MILWAUKEE — The flowers on Faith Wooden’s dinner table will stay there permanently. They’re made of wood, so they’ll never die. They’ve been there since last March; just a month after her husband, Lt. Kenyatte Wooden, died.
A postmortem gift that will last forever.
“This was the last flower arrangement he bought for me,” Faith said. “He had it in the closet for February 14th, Valentines Day. He died on the 2nd. I found it a couple weeks after he died. He had it hidden for me. It was really special. That’s always up. It will be forever.”
It’s a divine gesture to Faith but one that feels fewer and further between since she lost her husband, who she lovingly refers to as Yetti.
Yetti served as a Milwaukee Police Officer for 23 years. A majority of which were very difficult. He worked the third shift for his whole career. A nightcrawler, dealing with the most stressful situations. Nonetheless, he would be as superhuman as possible. He’d come home from work and help his wife care for their three children, often giving up sleep to spend time with them. While it takes a village to raise a family, Faith and Yetti did it as a team.
“There were no defined lines in our relationship, that this is what you do, and this is what I do,” Faith said. “We did it all together. I never could have done it without him, and he couldn’t have done what he did without me. We worked together in everything.”
That mentality was in practice on Feb. 2, 2021. It was an off-day for Yetti. Faith says he had recently had his shift switched to more normal hours, so he was getting on a normal sleeping schedule.
Sleeping when it’s dark, as Faith says, was a new concept for Yetti.
After he woke up, he and Faith shoveled snow from their driveway and home. Yetti toiled around with a We Energies worker at their house, talking his ear off according to Faith.
“He stayed down there with him for two hours,” Faith said. “My husband loved to talk.”
The day rolled on as usual. The two folded laundry together, Yetti picked up his two girls from school and ran to the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner. Then, he took his oldest daughter to work and told her he’d pick her up when she was done.
But when he got back, Yetti and his wife continued folding laundry. But something wasn’t right.
“He looked at me and said, 'I don’t really feel good,'” Faith said. “And all of a sudden, he put his head back and he started seizing.”
It was a terrifying series of events that followed. Panicked, Faith and her youngest daughter called 911 and were trying to help Yetti breathe.
“He’s just struggling to breathe,” Faith recalls. “I’m trying to push air in, putting my mouth and trying to push air into him.”
She felt 911 was taking too long, so she left the house, barefoot, and sprinted to the hospital down the block to alert them she needed help. Eventually, paramedics arrived and worked on her husband for over 45 minutes.
But he was gone.
“They’re like, Ma’am, I’m really, really sorry,” Faith said. “We have to call time of death.”
It was all very surreal to Faith. Her husband, at 45-years-old, was gone just like that.
What followed was an overwhelming amount of support from Yetti’s family in blue. Dozens of cops showed up at their house to help. Yetti was taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office with a full police escort; officers lined the streets, saluting him as he went by. A few days later, a celebration of life with full police funeral service rituals.
“The officer comes over to me, marching formally,” Faith said. “He comes down in front of me and kneels and gives me Yetti’s hat, and looks into my eyes and they were full of understanding and compassion. It was an incredible moment, I’ll never forget. They did honor him very well at his funeral.”
But the moment was fleeting. The very next day, Faith says she was upended by reality of not just losing the love of her life, but the breadwinner of this family of five.
Lt. Wooden earned a well-paying, six figure salary with the Milwaukee Police Department. With him gone, the family instantly dropped to near the poverty line and now, none of them have medical or dental insurance.
Had Lt. Wooden survived just 18 more months, the family would have been eligible to receive his full pension. But because he had worked for 23 years and not 25, they were left with a substantial blow financially.
“I don’t understand,” Faith said. “It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that.”
Because he didn’t achieve the benchmark in time served for his pension, the City of Milwaukee Employee's Retirement System (CMERS) offers two death benefits for police officers; a Duty Death Benefit and an Ordinary Death Benefit.
Duty Death Benefits are meant for officers whose death “results directly from an injury you suffer on the job.” Whereas, an Ordinary Death Benefit is “for a death that is not job-related.” The two benefits have a substantial difference in payout. Duty Death Benefits pay the surviving spouse 60 percent of the Officer’s Final Average Salary per month, in addition to returning any accumulated contributions to the pension plan. Ordinary Death Benefits provide a one-time payment of 50% of the Officer’s final average salary and any accumulated contributions to the pension system.
