With 32% of her body scorched with third-degree burns, Melissa Kuen spent eight weeks in the burn unit at a Milwaukee hospital.
That third of her body does not include the second-degree burns she suffered after the methamphetamine she was cooking at The Cove of Lake Geneva Hotel exploded on Jan. 9, 2017.
Kuen had four major surgeries. Doctors had to use skin from her back to treat her injuries, Kuen said Tuesday at her sentencing in Walworth County Court.
She had daily therapy and a feeding tube. For three months after her release, she hunched while she walked. She said she will need more surgeries to fix scar tissue damage.
“This is nothing in comparison (to) how embarrassed and ashamed I have felt every day and still do,” she said.
Before sparing Kuen from prison and sentencing her to six years of probation, Judge Phillip Koss—without meaning to be callous—said it was better that she got hurt rather than a child in a neighboring room.
“I agree,” Kuen responded.
Koss also sentenced Kuen, 38, of Lake Geneva to serve nine months in the Walworth County Jail, but she will have work release for child care and other purposes.
Conditions on her sentence include no contact orders against the slew of others with whom Kuen associated who already have been convicted of meth charges, including Patrick M. McBean, who was in the hotel room where the meth cook exploded.
Two officers who responded to the scene previously told The Gazette the hallway air burned their lungs when they breathed.
Kuen and McBean are also on the hook for more than $125,000 in restitution. Koss said Tuesday he does not know how much money the hotel continues to lose because the incident damaged its reputation.
The judge also ordered Kuen to complete 20 hours of community service for each year of her probation.
She also cannot possess precursors for making meth, including pseudoephedrine, an ingredient commonly found in cold medicine.
She had to report for her jail term immediately; after all, she could have gone to prison, Koss pointed out. A prison term hangs over her head, too, if she violates conditions of her probation.
While Kuen faced a maximum prison term of 7.5 years, Assistant District Attorney Haley Johnson agreed to cap her recommendation at 18 months. She said making meth is a dangerous process, and this case is where the “dangers were realized.”
“She put many people in the public at risk,” Johnson said.
Kuen echoed others’ statements about the hazards of meth, saying, “I really believe it’s the devil’s drug.”
Kuen’s lawyer, Steve Compton, who also represented others in this string of meth cases, called meth a “scourge.”
Still, he praised his client’s completion of treatment and 18 months of sobriety.
When Compton met with Kuen on Sunday morning, she laughed when he asked her what she did the night before. It was a simple evening: Kuen and her mom walked with the baby in a stroller, got home, watched TV and went to bed.
Compton asked because some of his other clients were arrested that night.
“I told her I was incredibly proud of her for doing that,” he said. “She’s starting to recognize that normal behavior, but she also knows it’s a lifelong journey.”
That journey means more treatment. Compton also called Kuen’s medical records “unbelievable,” leaving her with reminders of a night she cannot stop thinking about.
“She has very, very ugly scars,” he said.
Before the hearing began, Kuen hugged her parents, Beverly Kasten and Larry Kuen, who both spoke at the sentencing. Her 2-month-old son also attended.
The baby, Kasten said, is a “gift from God” to her daughter, who has been depressed.
Kasten said Kuen, who has been living with her, has turned her life around.
“I’m very proud of her,” Kasten said.
Kuen’s father said he also struggled with addiction, and today he’s 14 years sober. He said it means a lot to him to see his daughter change her attitude.
When Kuen finally could go home from the burn unit, she said she felt so ashamed that she did not want to leave. She said the doctor gave her two extra days to prepare herself.
“I never wanted to show my face in Walworth County again,” she said. “But running away from my problems does not fix them.”
Now that she’s sober, Kuen said she wants to tell other addicts or young people about her mistakes.
“If I can show people out there what this drug did to my life, then hopefully they will see my scars and learn from me,” she said. “I do not want to see anyone go through what I endured from this.”