Marine Corps widow faces nearly $10K bill after husband's suicide
Corrections & Clarifications: The article has been updated to reflect that Kalin Case went to boot camp in San Diego.
When Kalin and Stefani Case married by his hospital bed at the U.S. Naval Medical Center San Diego in 2013, they hoped to spend a lifetime together once he recovered.
But the young couple's dream shattered when the Marine Corps discharged Kalin due to his illness.
He spiraled into depression and, six months later, ended his life with a gun in front of his wife in their Mesa apartment.
"You're supposed to start your life and grow old together and then it's, 'Oh my God, I'm a widow, and I'm 22,' " Stefani said. "My God, it's a burden."
Reeling from witnessing her husband's death, Stefani moved around, experienced her own depression and abandoned her goal of becoming a paramedic because she was terrified of seeing another suicide.
Now, at 26, Stefani is trying to rebuild.
She is in therapy for post-traumatic stress syndrome. An assistant manager at a Sedona coffee shop, she hopes to start school to become a veterans counselor.
"I want to turn something bad into something good," Stefani said.
But a nearly $10,000 debt for apartment damage related to the suicide has been holding her back, she said.
Stefani can't afford it and isn't sure she is responsible. The apartment complex, a debt collector and an insurance company all said she owed the money, even after Stefani was initially assured she wouldn't be.
After Stefani told The Arizona Republic about her predicament, the newspaper started investigating as part of the #HereToHelpAZ campaign.
Two of the companies said they wouldn't help, but one stepped up to make a big difference.
'It was magical'
Stefani and Kalin met through friends in California in 2012, she said.
"I was swept off my feet," Stefani recalled. "From the first moment, we were best friends. We were inseparable."
They moved to Sedona together, and Kalin decided to enlist in the Marines, a childhood goal.
Kalin's father had served in the Navy and his sister in the Coast Guard, Stefani said. A friend died fighting in Afghanistan. He wanted to honor them, she said.
Kalin shipped off to boot camp in San Diego in April 2013.
"He was so excited. He was writing me letters all the time," Stefani said. "He was happy and motivated."
On leave after graduating from basic training, Kalin took Stefani for a weekend of swimming at the beach and eating sushi. He bought a ring and proposed to her on the Oceanside boardwalk.
"It was magical," Stefani said.
A life-changing accident
But their fortunes soon changed.
Early one morning in August, on the way to training, Kalin lost consciousness, hit his head, fell to the ground and began having a seizure, medical records say. The records state he was walking. Stefani says Kalin was sprinting and may have tripped on a bag or someone's foot.
Kalin woke to people surrounding him, a toilet paper roll between his teeth, medical records say, presumably to protect him from biting his tongue.
Witnesses, who included his commanding officer, described him hitting his head on a metal wall locker during the fall, Kalin told doctors in the records.
An ambulance took Kalin to the Camp Pendleton hospital, where he was evaluated and released with a drug prescription and an appointment to see a neurologist, records say.
In a waiting room chair at the pharmacy not long after, Kalin had four to five more seizures within 10 minutes, followed by additional attacks in the ambulance, records state.
Stefani flew to California as soon as she heard about Kalin's condition, she said.
Spurred by the fear of losing him, they decided to get married at the hospital. A military chaplain performed a hasty ceremony.
For a week at Naval Medical Center San Diego, Kalin continued to have convulsions, according to medical records. He complained of headaches, difficulty walking and numbness.
A CT scan showed two small locations of excess fluid in the brain, according to records.
Seizures and bleeding or fluid buildup in the brain can be symptoms of head trauma, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
But doctors said they were stumped.
Kalin had no personal history or family background of epilepsy and no other common causes of seizures, such as fever. Anti-seizure medication didn't help. A battery of neurological tests came up normal, doctors noted in records.
Military physicians began to believe Kalin was faking the seizures to get out of the Marines. While he was in the hospital, medical staff recommended kicking him out of the military.
"Patient is obviously not coping with the stress of training," a physician assistant wrote. "I discussed his case with our case manager Barb and his sergeant, recommending he be administratively separated from the USMC."
Even as one psychiatrist noted Kalin may be experiencing psychologically induced seizures — known as conversion disorder or adjustment disorder — the medical official wrote in the records that "studies have suggested up to 25% of conversion disorder diagnoses end up revealing an organic etiology," or cause.
