MUSKEGON, Mich. - Two weeks after winning the August primary, judicial candidate Jason Kolkema appeared to viciously whip his girlfriend with a belt during an argument in his western Michigan apartment, presumably unaware that nearby witnesses were recording the scene.
When he noticed the onlookers from his window, the 51-year-old lawyer flashed them the peace sign, and has since claimed the video isn't what it seems: He was striking a chair with his belt, not his girlfriend, the woman and his lawyer have maintained.
But the video triggered criminal charges - and a tsunami of public outrage in the city of Muskegon, which borders Lake Michigan and is about 40 miles northwest of Grand Rapids.
In a scandalous judicial election that has stirred much debate in western Michigan, the topic of domestic violence has taken center stage as women's rights activists fight to keep Kolkema off the bench, arguing he isn't fit to be judge, especially in cases involving battered women and vulnerable children.
'We saw what we saw'
Kolkema, arraigned Sept. 19 on domestic violence charges, has a history of losing his temper, behaving violently around women and children - including spitting on a 12-year-old girl - and has violated court orders, lied about his relationship with his client-girlfriend, battled an Adderall addiction and failed to pay child support, according to a decade's worth of court and police records reviewed by the Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, and interviews with multiple people tied to him and his girlfriend.
"I cannot imagine a victim sitting in front of a 'Jason Kolkema' and asking him to protect her from an assailant," said Heather Fry, a Muskegon mother, domestic abuse survivor and longtime victim's advocate who has sat with scores of victims in court seeking personal protection orders.
"I'm sorry. We saw what we saw. The video is very damning," Fry said. "It was a violent act meant to instill fear."
Kolkema has declined numerous requests for comment, though has addressed the video briefly on his Facebook page, stating:
"I understand that the optics are bad. I understand the anger and disappointment, especially from the people who voted for me and supported me ... All of the facts will be revealed in due time," Kolkema wrote. He was responding to a Facebook commenter who wrote: "We don't support abusers in my community."
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Spitting. Shoving. Slapping.
On his campaign website, Kolkema portrays himself as a proud Muskegon native and accomplished lawyer who learned "compassion, empathy and the importance of service to the community" from his homemaker mother.
Court and police records tell a different story.
Two days before the belt incident, Kolkema allegedly spit on his girlfriend's 12-year-old daughter as she slept in his apartment with her mom, despite a court order that prohibited him from being around the girl. He allegedly spewed toothpaste on the girl and her mother, and then threw water on them because he was angry about a previous fight, according to Ottawa County court records. The next day, he allegedly threw a Gatorade bottle at his girlfriend and her daughter but missed and hit a lamp.
Three months earlier, Fruitport police got a call from Kolkema's girlfriend saying, "my boyfriend just slapped me." When police arrived, Kolkema told an officer his girlfriend "gets like this when she is drunk ... and makes things up." The girlfriend then recanted and refused to cooperate. No charges were filed.
In 2013, Kolkema's ex-wife filed a domestic assault complaint with the Fruitport police, alleging that Kolkema shoved her in the back and knocked her to the ground during an argument that occurred while she was picking up her children from his parents' house. "(She) advised that her daughter was visibly upset and crying, because she had seen Jason act like this in the past," the police report states. Kolkema was uncooperative, became "defensive" and refused to answer questions without an attorney. No charges were filed due to a lack of witnesses who could "substantiate the alleged assault."
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A year earlier in Ingham County, Kolkema admitted to pulling his ex-wife's hair during an argument that got out of hand, but left after she called police. "(He) stated that he left the marital home before police arrived because he represents a lot of agencies which have pro-arrest policy in relation to domestic violence and was not interested in going to jail," a court filing states. No charges were filed.
That same year, Kolkema triggered a Child Protective Services investigation after he left his ill 6-year-old daughter home alone to drive his older son to a location 20 minutes away. He was "counting on the child being ill and remaining asleep in bed. ... However, (the child) was found by a neighbor wandering outside, upset and looking for father." Kolkema was not charged, though a family court referee said he used "extremely poor" and "highly questionable judgment."
