Twenty years ago last week, in the early morning hours of Oct. 22, 1999, 28-year-old Genell Johnson Plude was found unresponsive on the floor of the bathroom in her Land O’Lakes home. More than 11 years after that terrible morning her husband, Doug Plude, now 52, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for reckless homicide in connection with her death. Now, after serving almost 9 years of that sentence, Plude has written to Vilas County Circuit Court Judge Neal A. “Chip” Nielsen requesting a “sentence modification of 5 to 6 years.”
According to online court records, Plude’s letter was received by the court on July 22, 2019. Earlier this month, Nielsen appointed Rhinelander attorney Amy O’Melia to serve as Plude’s attorney.
“I apologize for the delay in responding to you,” Nielsen wrote to Plude in a letter dated Oct. 11. “I received your request for sentence modification on July 22, 2019. I cannot act on your request alone. It will require a motion and hearing. I have advised our district attorney and the local public defender of the matter. It took a long time for the public defender to advise me that they would not appoint counsel for you in this matter. I have now appointed Attorney Amy O’Melia of Rhinelander to represent you in filing this motion.”
As of Friday, Oct. 25, a formal motion has not yet been filed.
Twists and turns
Plude’s request represents another turn in a case that has had a number of twists and turns over the course of two decades.
According to court records and River News
archives, unusual bruises were found on Genell’s body, and a significant amount of drugs were found in her system, after she was pronounced dead at the local hospital.
Three years later, in December 2002, the state convinced a Shawano County jury her husband poisoned her with migraine medicine, held her head under the water in the toilet bowl until she drowned, and then arranged the scene to look like a suicide.
At trial, the state argued Plude killed his wife, who had begun to question her sexual orientation, because she was going to leave him. According to trial testimony, Genell’s parents were set to drive to Wisconsin from Minnesota on Oct. 23, 1999, to pick up their daughter so she could start a new life in another state.
A nurse also testified to overhearing Plude say “I told you not to leave me” while standing over his wife’s body after she was pronounced dead.
The defense argued Genell was deeply depressed and her plan to leave her marriage was nothing more than a fantasy.
The jury found Plude guilty and he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of release after 20 years. As it turned out, he served a little more than five years in prison before the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned his conviction in June 2008 because an expert witness, who provided testimony about the physics of drowning in a toilet bowl, exaggerated his credentials.
A second trial was set for October 2010, but Plude took a plea deal before the trial was to commence. In November of 2010, after he entered a guilty plea to one count of first degree reckless homicide, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison with parole eligibility in just under a year.
He also received credit for time served before his conviction was overturned.
During the November 2010 sentencing hearing, Plude continued to insist he did not kill his wife and explained that extenuating circumstances (his mother’s battle with cancer) caused him to take the deal.
“It didn’t take long for me to accept this plea bargain so I can be home for her,” he said, referring to his mother. “It’s not about me and my innocence anymore. I would have loved to prove it, believe me. But she means more to me, having her alive and keeping her in remission with the once a month treatment.”
“I am guilty of being a bad husband, I’m not guilty of taking my wife’s life and I’ll swear it until the day I die,” he added. “I did contribute to the situation, not being the best husband in the world. I should have paid more attention to Genell and my marriage.”
The state and the defense jointly recommended a sentence of 20 years probation (and no additional jail or prison time), but Nielsen found such a lenient sentence would “unduly depreciate” the severity of the offense and ordered Plude back to prison.
That decision came after four hours of wrenching testimony from Genell’s friends and relatives.
One by one, her aunt, uncle, cousin, siblings, parents and others shared their memories and their grief. They recalled fishing trips, camping, going out for pizza, smiles, hugs, poems, the last weekend of Genell’s life, the plans they had for the future and all of the milestones of life, both large and small, she did not get to experience.
“She was and still is very special to us all,” her aunt and godmother Kathy Miller told the judge during the hearing. “As you can see 11 years later we are all here for her.”
Each family member asked Nielsen to impose a long prison sentence.
“Judge Nielsen, please consider the absolute terror that Genny suffered at Doug’s hand during the homicide,” asked her uncle Lyle Miller. “We’ve all come to the end today of the long road to justice. Please allow me and my family the satisfaction and comfort of a fair punishment for recklessly taking the life of a wonderful person, Genell Kathleen Johnson.”
In his letter to Nielsen, Plude notes that he has been before the parole board on four occasions, including as recently as April 2019, but has been denied parole each time because he won’t admit guilt.
“All parole has been doing is playing games with me because I won’t admit,” he wrote, adding that he has been “doing everything right” in prison and has completed the required programs.
“By doing this (granting the sentence modification) I would be home this year and still have 4 years or 5 years on paper to show you I will keep doing good,” he added.
Plude also noted he is aware Vilas County has a new district attorney. Martha Milanowski now holds the position. She succeeded Al Moustakis, the prosecutor who handled Plude’s case.
Included with the letter is a copy of a parole commmission report issued following last April’s hearing. It notes that Nielsen has previously written in support of Plude’s release.
According to the report, the parole commission denied Plude’s most recent request for parole because, in its estimation, he has not “served sufficient time for punishment.”
“Nonetheless, you stand convicted of being responsible for the death of your wife, and have still served just over 14 years of total time to date. Considering all of the aforementioned circumstances, most notably the senseless loss of life, serving additional time for punishment is warranted,” the report states.
Heather Schaefer may be reached at [email protected]