‘We never got an apology,’ says familyAfter the false imprisonment charge against Jennings Sunderland was dropped, the family waited for an apology.
By: Bethany Wesley, Forum Communications
After the false imprisonment charge against Jennings Sunderland was dropped, the family waited for an apology.
It never came.
Now the family is preparing to bury Clarice Sunderland, Jennings’ wife of more than 50 years, just seven months after Jennings died unexpectedly last summer.
The family has never forgotten the events of 2009, which led to the temporary separation of Jennings and Clarice by order of Clearwater County.
“All my family had ever wanted from the county was an apology, but they would not do it,” said Connie Krivich, one of the Sunderlands’ six children, in a recent phone interview.
The Sunderlands, of Bagley, Minn., were the focus of a 2009 investigation during which Jennings was charged with felony false imprisonment, a charge that was later dropped.
Jennings, then 78, had been caring for Clarice, then 76, who suffered from Alzheimer’s. Jennings was arrested and charged after authorities found he had been using a chain to restrain his wife while she sat in a recliner. Jennings maintained that he sat right next to her, that the chain was laid across Clarice’s lap and was used as an alarm system so she would not wander off in case he dozed off.
“It’s difficult when someone has Alzheimer’s,” Krivich said. “The people who care for them deserve a lot of credit. My dad was a wonderful man. I hope people remember that.”
Building a family
Clarice Norley was born and schooled in Bagley, having graduated in 1953 from Bagley High School as valedictorian. She went to nursing school at The Swedish Hospital School of Nursing in Minneapolis and graduated with honors in 1956.
She returned to Bagley, taking a job at Clearwater County Memorial Hospital. It was there she met Jennings, who also was from Bagley. He was two years older, having finished a stint in the military.
“They met while he was a patient at the hospital,” Krivich said. “She was his nurse.”
They married on Jan. 17, 1959, and had six children, including four sons and two daughters.
“They were fun, joked around a lot,” Krivich said of her parents. “We went to the lake a lot to boat and swim and have picnics.”
When it came to education and schooling, Krivich said, her parents pushed their kids to do well.
Clarice worked at Memorial Hospital until she semi-retired in 1998. She then worked at The Good Samaritan Nursing Home in Clearbrook until she completely retired in 2003.
The effects of her Alzheimer’s became more apparent with time, Krivich said.
In 2006, Clarice had to quit driving.
“That was when we noticed something was really wrong,” Krivich said. “Prior to that, it was forgetfulness, nothing too bad.”
Jennings, a lifelong farmer, continued working on his farm, while caring for his wife.
A social worker, a sheriff’s deputy and an investigator went to the farm on Aug. 4, 2009, for a welfare check, according to the criminal complaint.
They found Clarice in a chair with a chain around her. The criminal complaint alleged that the chain was connected behind the chair, but Jennings and the family disputed that, saying it was laid across her lap with enough slack to allow Clarice to stand up.
Jennings was arrested and spent a night in jail. He was charged with felony false imprisonment.
The couple was separated. Jennings was not able to see his wife for 20 days and, after that, could not see his wife without the presence of a third party.
Krivich said things got even worse. Clarice was sent to live in a nursing home where the family believes she was mistreated. Krivich said Clarice had undocumented bruises that led to a Minnesota Department of Health investigation, which was determined to be inconclusive.
The charge against Jennings was dropped in October 2009 and, eventually, the couple was briefly reunited at home. Then Jennings himself had a health setback and they again were separated.
“He fell that winter and broke his hip,” Krivich said.
He was unable to care for her so she went to live at The Garden Place in Bagley.
Jennings was recovering, but he then fell again so he, too, went to The Garden Place for rehabilitation.
The couple was together.
“She smiled when he was there,” recalled Sunny Born, the administrator of The Garden Place.
While Jennings was not in the nursing home long, he spent most of his time there alongside his wife.
“He always brought her candy; she loved chocolate bars,” Born said. “He would come and sit and they would watch TV together.”
Jennings’ death on June 12 was unexpected, Krivich said.
“The day he died, we were planning to take him home the following week,” she said. The family was discussing with him the rehab work he would be doing once he got home.
He had lunch and sat down in the recliner in his room. The nurse later came to check on him and found that he had died.
“His (death) was shocking,” Krivich said.
‘We never got an apology’
Jennings never got over the events of 2009, Krivich said, noting that they affected his health.
“We never got an apology,” she said. “I think that’s what we were really looking for, for them to say, ‘Yes, we made a mistake.’”
On Jan. 23, seven months after Jennings’ death and less than a week after what would have been their 53rd wedding anniversary, Clarice died.
“My mother worked for Clearwater County for 40 years as a nurse, and to this day we are still shocked that the same county she gave her life to treated her so carelessly in the last years of her life,” Krivich said.
Jeanine Brand, who in 2009 was the Clearwater County attorney, was defeated in a re-election bid by Richard Mollin, 62 to 34 percent.
“In the end justice prevailed and the results were clear after the election,” Krivich said. “My dad was so hurt by what happened; he always had my mother’s best interest at heart and he was a wonderful caregiver to her. He cared for her right to the end, until he physically could no longer do it.”
Brand could not be reached for comment.
“Obviously, if there’s going to be an apology, it would come from Ms. Brand,” said Mollin in a phone interview Thursday.
The Sunderland case was a headline issue during the campaign and often came up as a discussion point, Mollin said.
“I’ve done a lot of research on the case; I wanted to understand it,” he said. “I read the transcripts, the court files available.”
Mollin said he would not have charged Jennings Sunderland with anything.
Having Clarice Sunderland checked out “clearly” was warranted, based on the state of her health, Mollin said, but he disagreed with the decision to charge Jennings Sunderland with felony false imprisonment.
After Jennings Sunderland was charged, Krivich wrote letters to the governor and other politicians. Media throughout the state began reporting on the case.
“As difficult as it was to go through, my family was blessed by it too, “Krivich said. “The local community was so caring and helpful, as well as total strangers who sent hundreds of letters of encouragement.
“Alzheimer’s is a dreadful disease and many people affected by it wrote to my dad. The amount of support my family received during that ordeal was tremendous and something we will never forget.”