- Associated Press - Sunday, May 7, 2017

MUKSEGON, Mich. (AP) - Her estranged husband died after a fight in prison, and now Melissa Underwood is doing her best to pick up the remnants of her husband’s short, turbulent life.

Cherishing the good memories from when she first met Dustin Allen Szot, and they married.

Trying to explain his death to the two children they had together.

Wondering what prompted him to attack another man in prison.

And, maybe, even trying to change how others remember Szot.

She spoke to MLive Muskegon Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2pyohBv ) on April 17, 2017 - a day that, she couldn’t help mentioning, would have been their fifth anniversary if he was still alive.

Underwood is left to struggle with the unanswered questions while raising her two children without their dad.

“We’re just going to love him in memory now,” she said.

On Sept. 27, 2016, Szot died at the Michigan Department of Corrections‘ Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility after a fight with another prisoner that guards tried to break up with stun-gun devices.

The death of the 24-year-old Muskegon native has received lots of media attention, but Underwood wants her husband not to be remembered for his “DOC number” or the way in which he died.

He had good qualities, and she’s cherishing good memories of him as a father and husband.

“I just want the public to know that Dustin was a good guy, and a dad, and he was special - he wasn’t just an inmate,” she said. “I want everyone to know, just because somebody’s in the prison system doesn’t mean they should be forgotten about or not cared about when something like this happens.”

When they met, Szot and Underwood were 16 and attended the same high school. Her brother introduced Szot as an interesting guy with lots of wild stories.

She and Szot were just friends at first - he loved to go fishing or bowling. He had a contagious smile.

“He was really big on outdoor stuff, and he was a lot of fun,” she said. “He was always outside trying to find something to do.”

They got married on April 17, 2012. Szot was playful and always gentle with their daughter and son, she said.

As a teenager, Szot had smoked marijuana without seemingly suffering ill effects, Underwood said.

Hard drugs were different.

Szot fell down some stairs and received a prescription painkiller for his injuries, she said. She believes he later learned how to snort prescription drugs. As he battled addiction, Underwood said Szot also was dealing with some emotional issues - he had had a difficult childhood, she said.

Whatever the cause or mechanism of his drug use, the addiction soon separated Szot from his wife and his children.

Her estranged husband got in trouble with the law several times. At first, the consequences didn’t seem to be very serious - “it was usually just ridiculous 30-day stays,” she said - but he later received a prison sentence for first-degree home invasion.

Dustin was a good guy, but trouble found him,” Underwood said. “He welcomed it, you know.”

She had many questions about what the father of her children was doing or had done, but many of those questions went unanswered.

“We actually had been separated for close to a year and then he wrote me - I don’t know who it was he had been talking to in the prison, maybe one of the counselors, I’m not sure - but I remember him writing me an 11-page letter, front and back, just apologizing and answering questions over the years when things started getting rockier, questions that I had, and he just started answering all of them, which I’m thankful for now that he’s gone.”

In the last few months before his death, he seemed to be writing and calling home more often.

“I feel like we got him back, and then he was taken from us,” Underwood said.

Seven months after his death, Underwood said finding out about the fight has been awkward.

She’s still never been called by the prison warden or the Michigan Department of Corrections.

She did hear a report of Szot’s death quickly, however, through a more informal channel. Szot had a cousin in the prison who was aware of the fight that left Szot unresponsive. He called the Szot family relatively soon after the death with his breathless account of what happened, Underwood said, and Szot’s younger brother called Underwood to pass on what he had heard.

A couple hours after the cousin’s phone call to the family, Szot’s mother got a phone call from authorities saying that her son was dead.

MDOC spokesman Chris Gautz explained how the prison deals with notifying next of kin in emergency situations.

Just like school or work would do on the outside, each person is asked to provide a list of emergency contacts, he said. Szot had listed his mother as his primary emergency contact. Underwood was listed farther down the sheet, but there was no phone number for her. Gautz added that Underwood lives out of state, in Eastern Indiana.