In Lt. Wooden’s case, the Medical Council that goes over every death suggested his survivor should receive the Ordinary Death Benefit.
In Faith’s case, this was a difference of roughly $4,000 per month for the rest of her life.
While Lt. Wooden died off-duty and at home, Faith says she was told by another officer her family may be eligible for the Duty Death Benefit from the City of Milwaukee because of Yetti’s death.
Just three months before he died, Lt. Wooden contracted COVID-19 while at work. There were 31 other members of his team who also got the virus. Up until now, it was the scariest thing Faith had gone through with her husband.
“He wouldn’t take the stairs or anything because it was hard to breathe,” Faith said. “There were a couple times, he would sit on the couch and be like, babe, this is really bad. We were both scared.”
After nearly three weeks though, Lt. Wooden recovered and was able to return to work.
But it wasn’t in the same capacity as before.
“He’d come home and say, there is something different,” Faith said. “I just feel so old and worn out. He was a bigger guy. There are always risks when you’re bigger. It’s scarier to get COVID if you’re not in great shape.”
According to his autopsy report, Kenyatte Wooden was six feet tall and weighed 389 pounds at his death. The medical examiner listed his immediate cause of death as Hypertensive Cardiovascular Disease but also listed in “Other Significant Conditions contributing to death but not resulting in the underlying cause given” as Recent COVID-19 Infection.
Faith appealed the initial review by the Medical Council, but after another expert reviewed the case, they again denied her claim for Duty Death Benefits.
“We’re asking for the system to be fair,” Attorney Emil Ovbiagele said. “In the blink of an eye, a mother was faced and thrust into the reality of having to raise three children on her own. A wife became a widow. Three children were rendered fatherless. I think what particularly hurts the most is, Lt. Wooden passed away at a time while he’s at the doormat of giving back his family all the time that had been lost. All the time he sacrificed serving and protecting the City of Milwaukee and its residents. He was 18 months away from retirement when his life was cut short.”
Ovbiagele is representing the Wooden family. Faith finally reached out to him after contacting nearly a dozen other lawyers. Faith and Emil go to the same church. When Emil first heard about the story, he didn't put the pieces together. But in another divine intervention, just before he was about to pass on this case, he remembered Yetti.
"He calls me and he's like, I knew your husband," Faith recalls. "He was a great guy. Had a great handshake."
Ovbiagele's family owns a dresser that Faith decorated for a church function. Ovbiagele's own father also died from a cardiac episode. The stars aligned and he decided to take Faith's case. He had two days to file an appeal but stayed up through the night and got it done.
He also agreed to take on the case for the Wooden family for free.
The first question Ovbiagele had was why the Medical Council chalked up Lt. Wooden’s death to his size and pre-existing health conditions, and not COVID-19.
“We know COVID was a significant contributing factor to his death,” Ovbiagele said. “It ultimately lead to his cardiac arrest.”
He believes Lt. Wooden was suffering from the “long-haul” effects of COVID-19; that is, impacts the virus has on the body despite a full recovery. According to a study by the VA Saint Louis Health Care System, “emerging reports suggest that—for some individuals—the symptoms of COVID-19 persist beyond the acute setting.” The study also suggests, effects after having COVID-19 aren’t completely clear.
In a follow-up study released last week on the specific long-term cardiovascular outcomes of COVID-19, they state, “Our results provide evidence that the risk and 1-year burden of cardiovascular disease in survivors of acute COVID-19 are substantial.”
“The results showed that the adjusted incident rate ratios of cardiovascular outcomes in the post-COVID-19 exposure period were significantly higher than those in the pre-exposure period and exhibited a graded increase by severity of the acute phase of the disease.”
“We do know there was no documented hypertensive or cardiac disease prior to his death,” Ovbiagele said. “We do know the Medical Examiner and the autopsy report noted an enlarged heart. We now know, one of the systems that COVID-19 affects is the heart. It actually does cause enlarged heart and research has proven that is an ongoing complication for certain folks with COVID-19. We know he had significant damage to his lungs. When you put that all together and consider the fact he died from cardiac arrest, not a heart attack, it becomes quite clear, the only significant thing that changed prior to his death was that he had COVID.”
