DICKINSON — 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 Forum News Service 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 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.”
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.
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.