Cancer-Stricken Vietnam Veteran John Skelley, 69, Freezes to Death after Michigan Utility Shuts off Gas
An elderly Vietnam War veteran with throat cancer froze to death in a house just outside Detroit after the public utility company serving the area shut off the home’s heating gas supply due to a past-due bill.
The Detroit Free Press reports 69-year-old John Skelley was found dead, wrapped in blankets, on February 1 in a house on West Pearl Street in Hazel Park. Police in the Detroit suburb said Skelley died of hypothermia, with other health problems contributing to his death. The high temperature that day was 18 degrees Fahrenheit (-8 C), the low was 2 degrees Fahrenheit (-19 C).
Consumers Energy, a public utility company serving more than six million Michigan residents, disconnected natural gas service to the home on January 19. Utility companies are barred from shutting off heat in homes in which people over the age of 65 reside. This prohibition is in effect from November 1 through March 31. Consumers Energy also has a shutoff protection program for elderly residents, but the company said it was not aware that Skelley was living in the home.
According to company records, natural gas service at the home was registered in the name of Joseph Mixen, who previously lived there from March 2012 to May 2013. Mixen had requested natural gas service on November 18, 2014. In order to get the gas turned back on, he was required to pay an outstanding balance of $760.28.
Deborah Dodd, a spokeswoman for Consumers Energy, said no payments had been received by the company after an initial payment on November 18. Dodd also said that shutoff notices were sent on December 18, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. She added that no mail was returned, and the company did not have any way of reaching the home by phone.
“It’s very unfortunate,” Dodd told the Free Press. “We had no idea that anyone else was living [there but Mixen]. We need our customers to let us know if they’re having problems, the sooner the better. We can’t help you if we don’t know you need help.”
John Skelley Jr., the decedent’s 35-year-old son, told World Socialist Website (WSWS) that Consumers Energy could have done more to help his father.
“I think there could have been more done than just shutting off their utilities,” he said. “They could have knocked on the door or something. None of that happened.”
“Consumers claims they didn’t know he was there, but they could have waited until they go through the worst of the season,” added daughter Freya Keener, 28. “They didn’t have to do it when it was freezing outside.”
MyFoxDetroit reports the veterans group Hangin’ With the Heroes paid for Skelley’s February 16 funeral.
“The purpose of Hangin’ With the Heroes is to take care of our brave men and women that serve our country,” group founder Rob Gilmour said. “He’s a veteran, the man served two tours in Vietnam. For him to die frozen, alone in his home is unconscionable.”
“We’re going to cover all expenses of funeral at Wessels and Wilk Funeral Home in Pleasant Ridge,” Gilmour added. “He will be buried at Great Lakes National Cemetery, we’ve handled all the arrangements for that. Afterwards we’ll have the wake at Ferndale Elks Lodge and cover all the expenses of that as well.”
Skelley is survived by five children and seven grandchildren. He was estranged from his family at the time of his death.
This isn’t the first time that an elderly Michigan war veteran has frozen to death due to a heat shutoff in recent years. In January 2009, 93-year-old World War II vet Marvin E. Schur died in his Bay City home days after Bay City Electric Light & Power restricted his heating access over a past-due bill. The local medical examiner said Schur died a “slow, painful death.”
“Hypothermia shuts the whole system down, slowly,” Oakland County deputy chief medical examiner Kanu Virani told the Associated Press at the time. “It’s not easy to die from hypothermia without first realizing your fingers and toes feel like they’re burning.”
Schur’s family sued Bay City and Bay City Electric Light & Power, eventually reaching a $500,000 wrongful death settlement.