Stefani believed officials separated Kalin from the military in October 2013 using a behavioral reason instead of a medical diagnosis so the military would not have to pay veteran benefits.
Two of Kalin's commanding officers and three of his platoon members wrote letters praising Kalin's work ethic and recommending the Marines allow him to rejoin.
"(Private) Case was undaunted by any task set before him," one friend wrote in an email to Stefani intended for an appeal of Kalin's discharge. "(T)here were many times he hid physical injuries from our Drill Instructors so he would not miss any of the training. … (T)he allegations say that he was malingering and refusing to train. The man I knew in Basic Training would never have done these things."
"As an eye witness to what he was going through, he was far from faking anything," another platoon member wrote.
Staff Sgt. Kevin Oda, who supervised Kalin during the six weeks between his hospital stay and his military discharge, said Kalin asked how he could appeal the findings so he could get back into the Marines.
"Private Case has a lot to offer the Marine Corps, which is why I recommend with confidence that he be given an opportunity to return," Oda wrote.
'He really wasn't the same person'
Six months after joining, Kalin left the military broken, Stefani said.
Once passionate and talkative, her husband was quiet and depressed, Stefani said. A former chef, he struggled to remember recipes. An avid Los Angeles Lakers fan, he took no more interest in basketball.
Though his seizures had stopped, Kalin complained of headaches and would lay on their bed staring at the ceiling for hours, Stefani said.
"He really wasn't the same person when he came back," she said.
Stefani encouraged Kalin to see a counselor, but he feared it would diminish his chances of appealing the military discharge.
Kalin found a job as a bank security guard, and the couple moved to Mesa. Stefani worked shifts at a spa and studied to be an emergency medical technician.
Then, on April 7, 2014, nearly a year to the day since he had entered boot camp, Kalin's emotions "skyrocketed," Stefani said.
He hadn't slept in their bed the night before and seemed agitated all day, she said. After dinner, Kalin became more upset and began shouting at her, Stefani said.
She tried to calm him, but Kalin grabbed a gun. She struggled to take it away and chased Kalin around the apartment, Stefani said, but he broke free and shot himself in their living room.
Stefani called 911, and an ambulance took him to the hospital.
Kalin was in the hospital for two days before Stefani and his family decided to turn off life support and donate his organs.
The day after the suicide, Stefani notified the San Montero Apartments manager of what happened and asked to break the lease.
"I was like, I can no longer live there," Stefani said. "I really needed to leave."
The manager was sympathetic and offered to waive the $830 early termination fee, copies of emails Stefani provided to The Republic show.
All Stefani owed was $250 in prorated rent and utilities before move out, according to the emails and Stefani's memory of conversations with the manager.
The manager informed Stefani that the complex would hire a restoration company to clean and fix the apartment.
"I am going to schedule a removal of the carpet and drywall in your apartment ... to remove any contamination," the manager emailed Stefani on April 10, 2014. "... I would like to have the company we are hiring to (sic) remove and dispose of the couch, table and other contaminated items as I know you were going to dispose of those items."
The company got rid of the living room furniture but saved Stefani's paramedic textbooks and Kalin's dog tags, the manager said.
There was one bullet hole in a wall and a small amount of blood, Stefani said.
Workers fixed the hole, replaced carpet, repainted the entire unit and redid one and a half walls of drywall, according to apartment records.
Invoices from the restoration company, which the apartment company Bassham Properties provided to The Republic, list a nearly $5,000 "base" charge and nearly $900 for drywall repairs.
Who pays for repairs?
The apartment complex received the first $5,000 invoice while Stefani was still on the lease and work was ongoing, records show.
But the manager did not mention to Stefani that she would be billed nor gave her a cost estimate during that time, according to seven emails between the manager and Stefani that discussed the work in the month before she moved out.
Stefani said the manager told her verbally that insurance would cover the expense.
According to Bassham Properties, the apartment manager alerted Stefani to the remediation costs before work began, and asked her to file a claim with her renter insurance company, Allstate. The company did not provide The Republic with documentation of those conversations.
Stefani says the complex contacted Allstate.
"We would not charge the resident if the residents' renters insurance would pay for the damages," Bassham Properties Chief Financial Officer Deborah Parker told The Republic.
Stefani moved out in May 2014, and the complex cashed Stefani's final $250 check.
But a week after she left, the apartment manager alerted Bassham Properties that Allstate had denied the repair claims, according to a copy of an email the company sent The Republic.
