Head bowed, Megan Schnipke, the last of three defendants charged in the death of Phyllis Campbell at Hilty Memorial Home last January, reacts as family members express their grief and outrage. (Putnam Sentinel/Steven Coburn-Griffis)
Head bowed, Megan Schnipke, the last of three defendants charged in the death of Phyllis Campbell at Hilty Memorial Home last January, reacts as family members express their grief and outrage. (Putnam Sentinel/Steven Coburn-Griffis)

OTTAWA — On Friday, Jan. 4, nearly one year to the day since the body of Phyllis J. Campbell was discovered in the courtyard of Hilty Memorial Home, the last of three defendants charged in her death appeared in Putnam County Common Pleas Court for sentencing. Megan Schnipke, 32, the licensed practical nurse on duty when Campbell wandered into sub-zero conditions on Jan. 7, 2018, received five years of community control, including 60 days in the Putnam County Jail, with credit for one day served.

In a trial that ended on Nov. 8, Schnipke was found guilty by a jury on two counts: forgery, a felony of the fifth degree, and gross patient neglect, a first-degree misdemeanor. A third charge of patient neglect, a misdemeanor of the second degree, was dismissed.

Before passing sentence, the court heard four victim impact statements read by, or on behalf of, four family members recounting their sense of loss, betrayal, anger, forgiveness, and, in one case, an initial sense of sympathy held for Schnipke and two other Hilty Home employees — Destini Fenbert and Rachel Freisel, both state tested nurses aids — who entered guilty pleas to charges of forgery, gross patient neglect and patient neglect in August of last year and were sentenced in September.

“Your Honor, On January 7 of last year, I had just settled into my 12-hour shift at work when I received a phone call that would change my life. You see, like the defendant, I too am a nurse,” Ashley Kier, Campbell’s granddaughter, told the court. “I understand and am all too familiar with the sometimes unrealistic expectations placed on medical professionals. We are asked to follow black and white policies and procedures while working in a gray world. And this is why my immediate response to the devastating news of my grandma’s traumatic death was one of empathy. Where others were quick to cast judgment and place blame, I felt bad for the nurse involved. I thought, ‘My God, that could be me. That could be any one of us.’ I understand what it’s like to give 100 percent of yourself, and it still not be enough. I’ve worked through staffing shortages, been asked to take care of more than a safe number of patients. It is no secret that when this happens, people take shortcuts just to meet the basic needs of patients being taken care of.”

However, while initially sympathetic, Kier told the court her empathy, after critically reviewing the facts of the situation, turned to condemnation.

“It takes all members of the immediate team giving 100 percent of every minute of their shifts, being constantly engaged, knowing and understanding the rules inside and out, and being proactive instead of doing what’s most expedient,” Kier said. “I hand it to the defense. An excellent job was done at attempting to shift the blame and responsibility. Before I heard the specifics of the case, I would have agreed. It wasn’t until I heard the events of that night that I was able to separate myself from the nurse I had felt so badly for. My empathy turned to disbelief as I heard how lackadaisical everyone involved in her care had been. I spoke earlier about giving 100 percent of yourself, leaving it all on the field, per se. I would be able to be more understanding if this was the case, but it clearly was not.”

As this and the other statements were recited, Schnipke sat with her head bowed, her hair screening her face from Campbell’s family members. After the last of the statements were read, the court offered the defense the opportunity to speak.

Robert Grzybowski, Schnipke’s defense attorney, addressed his comments directly to Campbell’s family.

“Megan nor myself have ever lost sight of the fact that Mrs. Campbell lost her life in January of 2018, and I want you to understand that,” Grzybowski said. “Megan has never taken that lightly. She has suffered every day since this incident and continues to suffer. I witnessed firsthand a woman who had anticipated a career in nursing cry and ask for one more opportunity to relive that day and change those circumstances. She’ll never get that opportunity.

“This has had a devastating effect on my client, Megan Schnipke, as I know it has had a devastating effect on the Campbell family. Megan and I wish to offer our deepest condolences to the family of Mrs. Campbell for the loss and the suffering that they have endured. No one, and I mean no one, should lose a family member under these type of circumstances. I’ve always believed this is a perfect storm. I think there’s a variety of people who are to blame, a variety of entities to blame…”

Grzybowski was particularly critical of Hilty Home, citing a litany of concerns including what he described as “inadequate staff, inadequate protocol and inadequate safety devices.” He further laid blame at the feet of Fenbert and Freisel, who he accused of “lying to Megan Schnipke…”

“I am not in no way attempting to say that Megan Schnipke did not have some kind of responsibility,” Grzybowski said. “But I believe Megan Schnipke is going to be the final casualty in this case.”

Judge Schierloh then pronounced sentence. In addition to community control and jail time, Schnipke is prohibited from using illicit drugs and alcohol; subject to random testing for the same; required to make financial restitution, jointly along with Fenbert and Freisel, to the Campbell family in the amount of $4,536.88; and complete 100 community service hours.

In pronouncing the 60-day jail sentence, Schierloh did provide, as Schnipke is currently employed, work release to the accused. However, the judge made a point of denying the defendant the opportunity to work in the field of nursing.

“I’m going to tell you right now, you’re not going to be able to use that license while on my time,” Schierloh told Schnipke, adding the decision as to any revocation of her licensure rests with the Ohio Board of Nursing.

Before leaving the courtroom, Campbell’s son Steven remarked, “It is what it is. I was expecting a prison sentence, but it didn’t happen. Hopefully she’s learned a valuable lesson and makes changes in her life.”