Girlfriend takes blame
Contacted numerous times for comment, Kolkema's attorney Terry Nolan threatened to report the Free Press to police for harassment.
Kolkema deferred comment to his girlfriend when asked whether he could explain to voters his actions in the video, stating: "I'd refer you to what the alleged victim had to say."
The victim says that she's standing by Kolkema and that she's partly to blame for what happened in the apartment that day while cellphone cameras were rolling.
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"Jason is a good person (and) has made a positive impact on my life in many regards," the 33-year-old girlfriend wrote the Free Press. "He's done a lot for my children and I don't think this portrayal of him is even remotely fair." The Free Press does not name domestic violence victims or alleged victims without their consent.
According to the girlfriend, on the day in question, Kolkema was trying to get her attention to finish a conversation they had previously started, but she was on a headset and distracted. So to get her attention, she said, he struck a chair's armrest with his belt.
"It was rude of me to ignore him so I do take responsibility for that part," she wrote the Free Press, adding the campaign has "taken on a toll" on their relationship.
The woman also said that Kolkema has never hurt her or her daughter, as alleged in a court filing.
"He's not dangerous. He's never beat me. He's not scary or threatening as a person ... Just boisterous, animated - almost bouncy at times," the woman wrote, adding the video is not what it seems. "It's just not fair to him. … It looks so much worse and different than what it was."
She also added that she and Kolkema did not start dating until February, though police and court records show the two have been romantically involved for three years. Family members have said their relationship started while Kolkema represented her in a civil, parenting-time case involving her three children from prior relationships - all of which involved domestic violence.
Under the American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Responsibility, a lawyer "shall not have sexual relations with a client" unless a consensual relationship already existed when the legal representation started.
'Papa, I'm hurted'
On New Year's Day, Kolkema's girlfriend's son got a black eye after getting struck by a door handle at his mom's Grand Haven home, according to an Ottawa County sheriff's report. That night, the 5-year-old boy called his grandfather.
"He said, 'Papa, I'm hurted. I got hit in the eye with a doorknob by mommy's boyfriend,' " the grandfather told the Free Press.
When a Child Protective Services investigator questioned Kolkema about the boy's injury, Kolkema stated that "he had no recollection" of the incident and "didn't recall" being in the house that day, even though the boy and his girlfriend said he was there.
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In the door-knob incident, police submitted charges for both Kolkema and his girlfriend, though the Ottawa County prosecutor opted not to charge the couple, concluding "this is a strange set of facts."
Meanwhile, the grandfather, who is the primary guardian of his grandson, is reeling and doesn't want Kolkema anywhere near the boy. He says that Kolkema and his girlfriend are constantly fighting and yelling, that his grandson is harmed by their behavior, and that Kolkema and his girlfriend have repeatedly violated a court order that prohibits the boy from being on unsupervised visits with his mother.
The Free Press is not naming the grandfather to avoid identifying the grandchild.
"I'm just trying to give my grandson a normal life. I just want peace and normalcy for (him)," said the grandfather, adding he was also alarmed by the belt-whipping video.
'Is this really happening?'
It was just before noon on Aug. 18 when women working in a downtown Muskegon office building looked out their window and saw a couple arguing in The Leonard apartment building on West Western Avenue. It was the same apartment that weeks earlier had a huge Jason Kolkema campaign banner in the window.
"You could see him ranting and raving most of the morning," said one of the witnesses, a domestic abuse survivor and mother of three who has requested anonymity to protect her family's privacy. "I told my coworkers, 'I'm really getting worried. I'm going to start recording this.' "
The arguing went on for about 40 minutes. The office workers watched as Kolkema paced the living room, waved his hands in the air, and went room to room - at one point changing out of his blue campaign T-shirt into a white dress shirt.
But eventually things got physical, the woman said, alleging she saw Kolkema grab the woman, who swung back. Then he walked away.