Notifying next of kin usually is more common in cases of medical emergencies such as heart attack deaths. In extreme cases where none of the emergency contacts can be reached, Gautz said, the Department of Corrections works with Michigan State Police to find a last known address for the contact, and send a patrol car to the address. If the contact is out of state, he said, prison staff will try contacting and working with police in the state where the contact is located.

But in Szot’s case, the death notification was accomplished by a phone call to Szot’s mother, confirming what she had heard of from the cousin.

Underwood wasn’t privy to the conversation between her mother and prison staff, but she said she expected it didn’t go very well.

Details of the incident were not publicly released until months later.

Szot was legally drunk and had a homemade plastic shiv in his waistband when he jumped on the other prisoner’s back to start the fight, according to Ionia County Prosecutor Kyle B. Butler. The other prisoner’s punches to Szot’s neck are thought to have ruptured a blood vessel and cause a fatal hemorrhage. Szot was taken to health care at the prison but died an hour after the fight began.

No one has been criminally charged with causing Szot’s death. After an investigation by Michigan State Police, Butler decided that the officers acted appropriately and the other, unnamed prisoner had acted in self-defense.

Butler distributed a detailed written analysis of the evidence in the case but said he was unable to release video clips from surveillance cameras and the officers’ stun guns. The Michigan Department of Corrections also has denied Freedom of Information Act requests for the video.

Underwood said her attorney viewed the footage. He confirmed to her what authorities said: That Szot did jump the other guy, starting the fight.

To Underwood, the description of the fight sounds like a different person than the man she married, who was like a “big teddy bear” around his daughter and son.

However, she doesn’t deny that Szot picked a fight with a larger man.

“I think he drank some liquid courage and did his best to ambush the guy, because he was bigger than him,” she said.

Asked what she thought was going on in her husband’s mind when he jumped on the other man’s back, Underwood said he may have been afraid of what he thought was an inevitable fight.

Underwood admitted she doesn’t know “how prison politics work” but she’s thought about why Szot may have had reason to be afraid. In prison, she said, Szot had recently been transferred to a higher-security section after being caught making phone calls on behalf of another prisoner who didn’t have phone privileges. Other prisoners told her Szot had previously spent a few days prior to his death avoiding common areas of the prison.

Gautz, the prison spokesman, confirmed what Underwood said - that Szot had recently been placed in a higher security area of the prison, from a level two to a level four (Gautz said there is no level three).

The higher security designation was the result of Szot getting several smaller infractions, Gautz said.

“There wasn’t one big thing,” he said.

The result was that Szot had a higher level of security around him - he wouldn’t have been allowed in an “open bay setting” or dormitory-type housing. Instead, Szot would have been assigned to a cell with a locked door.

“I don’t know what happened, but I do know prison changes people,” Underwood said. “I know he was scared. He wanted to come home.”

Underwood said it’s been difficult to explain Szot’s death to her children.

She said their son, 6, has fewer questions about his father’s death than his older sister.

“She’ll wake up and ask questions and she cries about it a lot,” Underwood said. “She’s got questions right now about life and death at 8 years old that I have no answers to. I have no answers. ‘It’s not fair,’ I guess. That’s about all.”

Her husband is dead, but Underwood’s duties as a wife go on.

She continues to sift through information about her husband’s death.

She said any information that prison staff could share with her about Szot’s death would help her have answers for her children and closure for herself.

“I just want to make sure that his death had nothing to do with anybody else’s brute force or mishandling of him, and that it was just, you know, his bad decisions and fear,” she said.

“And once I know that I’m doing my job as his wife to make sure that we know why he died and whether he caused his own death or not, you know, I just plan to keep his memory alive with his kids and move on best we can.”

___

Information from: The Muskegon Chronicle, https://www.mlive.com/muskegon


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