Screenshot via YouTube/Zoom - Former St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough (standing) speaks to Kalamazoo County District Court Judge Vincent Westra (not pictured) during a plea hearing in his drunk driving case Thursday. McDonough pled guilty to operating while visibly impaired in his case, stemming from a drunk driving incident in Lockport Township in May 2020.

McDonough pleads guilty in drunk driving case

Sentenced to one year probation, continuation of alcohol treatment plan

KALAMAZOO — Former St. Joseph County Prosecutor John McDonough pled guilty Thursday in Kalamazoo County Eighth District Court to a charge of operating while visibly impaired related to a May 2020 drunk driving incident in Lockport Township.

In exchange for McDonough’s plea, the two original counts in the case, operating while intoxicated and having open intoxicants in a motor vehicle, were dismissed.

Following the plea, McDonough was sentenced by District Court Judge Vincent Westra to one year of probation with a review after six months. As part of that, the court ordered McDonough to continue his current alcohol treatment program, to not drink or possess alcohol, to not be in an establishment whose primary business is alcohol, and to not operate a motor vehicle outside of a restricted license. He will also be ordered to pay a number of fines, including a $500 fine for his August bond violation.

McDonough said in court that on May 11, he had been drinking bourbon prior to getting behind the wheel of the SUV that eventually crashed into a fence on Lovers Lane, and as a result of having the bourbon, his ability to operate the vehicle was “visibly impaired.”

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Gregory Townsend, who prosecuted the case, did not request incarceration for McDonough in the case, but rather treatment and “community supervision.”

“I don’t think [incarceration] would do the defendant any good,” Townsend said. “I think what’s necessary is a treatment program of some sort, community supervision to make sure he stays on a sober track.”

McDonough’s attorney, Michael Hills, in his statement to the court said McDonough is a “father, a coach, a husband, a public servant for many years, and also someone with a substance use disorder.” Hills said McDonough “stumbled” a bit in recovery early on, but then “caught himself and picked himself up” and is now doing a “yeoman’s job” with his recovery and treatment programs.

“He has done more than any other drunk driving first offense that I’ve had that I can remember,” Hills said. “He’s gone through inpatient, 40-some three-hour IOPs, hundreds of 12-step meetings, two a day, he’s been on Soberlink [breathalyzer] four times a day, drug testing. Over the last nine months, it’s been quite a journey. I can tell the court, looking at him today, he looks much better and there’s a noticeable difference in him.”

Hills said that while McDonough’s case was “very triable” because of the possible discrepancies in McDonough’s blood alcohol content the day of the incident, the plea was not his idea, but rather McDonough’s as a way to accept responsibility in the case.

“He came to me a while back and wanted to plead to a drunk driving charge. I was against it, but it’s his case, and he wants to take responsibility, accept responsibility and move on,” Hills said. “That’s what we’re doing here today. He’s taking responsibility, he’s taking inventory, and I think this is part of his 12-step work.”

Hills also said McDonough has been cooperating with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission in their investigation of the former prosecutor since it opened several months ago, and said McDonough in the meantime recently opened up a law office in Three Rivers, and “plans on continuing with his law practice.”

An emotional McDonough than spoke to the court, first thanking Townsend and Westra for the opportunity of having him “focus on my sobriety,” and said he’s “confident in where I am with my life right now.”

“Over the last four months, I’ve been through some pretty big hurdles,” McDonough said. “I am an alcoholic, and I realize that. But with your help, quite possibly doing the Soberlink saved my life. It gave me one more tool to focus on so I stayed on the straight and narrow.”

McDonough said the entire situation has been a “tremendously humbling experience” in his life, and would start individual counseling as the next step in his recovery.

“I’ve done the inpatient, I’ve done the outpatient, and now it’s time for me to have one-on-ones where I’m focusing on myself,” McDonough said. “In all of this, I’ve had to do it for me, and I have.”

McDonough talked about his medical situation briefly, saying he was “on [his] death bed” back in May for what Westra later said was “when the effects of alcohol ravaged [his] body,” to the point where his mother was planning his funeral. Now, he said his organs are functioning normally again, albeit with “permanent damage” to his hand and legs. But other than that, McDonough said, “I’m here.”

“This disease had a complete stranglehold on my life, and now I feel like I have a very good hold on it,” McDonough, who said as of Thursday he is 137 days sober, said.

McDonough said he has a “tremendous” support group, and said he has to be sober “no matter what.” Later, he said he was “grateful” to finish out his term as prosecutor “with a little bit of dignity.”

“I went back to work the last few months of my term, and handled hearings and everything else I used to do. It was a job I took tremendous pride in and threw away,” McDonough said. “I went out with absolutely zero fanfare, but I’m here, and that’s the most important thing. … As the Serenity Prayer says, I’ve got to accept the things I cannot change, and I cannot change my actions from May 11 as much as I wish I could.”

Westra said he understands the “insidious beast” of addiction, but in the end, the best outcome for the community was McDonough “maintaining a program of recovery.” If there were sanctions placed on him by the state, Westra said it would be for “not doing the work necessary.” Overall, while Westra said the sentence was about providing accountability, he said the most important thing for McDonough is to continue his programs and focus on moving forward.

“I commend you for the work you’ve done, and encourage you to continue,” Westra said. “You need a good solid year of recovery as a foundation for going on, and we all recognize you take this one day at a time. You recognize that every day is a challenge, because the beast is always there. If you’re working the program, you have the tools to deal with it, and you must sharpen those tools every single day. The best outcome in this case for the community, your family and you is to continue to move forward with recovery, and it will be with supervision.”

Westra said McDonough still has “issues” related to the state Bar, which will “have an impact” on him, but encouraged him to keep working with the 12-step program.

“I regret, as we all do, that it took this incident to bring you to the point where you began to get help, but the upside is it did bring you to that point,” Westra said. “Had you not been in that situation, the likelihood that you would’ve recognized that you needed the help might not have been present until it was too late.”

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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