However, during Faith’s appeal, the independent reviewer said, “there was no direct causal relationship between the death of Lt. Wooden and the COVID-19 infection and that the cause of death was hypertensive cardiovascular disease.” Each review of the case cites Lt. Wooden’s size and that he was shoveling snow the day he died.
Faith claims, they have it all wrong. Yes, she and her husband shoveled snow that day but to her it wasn’t a cause and effect. There were several hours that went by after they shoveled snow.
“It was four or five hours that had gone by,” Faith said. “I can’t play God but I look around and I’m like, there are so many people existing like this and it’s part of normal American life. I think it’s unfair to make that assumption right away. Yetti was fully functioning. There was not one sign that I would have known that something was wrong with him. We had no idea he had high blood pressure at the time. Symptoms of headaches, being fatigued, were part of his life for his entire career. He was always fatigued and always getting headaches and never enough sleep.”
Ovbiagele wants an opportunity to question the Medical Council’s findings. He wants to question whether they can definitively say Lt. Wooden died from his pre-existing health or from COVID-19 impacts.
He said, if Lt. Wooden’s pre-existing health were the cause, “Every time most Americans died, we’d rule it to them being fat. But that’s not how science works. He didn’t die while shoveling snow. He just so happened to shovel snow on the day he died. That’s a very important distinction. It negates all we now know about COVID-19 and its long-term impacts.”
“It’s very unfortunate,” Andrew Wagner, President of the Milwaukee Police Association said. “I think it has exposed a loophole in the system that we need to get fixed.”
Wagner represents the rank and file officers at MPD, not the supervisors like Lt. Wooden. However, he says this is a problem that impacts everyone who wears the badge. In order to close the loophole, Wagner says change will have to come from the State Legislature, though there are no discussions on the topic at the moment.
“We have had officers in the past that are six or eight months away [from retirement eligibility],” Wagner said. “Now their concern is, do I make it with my cancer diagnosis for that eight months? What do I leave my family with if I don’t?”
The City’s pension system has to make extremely tough decisions when it comes to providing benefits for families.
The I-Team received statistics for 14 families of officers currently receiving duty death benefits. This list dates back to 1963 and includes the families of Officers Michael Michalski and Matthew Rittner, who were both shot and killed in the line of duty in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Since 1953, 28 families of Officers have received Duty Death Benefits and 51 families of Officers have received Ordinary Death Benefits. According to CMERS, Lt. Wooden is the only person to have applied for Duty Death Benefits and been denied.
A questionable case involved Officer Mark Lentz. Officer Lentz was intentionally struck by a vehicle while on his patrol motorcycle in 2017. He suffered a traumatic brain injury but eventually recovered and returned to work. However, two years later, in 2019, he died from ALS; a degenerative brain disorder. The Medical Council for the pension board suggested his death was considered natural and therefore not eligible for the duty death benefit. His family was able to receive a Disability Death Benefit because they were able to file for it before he died. Lt. Wooden’s family didn’t have that kind of time.
CMERS, the Medical Council and the collective bargaining negotiator for the City of Milwaukee, all declined interviews for this story. CMERS provided detailed information on how they go about this process, including a 20-step guide they utilize for any officer death to figure out which benefits they qualify for, including a multi-step appeal process for the families.
They also mentioned a supplemental group life insurance policy in place for those officers who fall just shy of their 25-year mark. It pays three times the officer’s annual salary, up to $355,000. Faith says, her family has been staying afloat with this over the last year, but at 45-years-old, she questions how she’ll care for herself and her family for the next few decades without a pension she and her late husband were depending on to get them through their final years together.
Now, not only has she lost those precious twilight years with the love of her life, so to goes the promise of a secure financial future.
“It feels very, very unfair,” Faith said. “It feels like, man, if there is an opportunity to do the right thing, let’s do the right thing.”
Attorney Ovbiagele questions why they were never allowed to question the Medical Council or cross-examine the independent investigators on this case. He says they plan on filing a lawsuit to allow them to do so.