Eric VanDussen has never forgotten
By Anne Stanton
If you missed watching Archie Kiels marijuana trial reported this
week in the Express, you can still turn to Channel 97 and catch it in
its entirety on Up North TV. Same with Joni Holbrooks admission to
second-degree murder earlier this month when she confessed to
snapping after years of her husbands alleged emotional, sexual, and
Eric VanDussen, 35, is behind the video camera at these trials, and
he does it for free. He also reports for the Benzie County
Record-Patriot and WIAA, the public radio station in Interlochen that
actually pays pretty well.
Before VanDussen became a full-time freelance reporter in January, he
worked as a construction worker, trying to fit in reporting on the
side. Hes not a trained journalist, but he certainly knows the law
and has arrived at his freelance career with a passion for fairness.
His presence in the courtroom and government meetings has changed the
way Benzie County does business because they know someone is watching
them, said Sheriff Rory Heckman.
It makes some of the people who run the departments a little scared,
a little leery, and thats good. We could do with more Eric
VanDussens. Everyone has a right to question their government, and
they damn well should, along with the decisions made. Eric asks
questions and I embrace that, Heckman said.
VanDussen said his fire to write and report comes from a head-smashing
incident he endured at the hands of a Benzie County deputy. The date
he doesnt even have to think aboutJanuary 25, 1993.
He was a troubled 17-year-old teen at the time with a drinking problem
and legally emancipated from his family. Just before midnight, on
January 23, he walked about a mile through the cold air to play cards
at a party in Benzonia. He arrived about an hour after a group of five
guys had beat up his friend, who escaped out the window.
To make a long story short, two of the teens came back to finish the
job. The kid saw them at the door and escaped, making VanDussen the
new bulls-eye. The fight was fierce and quick.
They smashed beer bottles over my head, took chairs, smashed them on
me, broke the chairs, took the broken pieces and started beating me
with them, and this is in the police report.
I carried a knife all the time with me; it was kind of stupid, he
continued. I acknowledge that now, but I thought it was cool, and I
had taken it off a belt clip, and it was laying on a table right next
to me, when they busted in the door. I grabbed it off the table, and
pulled it out when I was backed in the corner. The one kid jumped on
me, and thats when I stuck him (near his throat and in the chest) He
was injured very badly. I freaked out and took off, he said.
He consulted with the mother of his temporary family and decided to
turn himself into the sheriffs department and tell them what
happened. Within 12 hours, the prosecutor exonerated him and refused
to press charges, although he did file felonious assault charges
against the two teens, who were later convicted. The boy who was
stabbed received stitches and was released the same day from Paul
Oliver Memorial Hospital.
HIGH SCHOOL INCIDENT
VanDussens troubles werent over, though. When he went to school, the
high school principal told him he didnt want him at a basketball game
without supervision. VanDussen, bruised and battered from the night
before, explained that the prosecutor had exonerated him and that
supervision wasnt required at athletic events. It ended in a
confrontation and VanDussen using the f-word. A Benzie County
Sheriffs deputy arrived and asked him to step outside. VanDussen said
he wouldnt leave unless arrested, and again told this authority
figure to f- off. At that point the deputy allegedly slammed VanDussen
against the wall and smashed his face into two sets of swinging doors.
He then allegedly grabbed VanDussen by his hair and threw him into his
VanDussen was found guilty of attempted resisting and obstructing
arrest and disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. He was found not guilty
The conviction was overturned a year later by 19th Circuit Court James
Batzer who wrote in his opinion that VanDussen had not disturbed the
peace and did not require supervision at a sports event. Since no
violation of law had occurred, defendant should not have been
arrested, he wrote.
Swearing at school violates school rules, but is not a criminal
offense. Since the arrest was unlawful, the defendant was justified
in using such reasonable force as is necessary to prevent or to resist
the arrest, Batzer wrote, citing the Michigan case, People v. Gray.
To this day, VanDussen, who was expelled from high school (he was a
junior), wishes he would have sued the sheriffs department. Instead,
he went onto earn a GED and began working construction jobs. But he
Fast forward six years to 1999. Russ Townsend was at home when his
wife called 9-1-1 to complain about a drunk and obnoxious man whom the
couple was trying to kick out of the house. The only problem was that
the responding five or six deputies assumed she was calling about her
husband. When they went to arrest Townsend, he told the deputies to
They beat Townsend up pretty bad, just like they did me, VanDussen
said. Townsend sued the department in federal court. VanDussen got
wind of the lawsuit and offered to help Bloomfield Hills attorney,
John Peters, research the case. His assignment: to prove a pattern of
police misconduct and to gather witnesses for the trial.
Thats when VanDussen became intimately acquainted with the state and
federal Freedom of Information (FOI) laws that allow citizens to
obtain information from any public body, which must hand over the
requested documents, unless its specifically exempted in the law.
VanDussen requested from the sheriffs department all citizen
complaints, depositions, and the amount of settlements paid out since
1980all fair game under FOI.
Bob Blank, the sheriff at the time, and the county Board of
Commissioners (which had records of the settlements) refused to
fulfill the FOI requests, so VanDussen sued them both. I didnt know
what I was doing, so I winged it. I looked at other peoples lawsuits
and modeled mine after theirs. I found there was no way they could
withhold it from me.
