Wiped Phones and the Battle for Evidence in Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Prosecution
In October 2015, then-Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder finally announced that Flint’s water was contaminated with dangerous lead levels. That public admission had come after more than a year of pleading from the city’s residents to examine the situation. The city, Snyder promised, would immediately stop using water from the Flint River, which residents had been drinking for 18 months.
The public announcement raised as many questions as it answered and kick-started a yearslong investigation into how the decision that delivered the toxic water to Flint had been made in the first place, how many people were sickened and killed as a result, and when senior government officials first learned of the deadly consequences.
Along the way, however, investigators who were part of a three-year Flint water investigation beginning in 2016 kept drilling dry holes.
Dr. Eden Wells became Michigan’s chief medical executive in May 2015. By then, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services had been aware for at least seven months of a significant increase in the deadly waterborne Legionnaires’ disease throughout Flint.
But when investigators obtained access to Wells’s phone, they discovered something unusual. “For Dr. Wells’ phone the earliest message is from November 12, 2015,” then-Flint special prosecutor Todd Flood wrote in a subpoena petition obtained by The Intercept. During the key period that investigators were probing, no messages were found. In 2018, a judge ruled that Wells would have to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter, along with obstruction of justice, over her role in the water crisis. (Those charges were dropped by current Attorney General Dana Nessel in 2019; in January 2021, Nessel’s Flint water prosecutors recharged Wells with involuntary manslaughter, misconduct in office, and neglect of duty.)
Other searches turned up similar results. The phone of Tim Becker, MDHHS’s chief deputy director, had no messages on it prior to April 14, 2016, two months before he left his role with MDHHS. Becker testified to having first asked questions about Flint’s Legionella outbreak in January 2015.
Patricia McKane, an epidemiologist with MDHHS who testified that she was pressured to lie by Wells about elevated blood-lead levels in Flint’s children, was found to have only had four text messages on her phone from 2015 and seven total messages. (Wells denied pressuring her to lie.) Fellow MDHHS epidemiologist Sarah Lyon-Callo, director of the state Bureau of Epidemiology and Population Health, who Wells copied in an email responding to accusations by a Wayne State University professor that she was trying to conceal the link between the Flint River switch and the Legionella outbreak, had no messages prior to June 2016.
“Again, for some strange reason the earliest text message in time on her device begins June 20, 2016,” Flood wrote. Wesley Priem, manager of the MDHHS’s Lead and Healthy Homes program, who emailed colleagues erroneously challenging the findings of high blood-lead levels in Flint children discovered by Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, had just one text message found on his state-issued phone from January 22, 2016.
The lack of phone messages from top MDHHS officials was a major red flag to investigators and an obvious impediment to those investigating who knew what and when. Despite department epidemiologists hypothesizing in October 2014 that the source of Flint’s deadly Legionnaires’ disease outbreak was the switch to the Flint River six months earlier, Flint residents weren’t informed of the deadly outbreak until 16 months later, when Snyder announced it in January 2016. PBS found a 43 percent increase in pneumonia deaths in Flint during the 18 months the city received drinking water from the Flint River — and also found that scientists believed that some of those 115 pneumonia deaths could be attributed to Legionnaires’ disease, which has similar symptoms to pneumonia and is often misdiagnosed as such.
Gladyes Williamson holds up a discolored jug of water and chants along with other protestors outside the Farmers Market downtown on April 25, 2015, which marks the one year anniversary of the City of Flint switching from using Detroit water to Flint River water. Flint residents of all ages gathered outside Flint City Hall, located on S. Saginaw Street, with signs, t-shirts, and megaphones before walking throughout many streets downtown to voice their concerns with the public. (Sam Owens/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)A protestor holds up a discolored jug of water outside a farmers market on April 25, 2015, which marked the one-year anniversary of the city of Flint switching from using Detroit water to Flint River water. Photo: Sam Owens/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP
Investigators also discovered that phone data belonging to a key official close to Snyder was completely erased shortly before the Flint criminal investigation was launched.
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