Lansing, MI – A former Eaton County sheriff’s deputy with over two decades on the force nearly lost his duty-related disability pension eligibility due to resistance from his own department.
Former Eaton County Sheriff’s Sergeant Jim West, 49, developed epilepsy 20 years after he was viciously attacked by 25-year-old probation violator Gregory Sailer on Jan. 16, 1997, the Lansing State Journal reported.
The violent suspect repeatedly bashed Sgt. West in the head with a two-pound metal flashlight, his then-partner, Eaton County Sheriff’s Deputy Jeff Warder told the paper.
“The sound was the most sickening thud I’ve ever heard in my life,” Deputy Warder recalled. “I can still hear it to this day.”
Sgt. West was ultimately forced to shoot Sailer to end the attack.
“I was able to get a shot off to kill him,” the veteran deputy explained. “It’s not what I wanted to do. It’s what happened.”
Deputy Warder was also grazed by the round, the Lansing State Journal reported.
Both deputies were cleared of wrongdoing in the officer-involved shooting.
But two decades later, Sgt. West started experiencing seizures and debilitating headaches. A major seizure in February of 2017 left him dazed and hospitalized, and he has suffered from anxiety and memory loss ever since, the Lansing State Journal reported.
Doctors at Michigan State University and the University of Michigan have both independently concluded that the seizures are the result of a brain lesion Sgt. West suffered in the 1997 attack.
Sgt. West subsequently applied for duty-related retirement in 2017, but county officials scoffed at assertion that his condition was the result of being injured in the line of duty.
An attorney for the county even referred to the attack as a “relatively minor event,” according to worker’s compensation documents.
Eaton County Sheriff Tom Reich, who described Sgt. West as a “well liked” deputy, refused to place him on light duty for 18 months so he could reach his 25-year pension requirement.
Sheriff Reich refused to discuss the reasons why he didn’t support Sgt. West, and said he could not discuss details due to confidentiality requirements.
“I feel very bad that this happened to him,” he said. “He was a good leader. He looked good in a uniform. He presented himself to the public very well…Jim did a good job.”
Former Eaton County Sheriff Rick Jones, a 31-year veteran of the department who served three years as sheriff, said that the department’s failure to back Sgt. West was a “travesty.”
“It’s outrageous in my mind that the county and the sheriff are mistreating this man, terribly mistreating this man,” the former sheriff railed.
Former Eaton County Chief Deputy Joe Jager also expressed his support for the disabled sergeant.
“He’s out there protecting the community, and, as far as I’m concerned, the community owes him something,” the 33-year department veteran said.
West, the father of two grown daughters, said his savings has been demolished and that his credit card debt has skyrocketed due to not having access to his pension.
He was a member of the Eaton County Sheriff’s Office Scouts’ Explorer program at the age of 15, and was hired on a deputy in 1994, when he was 24 years old.
The 2014 Law Enforcement Officer of the Year led the department’s bicycle team, oversaw road patrols, earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and especially enjoyed going to schools to teach kids about law enforcement.
“That was the only place I wanted to work,” he said. “That was it. That was my dream job.”
West said that the worst day of his life was when he was stripped of his gun and badge.
“It was a great career,” he said. “I miss it every day.”
His former partner has since retired from the Eaton Sheriff’s Office, and is now the Livingston County undersheriff.
“Jim West has given his life to the county’s sheriff office,” Undersheriff Warder said. “He’s a person who cared about the office and all the people he worked with. I really hope the county does the right thing with this. He’s earned it.”
The undersheriff scoffed at the notion that the attorney blew off the 1997 assault as a “relatively minor event,” the Lansing State Journal reported.
“Whoever wrote that wasn’t there to witness and hear and see the damage and severity of Deputy West getting hit in the head with that flashlight," he argued. "There's no doubt in my mind there's a connection between what happened that night and what's going on right now."
On April 25, the Municipal Employees Retirement System board unanimously voted to award the former sergeant a duty-related disability pension, despite Eaton County’s objection, the Lansing State Journal reported.
The county has the right to appeal the decision for the next 60 days, but Eaton County Controller John Fuentes said he does not expect that to happen.
“I will not recommend further pursuit and would expect the board to accept that recommendation,” Fuentes told the paper. “The county’s position was heard and ruled upon.”
West could now receive health care coverage in addition to a monthly pension.
"Honestly, I'm speechless," he told the Lansing State Journal. "This is a tremendous relief."
He will receive approximately three-quarters of his salary under a disability pension. If he would have received his full pension after 25 years of service, it would have been 80 percent on his salary.