This story was originally published in early May in “Paradise,” the sixth issue of Talisman magazine.
Nick Beasmore heard the news from his fraternity brother last year when he was living in Lexington. Beasmore’s fraternity brother had kept close ties with WKU while Beasmore, a former WKU civil engineering student, only kept in contact with few people in the department after he graduated in 2015.
He remembered thinking it was some sort of joke. He wondered if someone was just spreading a rumor about his professor.
“Once I saw more reports of the incident, I was let down to hear one of my college mentors had done something like this just (to) get an extra buck,” Beasmore said in an email.
In October 2017, Matthew Dettman, a former civil engineering professor at WKU, was placed on leave for diverting funds from payments for soil and concrete testing performed by engineering students.
Dettman was sentenced to 52 weekends at the Warren County Regional Jail on Jan. 9, 2019, by federal district court judge, Greg Stivers, after pleading guilty to wire fraud in September 2018, according to federal court documents.
Dettman must pay $236,000, equal to the amount he used for his personal use, in restitution to WKU due to funds misappropriated from his department. In addition, he will serve three years probation after his incarceration.
According to court records, Dettman stole the $236,000 by diverting payments to personal accounts instead of transferring the money to the university between July 2006 and October 2017. He was placed on unpaid administrative leave in October 2017. He resigned on Dec. 1 of that same year.
The Talisman made multiple calls to Dettman and his current wife, Amanda Dettman, for comment but both refused to speak on the topic of Dettman’s situation. Amanda Dettman said lawyers advised them not to speak to anyone and then put her husband on the phone for comment.
“Like my wife said, we’re just trying to move past all of this,” Dettman said.
The Talisman also contacted several civil engineering professors by phone and email for comment, but these requests were not returned. The sourcing in this story stems from court records, letters of support from those court records, Dettman’s personal statement submitted to the judge and former students whom the Talisman interviewed.
The youngest of four siblings, Dettman was born in Sturgis, Michigan, to Eunice Dettman, a nurse, and Harold Dettman, a doctor, according to one of Dettman’s personal statements.
“We had a comfortable childhood,” Dettman said in his personal statement addressed to Judge Strivers. “My parents divorced when I was little, but from my memory of growing up I had a fairly normal childhood.”
His main interest during school was sports. He played a variety including football, baseball, golf and tennis. Dettman said in his personal statement that any sport he tried, he could play “fairly well.” He said competing with his older brothers made him work to be even better.
His love for sports carried through to high school, where he also developed a strong interest in math and science. Dettman played football, wrestled and ran track, where he excelled the most, setting Sturgis High School records and receiving state honors.
Dettman decided to attend Albion College, a small liberal arts school in Albion, Michigan, after he graduated.
“My father attended Albion College,” he said in his personal statement. “And none of my siblings had chosen that school, so there was a little bit of pressure for me to go there, so I did.”
Dettman spent his freshman year at Albion and transferred to Clemson University the following year when he became interested in civil engineering. He joined the track team as a walk-on for two years but had to give it up to focus on his studies.
After obtaining his undergraduate degree, Dettman attended his top choice for graduate school, Stanford University, where he pursued a single-year master’s degree in geotechnical and earthquake engineering.
In his personal statement, Dettman said job offers rolled in until he decided to join a medium-sized engineering firm in Alameda, California. He worked in Alameda for a year before joining a larger firm in Glendale, California, where he worked for another year.
While he worked for these firms, Dettman realized his true passion was teaching. A colleague advised him that his master’s degree could land him a teaching position at a small university and he should look into pursuing that passion.
After a few months, Dettman was hired at WKU — the start of a 25-year teaching career.
From the ground up
Dettman joined what was then called the Engineering Technology Department at WKU in 1993 teaching civil engineering technology.
Dettman was responsible for creating the civil engineering program at WKU, he said in his personal statement. After the creation of the program, Dettman had to receive approval from ABET, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology.
The program would not be accredited until at least one student graduated from the program. WKU produced its first class of civil engineering graduates in 2004. The accreditation took roughly 10 years.
“Professionally, it was and probably always will be the achievement I am most proud of,” Dettman said in his personal statement.
Shane Palmquist, who is still an associate professor of civil engineering, worked with Dettman when Palmquist was hired at WKU in 2004. In his letter of support from court records, Palmquist said Dettman was a diligent professional, a friend and someone he still has a “great deal of respect for.”
“The amount of time, dedication, and commitment he showed in not only getting the program accredited, but also maintaining that accreditation since that time, was admirable,” Palmquist said in the letter. “Because of his efforts, WKU has produced over 100 graduates that have achieved professional licensure and many more that are on the path to licensure.”
The downward spiral
Kyle Parks, a former student of Dettman’s and a civil engineer working in Louisville said in an email interview that Dettman had a lot of experience in the engineering field and really applied that to his teaching.
“Classes were very interactive, and he was more than willing to help any student, both during class time and outside of class,” Parks said in an email. “He was always very approachable.”
Parks said Dettman influenced his life in many ways.
“Professor Dettman’s insight into the practical aspects of civil engineering and the day-to-day operations of construction definitely helped my ability to manage complex construction projects,” he said in an email. “There are many lessons from his classes that I find myself falling back on often.”
Palmquist said Dettman always went above and beyond to provide learning opportunities for students.
Several former students wrote letters of support to the court to describe Dettman’s dedication to teaching and his concern for how they were doing outside of class. These were found in the many court records before his personal statement.
Allyson Alvey Jones, a December 2015 graduate, said Dettman gave her the best advice on the process of obtaining her master’s degree.
“He gave me advice on the best ways to prepare, which schools were best for which fields, and names of professors he knew at each of those schools,” she said in an email. She said in her email that Dettman had many connections in different career opportunities, and he was always willing to use those to help with student success.