VanDussen served as his own attorney at the beginning, but two
attorneys eventually took it over, their fees contingent on VanDussen
winning his case.
Lawsuits mounted as time went along. The county board of commissioners
had the habit of going into closed session to discuss lawsuits filed
against them, including the FOI suits, yet without stating a
justifiable reason to do so, as required by the Open Meetings Act.
They did it ten different times, and the only way to get minutes of a
closed session is to sue, and so I did. This was around 2004, 2005,
Again, he won. The judge ordered the county to produce the minutes.
The countys legal fees, court costs, and contempt sanctions related
to VanDussens lawsuits totaled more than $240,000. They were also
ordered to pay about $50,000 to compensate VanDussen for his attorney
fees. VanDussen himself only received $1,500, the maximum amount
allowed under the law ($500 per lawsuit). Batzer wrote in his decision
that Blanks refusal to comply with the FOIA requests were arbitrary
and capricious. In 2006, Batzer held Benzie County in contempt for
not providing the requested documents and imposed a $10,000 sanction
$2 MILLION SPENT
So once VanDussen finally did receive the information he was
looking for, what did he find? The county taxpayers since 1980 had
unknowingly dished out more than $2 million for court and legal fees,
And Townsends case? VanDussen was one of the eight witnesses who
testified about their experiences with the county deputies. Townsend
ultimately settled with the county for $60,000. VanDussen received
nothing except a little satisfaction.
Benzie County had it rough for a while. The Traverse City Record-Eagle
was also going after the department over the FOI issue and won a
lawsuit. Eventually, Sheriff Blank was punished by voters who rejected
two millage requests, forcing the department to make drastic cuts.
Blank is now out and Rory Heckman took office in 2008.
Heckman has nothing but praise for VanDussen, who said he did the
right thing by going through the court system to address his
Eric spent a lot of time learning, a lot of time schooling himself,
asking questions; hes very intuitive, he said. Hes even argued his
cases in front of a law judge and won. Those early days were
challenging. But Eric and I get along very well because I understand
the Freedom of Information Act. Theres no argument here. What do you
need? Ill give it to you. I do that with all requests. The law is
black and white, there are not a lot of gray areas, and we rarely have
VanDussen also learned the criminal system, he said.
I told him, You should have gone to law school. He writes well.
Hes logical in his arguments. The other departments, when they go
against him, they soon find out, hes right. Some actually fear him,
to be honest with you. Thats a good thing. Heres why. Government has
to be transparent at all levels, and, as soon as they try secret
talks, double-dipping, thats bad; thats not what people want in
their government, even on a local level. No backroom dealingand
thats what Eric has done for Benzie County.
DATELINES FOX HUNT
As his credibility has grown as a journalist, VanDussen began
reporting for newspaper and public radio, as well as providing news
tips to the Traverse City Record-Eagle and TV 7&4. Dateline, the
national TV show, talked to him about the Holbrook case.
We were talking about the case, and they asked me, How good looking
is she? What about the attorney? The prosecutor? Then they looked at
my videotapes on Up North TV. They thought her attorney, Jesse
Williams, wasnt bad, but they decided she didnt fit the bill, he
Despite Datelines abrupt lack of interest, VanDussens taping
provided viewers a chance at unsanitized glimpses into her life that
have gone unreported. Forensics pathologist Stephen Cohle testified
about the autopsy and determined that Paul Holbrook had an old head
injury in his frontal lobe that could have caused behavioral problems.
Second, he showed evidence of several minor heart attacks. And third,
he had rings on both his nipples.
The defense attorney also asked him repeatedly about whether
Holbrooks penis had been pierced for a ring (an indication of sexual
kinks) to which Cohle responded, he didnt see any hole, although he
Eric deserves some real credit for contributing to community access
TV, and calling to our attention the raw material in the pretrial,
difficult adult stuff, said Joe VanderMuellen, executive director of
LIAA and Up North TV. He suggested we review it with our advisory
committee, and we felt it showed foresight and concern for our
community. The advisory committee decided to allow the video to run
after 8 p.m. in order to reduce the risk of children watching it
unsupervised. We chose a very conservative path in terms of showing
VanDussen feels that hes been vindicated over the years by public
officials, as well as those in the media. As if to prove it,
VanDussen, who was sitting in the county commissioners meeting room
for this interview, said an enthusiastic hello to a Mark Roper. He
introduced him as a county commissioner he once sued. Roper gave a
friendly hello back.
I think public perception of me has definitely changed, even if
people may still not appreciate everything that I do, VanDussen said.
A lot of people were irritated that I cost the county a boatload of
money. They thought I was after the money; it took some time for them
to realize that I wasnt getting any. The money that was spent was the
county trying to defend themselves against my lawsuits to get public
records that I had every right to obtain. Now my relationship with
public officials and law enforcement is completely different than it
was 10 or 11 years ago.
I am having the most fun Ive ever had in my life, even though Im
dirt poor. I wake up in the morning and I dont feel like my body is
going to fall apart because thats what construction work was doing to