"He put his hands on her and we were like, 'Wow. Did that really just happen?' " recalled the witness, who decided to call the police. As she was on the phone, Kolkema pulled out the belt.
"It was insane. I thought, 'how do I help this person way over there? Is this really happening in front of my eyes?" the woman said, noting the lashings continue to haunt her.
'You could see the belt connecting'
"It was sick, makes you just sick to your stomach, and that's all you can think about for days and days and days," said the woman, adding she is outraged by Kolkema's claim that he hit the chair.
"The video is not as accurate as my eyes," she said. "You could clearly see that belt connecting with her."
Police officers responded to the apartment, where they encountered a "visibly upset" woman who "had a blank stare when they were talking with her. When (she) was asked who she had an altercation with, she stated 'Jason Kolkema' but refused to comment on the altercation or what occurred between them," a police affidavit says, adding officers were unable to see any injuries on the woman as she was wearing a long dress.
Like other witnesses that day, including some who recorded the incident from the street, the office worker decided to post the violent portion of the video on Facebook. To date, it has generated more than 20,500 views. She has turned over the entire 40-minute recording to police.
'Politics plays no role in this'
Within 24 hours of the videotaped incident, charges were filed.
"My office takes the crime of domestic violence very seriously. It really doesn't matter who you are, what your background is, what - if any - influence you have or may not have," Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson said in a Free Press interview. "When it comes to this particular time, it is a very serious issue and we will file charges when appropriate."
Kolkema was charged with misdemeanor domestic assault, punishable by up to 93 days in jail. He turned himself in and posted a $500 cash bond, and on Thursday asked the judge to lift a no-contact order so that his girlfriend can rejoin his campaign, live with him again and help him fight what his lawyer described as "false and misleading information."
"Although the couple have garden-variety arguments, it is not a relationship that can be characterized as abusive," Kolkema's lawyer wrote in a Thursday filing, "and there is no evidence of past incidents of abuse."
Hilson said his office does not consent to the lifting of the no-contact order. An assistant prosecutor was blunt about Kolkema's request that his girlfriend be allowed to campaign.
"It's ridiculous," Assistant Prosecutor Katie Norton said during a September hearing when the request first surfaced. She told the judge that Kolkema has violated multiple court orders and can't be trusted. "I have concerns about the safety of the public, and Mr. Kolkema's ability to follow court orders."
During the hearing, Kolkema's attorney claimed the case was becoming political.
"Politics plays no role in this whatsoever," Hilson said.
As for claims that the belt hit the chair, not the girlfriend - Hilson said the law sees no difference.
"Domestic violence includes violence that can either be physical, or threatened. Contact is not required," Hilson said, adding: "We're prepared to try this case if that's what Mr. Kolkema wishes."
Kolkema's trial date has been scheduled for Nov. 21 - well past the Nov. 8 election. Kolkema is running for Muskegon County's 14th Circuit Court judicial seat. He won the August primary with 36% of the vote out of a pool of four candidates. His challenger is attorney Jenny McNeill, a lawyer of more than 25 years and current family court referee. She won 25% of the vote in the primary.
'You got my vote'
Against the backdrop of his pending criminal case, Kolkema is getting support from folks who believe he deserves the presumption of innocence - a constitutional right that applies to all defendants in the criminal justice system.
"Innocent until proven guilty and we only know one side of the story," wrote one commenter.
"You got my vote," wrote another, later adding: "I know this man and he is a good man. Should one mistake ruin your life? I don't think so, and last time I checked it takes two to tangle."
One day after his arraignment, Kolkema pressed his campaign in a Facebook post: "My experience as an attorney is unmatched and I remain the best candidate to preside over the types of cases within the jurisdiction of the Circuit Court in Muskegon County."
Tresa Baldas is an award-winning courts and legal issues reporter and was named the 2020 Richard Milliman "Michigan" Journalist of the Year by the Michigan Press Association. Contact her at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan lawyer caught allegedly assaulting girlfriend with belt