"Would you like me to charge the resident for the damages?" the manager asked Bassham Properties executives.
It's unusual that Allstate denied the claim, since renter's insurance usually covers damage to a unit after a suicide, said Amy Groff, a 25-year veteran of the rental industry.
"I've not heard that happen before," said Groff, senior vice president of industry operations at the National Apartment Association. "Typically, the renter's insurance company will help cover the cost to do the repairs."
When the Mesa complex sent Stefani a $5,863 bill for apartment repairs a few weeks later, she was blindsided, Stefani said.
It was too large for her to afford, and she questioned why an insurance company didn't cover the damage.
"It was heartbreaking," she said. "It was very intense at the time."
Stefani was already going into debt to pay for the funeral, cremation and a cemetery marker for loved ones to visit, she said.
She had scattered Kalin's ashes at Bell Rock in Sedona and, at Kalin's dad's suggestion, filled an urn she keeps in her bedroom with pictures of Kalin and mementos of his life.
The apartment manager offered to set up a payment plan in the letter accompanying the bill. Stefani left a voicemail for the manager asking to learn more but didn't hear back, she said.
With all the other stress, Stefani said, she didn't pursue it further.
Sent to collections
By late 2014, Stefani's credit score had plummeted and she began receiving calls from a debt collector.
The debt was now $8,200, with a 40 percent collection fee tacked on by Don Darnell of Phoenix-based U.S. Collections West.
"I told him what happened, and he didn't care," Stefani said.
Unable to face the problem as she dealt with her own trauma, she began ignoring the calls, and eventually they stopped, she said.
Last November, as she reached an emotional low point that would turn into a wake-up call, she tried to kill herself, Stefani said. That's when she realized she needed help.
"It saved me the feeling that you're alone," she said. "When I had a support network, it definitely changed my outlook on life."
She taped inspirational sayings that she wrote on sheets of paper to her bedroom wall to remind her to keep going.
"When it hurts — observe. Life is trying to teach you something," says one in bubbly letters.
Grief "sculpts us into someone who understands more deeply," says another.
Stefani decided she needed to clear the debt to "stop letting my past consume me," she said. "I was finally able to face it."
This spring, Stefani disputed the debt on her credit report.
But when she did, Darnell sent her a letter increasing the cost to $9,400 with interest, according to records provided by Stefani.
"They're still trying to come after me for it. Now they're saying they're going to sue me by the end of August," Stefani said. "All I want to do is be able to move on."
Stefani found a pro bono attorney to take her case.
The attorney asked Darnell for legal justification of a 40 percent collection fee and an itemized receipt for the remediation work.
"Don't make me or my client jump through anymore (sic) hoops," Darnell wrote in a July email to Stefani's attorney.
Darnell declined an interview.
"If I ruin some ones (sic) property for any reason that is of my own doing," he said in an email to The Republic. "(E)ven though there are circumstances that caused it, (it) doesn't mean I am not responsible."
Darnell told Stefani she could settle for about $2,900 if she paid by the end of August. If not, he said, he would sue.
Stefani didn't accept the offer.
Even that amount would be tough for her to pay, she said.
A few months ago, Bassham Properties sold San Montero Apartments for $36 million.
When The Republic asked if the company might waive Stefani's debt, Parker said no.
"This resident was shown compassion by being allowed to move out without paying an early termination fee," Parker said in an email. "Residents are always responsible for damages to the apartment."
'When it hurts — observe'
About a week ago, Stefani received news that made her cry. But these were tears of happiness.
After The Republic asked Allstate why it denied Stefani's damage claims in 2014, the insurance company changed course.
A representative called Stefani to tell her the company would cover not only the repair costs to the apartment, but also her previously denied claim for about $1,500 in damage to the couch and other personal belongings, Stefani said.
"(The company executive) called me and said, 'I am so sorry. I want you to put this behind you,' " Stefani said. "She was so kind."
Stefani said she finally feels able to let go of the past.
And she credits The Republic with resolving her case.
"This would not have happened if it wasn't for you," she said. "It's a miracle."
If you or a loved one needs help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or Mercy Care at 602-222-9444.
Have you been treated badly by a business or government agency? Are you the victim of a scam? We're #HereToHelpAZ. Contact consumer investigations reporter Rebekah L. Sanders by emailing email@example.com, texting "HereToHelpAZ" to 51555 or filling out our online form.