Michaela Hill knew what her boss was doing at the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources was wrong.
She tried to stop Bill Walker, the DMR executive director. Not only did she fail, but she found out at a DMR meeting with Walker and other executives in May 2012 that she could be blamed for his wrongdoing.
She left the building and never returned to work. Her family said it was as if a light switch shut off in Hill’s head.
She became a different person.
Hill attempted suicide two days after that fateful meeting. The 52-year-old grandmother succeeded in killing herself on Aug. 18, 2012, two days before she was due back to work from medical leave.
Details surrounding her suicide are included in a Mississippi Workers’ Compensation Commission order. The judge in the case, Robert J. Arnold III, found evidence “clear and convincing” that Hill suffered from “mental derangement” that her employer inflicted on her, leading to her suicide.
He awarded her husband, Dan K. “Ken” Hill almost $200,000, plus interest calculated from the day after her death.
Michaela Hill did not live to see Walker and other top executives at DMR arrested and charged with financial crimes. Walker, former Chief of Staff Joe Ziegler and former manager Tina Shumate pleaded guilty to federal or state charges, with both Walker and Shumate serving jail time while Ziegler was sentenced to house arrest.
Four lower-level employees also pleaded guilty after lengthy federal and state investigations into what one law enforcement official described as a “culture of corruption” under Walker’s leadership.
The workers’ comp case Hill’s husband filed quietly moved forward, too. Evidence and testimony were provided by the doctors who treated Hill for severe depression and psychosis after she left the DMR, a forensic psychologist who reviewed records in the case, her husband and her two children.
The judge’s 32-page order for the first time makes public details of Hill’s suicide that her traumatized family has never been willing to discuss with the Sun Herald.
They understand her story will now be told because the judge’s order is a matter of public record. However, family members did not want to comment for this story. Her son, Matt, is still employed at DMR as director of the agency’s fin fish bureau.
The judge wrote in his order: “Mr. (Ken) Hill testified that his wife had opened up that she was upset that she had been used at work to buy properties that were illegal. She felt there was no way she could correct the problem. She felt hopeless and felt the family name would be ruined. She wanted to protect the family name.”
Hill ‘was used’
Hill had worked at DMR since 1999 and was Bill Walker’s executive assistant from the time he arrived in 2002. Her son described her as a “pillar” of the DMR — smart, versatile and knowledgeable about many aspects of the agency that manages and conserves Coastal resources.
Her anguish began around January 2012, when auditors from the Inspector General’s Office of the U.S. Department of Interior began reviewing how DMR was spending federal money.
Hill already had concerns about mismanagement of federal funds at DMR. The agency was spending federal money for the purchase of properties owned by Walker’s son and by the parents of DMR manager Shumate.
Hill did not understand why federal money designed to create green space would be spent on individual residential lots.
She didn’t think the lot owned by Shumate’s parents met the criteria for spending the federal money or served the public’s interest. She took her concerns to a special assistant attorney general assigned to DMR, Sandy Chesnut, but the property purchase went through.
What’s more, Bill Walker had removed Shumate from the project to “shield her” from any potential conflict and made Hill project manager on the transaction, according to a memo he wrote in July 2010.
“She was used and taken advantage of by Bill Walker, who enriched himself and other members of DMR,” the order says. “Mr. (Matt) Hill said they put his mother in the middle of criminal activities. He is here to try to get some justice for his mother.”
She was a private person who had married her high school sweetheart, considered herself “a loner” at work and stuck close to her family in her free time.
Two days after leaving the DMR, she swallowed what was left of the opioids a dentist had prescribed. Her husband took her to the hospital.
Medical notes referred to in the judge’s order say: “Ms. Hill was very stressed and felt trapped. She could not sleep, waking every hour, and this had been going on for the last six months.
“Ms. Hill felt hopeless, overwhelmed and worthless. She had thoughts about work and how she was not going to be able to get out of this problem. She did not sleep at all last night.”
Hill wound up on extended leave, but tried that summer to convince her family and doctors that she was getting better. She even talked about returning to work.
On Aug. 18, she and her husband visited with her son and grandchildren. She said when she left that she was going shopping. Her husband stayed at his son’s another hour or so.
When he got home, he found his wife hanging from a second-story window.
A draft of the federal audit she was so worried about was released less than a year later. It concluded what Michaela Hill had been questioning all along: conflicts of interest and mismanagement impaired DMR’s mission to preserve Coastal resources.
Hill’s husband is not the same, her daughter testified during the hearing.
“The family used to be close and that has ended with the extended family,” the judge wrote. “The anchor of the family is gone.”