‘It’s been a great ride.’ 

December 29, 2020

‘It’s been a great ride.’ 

Mason County Prosecutor Paul Spaniola reflects on 36-year law career.

By Allison Scarbrough, Editor.

LUDINGTON — Many high-profile cases have landed on Paul Spaniola’s desk as Mason County Prosecuting Attorney. As he readies for retirement at the end of this year, Spaniola reflects on his 36-year career in law.

“It’s bittersweet,” he said. “It’s been a great ride. I love being a prosecutor. It’s a calling, a vocation — like being a priest or minister. It’s a lifestyle.

“It was humbling when I was elected that the citizens of this county felt that I would be able to do this job for them. Every morning I try to re-pay that trust that they gave me.”

The 62-year-old Pere Marquette Township resident has served as the county’s top law enforcement official since 2009. He joined the prosecutor’s office in 2001 as an assistant prosecutor. Prior to that he operated a private practice in Ludington specializing in criminal defense, family law, real estate, general civil practice, probate and estate planning, and personal injury.

Three high-profile cases stand out: the murder case against Eric Knysz for the 2013 shooting death of Michigan State Police Trooper Paul Butterfield; the Baby Kate case; and the shooting of Sgt. Dave Maltbie of the Ludington Police Department who was responding to a domestic violence call.

“The facts on their surface seemed rather simple, but it was complicated evidentially,” he said regarding the Knysz case. “The presentation of the evidence was complicated, because there were an awful lot of emotions.”

Knysz, 20, hanged himself in prison in April of 2014 after being sentenced to a life term.

“As I got into the case after the shooting and learned more and more and more about (Butterfield), it became quite emotional.” Butterfield “personified” all of the other officers that he worked with on a daily basis. “It was completely senseless,” he said of the tragic shooting.

The Baby Kate case was litigated twice against Sean Michael Phillips, the father of 4-month-old Katherine Shelbie-Elizabeth Phillips. Baby Kate was murdered June 29, 2011, and her body has never been found. Phillips was sentenced in 2016 to serve 19-45 years in prison for the murder. He was previously convicted for the baby’s kidnapping.

“Clearly, there were all of those emotions there as well.” 

The case drew national attention. “I really did not want all of the publicity for this case. I just wanted to stand up for justice; stand up for her; and do my job.”

Spaniola recalls a photo that was published showing him surrounded by 10 microphones from media organizations. 

He credits law enforcement for the success of the Baby Kate case. “There was terrific police work done on that case by the sheriff’s department and the city police. They did fantastic work on that case.”

The third case that stands out in his career was the shooting of Sgt. Maltbie. Lowell Fetters, 65, was sentenced in 2014 to 16-50 years in prison for shooting Maltbie in 2012. Maltbie survived the shooting.

“I’ve always had a great amount of respect for Dave as an officer,” he said. “Once again, that was a very senseless situation.”

Spaniola chairs the Mason County Concealed Pistol License Board and the Mason County Child Death Review Team. Since 2012 he has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (PAAM) where he sits on the Technical Services Committee, Training and Education Committee, and Outreach Committee. “That’s been a fun ride, too,” he said. 

In 1988-1989 he was president of the Mason – Lake County Bar Association.

He has also served as an adjunct professor at West Shore Community College Law Enforcement Program. He has been a registered referee with the United States Soccer Federation and the Michigan High School Athletic Association since 1997. Service organizations that he has been involved with in his professional career include the Ludington Area Foundation, Area 24 Special Olympics, Ludington Recreation Soccer Board, and the Ludington Area Jaycees.

He lives in Ludington with his wife, Pat, who is a retired teacher from the Ludington Area Schools. They have two grown sons, Charlie and Jeff, and two grandchildren, Daiva, 3, and Nico, 1. Paul Spaniola is a graduate of Central Michigan University and the University of Toledo College of Law. He was admitted to the bar in 1984.

“Ludington is a wonderful community. It’s been a wonderful place to raise children. It’s time to spend more time with family.”

He said he has no plans to return to private practice. “If there are some large projects that come along, I may consider that.”

“I’ve got a list of books to read and a list of places to go, places to vacation — once COVID breaks.”

Spaniola said his writing skills led to his interest in law. “I have always been interested in law, and I was always a good writer in school.” 

He recalls the first time walking into an attorney’s office with his dad, who was handling some type of real estate transaction, when he was a young child. He immediately became fascinated with the idea of being an attorney. “I remember it like it was yesterday.”

One of his inspirations was a lawyer he met while he was in high school in a service club he was involved in through the Kiwanis Club. “He encouraged me to enter the profession.” The two still remain in contact with each other.

“I owe a great deal to him and several mentors along the way.”

He said he will miss the “camaraderie among lawyers” and the “camaraderie among prosecutors.” 

Spaniola said he will also miss the day-to-day interactions with his staff. “I will miss a lot of people that I work with. A lot of good people work here. I’ve had a great support staff over the years and great assistant prosecutors. They make the job easy. I’m so grateful for all of the people I’ve had the pleasure of working with all of these years. The courthouse staff does amazing work, and they don’t get the credit that they deserve — same with law enforcement officers. The sheriff’s department, the state police and city police don’t get the credit they deserve for a really tough job.”

Spaniola also credits the county board of commissioners, child and adult protective services, the crime lab, the court offices, the courts, the judges, defense attorneys, the DNR, the Department of Health and Human Services, the health department and community mental health. 

“So many people have made the whole system work.”

Retiring during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge, because trials have been delayed for several months. “We can’t get cases across the finish line.” It’s taking a toll on victims and defendants. “I don’t like to leave things unfinished — that’s not my style.

“It’s going to take a lot of effort, time and patience to whittle that caseload down to where it’s manageable again.”

Due to gathering restrictions, a retirement party will not be happening until after COVID-19. He has been receiving many virtual well wishes from colleagues, family and friends. 

Spaniola said that he will miss the success stories of defendants turning their lives around. “Those cases are few and far between, but they certainly are sweet when they come. We see so many people who don’t make it out of the criminal justice system and continue to reoffend. So, when those cases come along, we need to savor them.”

Being asked about cases when he’s in the grocery store is something he won’t miss, he said. “There is a bit of a fishbowl environment.”

Spaniola said he’s very confident with his successor Lauren Kreinbrink, who will take over as prosecutor. “Lauren is a very bright young lady. She also is a terrific writer. She’s bright; she’s sharp; she’s talented; she’s going to do a terrific job. I look forward to watching her career go on.”

“I’m not ready for the rocking chair,” he said, adding that he plans to continue officiating soccer games. “There is a lot left to do.” 

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