Dettman said in his personal statement shortly after the first accreditation of the engineering programs that he started experiencing some back pain caused by aging and a lifetime of sports. He said in his personal statement that he treated things “the easy way” with pain medication.
“Most people take opioids and feel tired, groggy and a little sick from it, but that didn’t happen to me,” he said in his personal statement. “They gave me energy and a feeling that I could do just about anything.”
Starting in 2005, Dettman took opioids regularly to assuage his pain and cravings. This lasted for about a year until a doctor told him he was getting too many prescriptions and stopped prescribing them.
Dettman said in his personal statement he learned of the places that were more lenient in what they prescribed. He said he knew the right things to say and how to act to get what he wanted. Over time, the databases improved and made it harder for Dettman to get his medications.
After having a drink at Buffalo Wild Wings one day, the bartender, who Dettman described as a good friend in his personal statement, introduced him to another man who said he could get him all of the pills he needed, which would send Dettman spiraling downward into further addiction and debt.
Lost in addiction
A few weeks after meeting the man, Dettman started taking four or five pills a day, and the pills grew in number each month — peaking at more than 50 pills each day, he said in his personal statement. The pills were $5 apiece, which made for an expensive habit.
Dettman used his savings and credit card advances to pay for the opioids. He started missing work frequently. He was reprimanded by the dean of Ogden College. His wife filed for divorce. He was relying on civil engineering consulting work through local businesses to live.
At that time, Dettman said in his personal statement, WKU had no policy about keeping any portion of the revenue from consulting work because not much money was generated.
Bob Skipper, WKU’s director of Media Relations, said WKU did have policies in place at the time. In 2001, the fee for service contract policies and procedures stated that projects up to $10,000 would be handled through unrestricted WKU accounts, but projects over $10,000 would be processed through the WKU Research Foundation, he said in an email.
The improper consulting work meant Dettman was billing clients directly instead of through the university. In his personal statement, he said he hid those transactions from WKU because he didn’t want to raise any red flags about how much outside consulting work he was completing.
Dettman said in his personal statement that the proper procedure was to process contracts and invoices through the university. The client should have paid WKU, and then Dettman would be paid, he said in his personal statement. WKU changed this policy in 2018 after Dettman’s situation surfaced and the university increased the retainment to 30 percent of the revenue.
Dettman said in his personal statement that because there was no formal way to handle the contracts, he and the student workers would be paid the entire contract amount.
“I figured that I was going to get paid the money anyway, so where was the harm?” Dettman said in his personal statement.
In his personal statement, Dettman said he spiraled into more debt when his divorce became final and required him to pay two-thirds of his WKU check in child support and maintenance.
Dettman’s father died from addiction, but even that didn’t stop him from his own, he said in his personal statement. Dettman saw a commercial about a doctor who offered an opioid addiction recovery program through the use of Suboxone. Dettman reached out to Dr. Bruce Fane, a psychologist in Elizabethtown. Despite the hour-long drive, Dettman asked for help.
The recovery process required 24 hours without the use of opiates, which Dettman managed to do. However, Dr. Fane filled Dettman’s first prescription in Bowling Green, which forced him to go one more hour suppressing the cravings.
“It was the longest hour of my life driving back, but the medication helped immediately,” he said in his personal statement.
Sometime around 2010, Dettman said he was off opiates and Suboxone and trying to help others find sobriety too.
“I discovered successful recovery from drug addiction is rare, and there is more failure than success, but it is possible,” Dettman said in his personal statement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016 that health care providers across the U.S. wrote over 214 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication, a rate of 66.5 prescriptions per 100 people. More than 11 million people abused prescription opioids in the same year.
Palmquist said Dettman came to him around 2010 and explained he had been struggling with addiction and was now clean, working to better himself.
“I know it took a lot of courage to admit that to us, and ever since that time he was a hard worker and never had an issue again,” Palmquist said in his letter to the judge.
However, Dettman’s financial debt continued to be a problem. He continued to incorrectly report the billing from his consulting work. He owed several thousands of dollars to his ex-wife, an ex-girlfriend and a credit card company.
Moving past it
Several students and colleagues, among others, were surprised to hear about Dettman’s crimes.
John Sewell, a 2004 graduate of WKU, said in his personal statement that Dettman was his mentor and a knowledgeable professor with a big heart.
“Despite his transgressions, I will continue to turn to Matthew for advice and solutions,” Sewell said in his letter to the judge.
Benjamin Matthews, a student of Dettman’s in 1994, said Dettman influenced many aspects of his life.
“I cannot describe enough how much emphasis on real life work and engineering experience coupled with a quality education helped propel me to be the professional I am today in my work and home life,” Matthews said in his letter to the judge.
Beasmore said it was a total shock to hear the news about his former professor.
“I hope with this current sentencing, he learns from this life-changing mistake, and is able to let it be a lesson in how you can never cut corners like he taught us in senior design, and that being ethically responsible goes beyond your job or career, but that it can affect your whole life,” Beasmore said in an email.
Patricia Harper, a former colleague and former department secretary, explained in her letter of support the many things Dettman did to make her feel welcome at WKU and in the engineering department.
“Matthew is a good person who simply let things get out of control and made a bad choice,” she said in her letter to the judge. “None of us are perfect, Matthew included, but I write this letter in full support of him.”
In his personal statement, Dettman said he talked at length with his son, Dr. Fane and a priest at St. Joseph Church about why he did what he did. Each of them gave him the advice he needed to get through addiction recovery, he said in his statement.
Dettman said in his personal statement, after his sentencing, he would spend that time trying to better himself and helping others. He said he may help others obtain their GED diploma or use his skills some other way.
“I can and will be a productive member of society and work every day to practice honesty and good virtue,” he said in his personal statement.