri acknowledged that on March 13, she documented that she had given morphine to a resident seven times; however, evidence showed she only entered the resident’s room five times, leaving two doses of morphine unaccounted for. On March 17, she documented that she had given morphine to a resident seven times; however, the evidence showed that she only entered the resident’s room twice - leaving five doses of morphine unaccounted for. These discrepancies were among a litany of others.
Attempts to reach Mauri for comment were unsuccessful.
The truth is always the truth
Klein said that while she doesn’t believe she could ever fully restore her own name, even with the dropped charges, she hopes that her mother’s name, at least, can be restored by her speaking out.
“I was actually smiling today. It’s the first day I’ve had real hope that things could get better,” Klein said a week after charges were dropped. “I’m overjoyed at the thought of Mom being someone to be remembered for herself.”
Klein continued, “A search of Mom’s name or mine still brings up countless sites with articles saying I was charged with causing her death, along with hateful comments and disgust.”
More important than those who accused, vilified and enabled the accusations to progress to the point of criminal charges, were the army of loving people who surrounding Klein and her husband with prayers and support.
“They helped us through the darkest days imaginable,” she said. “We quickly learned who our friends were and that we had countless friends.”
Klein said that while the last year has been difficult, she hasn’t forgotten the final words her mother said to her only a few days before her death.
“She was very insistent that it was important and that I needed to remember it. She was very clear and emphatic at a time when she was starting to not always respond,” Klein said. “Make of it what you will, but I believe it was a message from God to help us survive. She said, ‘No one can take away love, no one can take away the truth and no one can take away comfort.’”
Klein continued, “The truth is always the truth no matter what is said... lies do not change the truth. God knows, Mom knows, I know and anyone who knows my heart knows … I can’t say I’d do it all over again for people to learn some lessons, but at this point I’d be thrilled if some kind of good came out of this situation.”
Who was Alma Pluth?
Alma was born in Hebron, to Wella and Rosina (Sayler) Heinle on April 20, 1927. She was the youngest of 10 children and lived on a farm south of Hebron.
After graduating from Hebron High School in 1944, she attended Dickinson State College. She was a rural school teacher in her home area for four years. After moving to Bismarck, she worked in civil service work for the Army Corps of Engineers Garrison Dam District (at Fort Lincoln), which was at the time building the Garrison Dam. She married her high school classmate John Pluth, on Jan. 19, 1951. After taking several years to raise her family, she found employment at the Dickinson State College Relations and Alumni office for 20 years and enjoyed working there with young people.
When not working, she enjoyed music, playing piano, working with flowers and especially reading and crocheting (making afghans for everyone in the family as well as many others) as life became more quiet. She belonged to Homemakers Club and church circles for many years and sang in her church choir.
She loved her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren dearly and she and John took many trips to see them all as well as traveling quite extensively in the US, including Hawaii.
Alma is survived by her children, Renee (Doug) Klein, Deb (Pete) Mirabito, Karen (Jim) Sinness and Jeff (Michelle) Pluth; son-in-law, Alvin Settje; grandchildren, Becky (Matt) Yahna, Melanie Summers, Jennifer (Ryan) Stelter, Andrew (Eunyoung) Mirabito, Mark (Devan) Mirabito, Kristin (Alex) Billings and Stephanie (Jon) Forness; great-grandchildren, Brady and Taylor Yahna; Kendra and Erika Jones; Luke, Kinley and Emerie Stelter; Anthony and Evan Mirabito; Andrew and Logan Billings; and Haley and Noah Forness; and special friends, Vicki and Jim Haaland.
She was preceded in death by her husband, John, June 1, 2002; daughter, Bev Settje, June 7, 2015; four brothers, Alvin, Jacob, Herbert and Reinhold; five sisters, Elsie, Annie, Lydia, Ruth and Lorraine.