Florida’s Most Notorious Guardian Begins Trial for Elderly Abuse

September 16, 2022 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements, Violent Crimes

A professional guardian is someone who has been court-appointed to take care of elderly citizens and their assets. It is an important job and one that has recently been taken advantage of in Florida.

A recent case highlights Florida’s “most notorious guardian” Rebecca Fierle, who is accused of mishandling her wards’ finances, along with abusing them. In one extreme case, one of her wards died in the hospital after she placed a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) on his file.

Now that Fierle’s trial is beginning, we will cover the details of the case along with information on elder abuse in Florida and new amendments made to the Guardianship law.

What was the Incident?

Rebecca Fierle, 52, was arrested in Marion County in February 2020 after being accused of abusing and neglecting her elderly clients—also referred to as “wards.” Fierle started her career as a Medicaid Specialist in a Florida hospital. She became interested in guardianship and started her own company—leading to the largest guardianship enterprise in the state of Florida.

It only took a few years for Fierle to be in charge of over 400 cases. She became well known in the courts—recommended by judges and accepted through petitioning. Her clients spanned 19 counties, in which she was responsible for their medical decisions and finances.

Fierle came under fire in 2019 after one of her wards passed away in a hospital. The investigation began after Navy veteran Steven Stryker, 75, choked on his food in a Tampa hospital and lost consciousness. Stryker had a medical condition that made it difficult to swallow.

According to the investigation report, Fierle had signed an order for a DNR without court approval. A do not resuscitate (DNR) order means that the health care providers cannot provide CPR if the patient stops breathing. The decision is typically offered to patients near the end of their life, who do not wish to live longer if they lose consciousness or cannot breathe. Even if there is a DNR order, you always have the right to change your mind and request CPR in an emergency.

Stryker’s family claimed that Fierle filed the DNR even though the vet “expressed a desire to live.” However, with the DNR placed, the nurses were unable to provide CPR when Stryker choked on his food and lost consciousness. Stryker ended up dying in the hospital.

“Rebecca demanded that his feeding tube be capped,” said Linda Lanier, Stryker’s power of attorney and close friend. Lanier had been away on vacation when Stryker was placed in the hospital.

Stryker’s daughter, Kimberly Stryker, sent the judge in charge of her father’s guardianship case an email about the decision. The email stated:

“His guardian [Fierle] has insisted on including a DNR…despite his vocal opposition. He is doing much better and is quite lucid and extremely upset that this woman has full control over his medical and financial records.”

Six days after the email was sent, Stryker choked to death in the hospital. Months after his death, Fierle was arrested and charged with aggravated abuse and neglect of an elderly person.

Not the First Complaint

This was not the first time Fierle has received complaints from a ward’s family. Angela Woodhull had her mother placed in guardianship with Fierle over 12 years ago. Despite the family’s request, Fierle moved Woodhull’s mother into a nursing home with restricted visitation.

When Woodhull’s mother later passed, Angela expected part of the inheritance from the $1 million estate. However, she never received any of the money. She realized something was wrong.

“I started to get the feeling, as a licensed private investigator, that this cannot be,” Woodhull said. “If they are doing this to me, I think they’re doing this to other people.”

Woodhull decided to begin her own investigation during which she interviewed over a dozen wards who had been in the guardianship of Fierle. She took all of the reports and evidence of alleged abuse to the police, yet there was no action taken until Stryker’s death.

While police were searching Fierle’s office, they found a shocking discovery. The guardian had the cremated remains of nine different people at her office in Orlando.

Fierle has not been charged with any financial crimes but will proceed to trial for the alleged abuse against Stryker. Fierle has pleaded “not guilty” to the charges against her.

Elderly Abuse in Florida

Florida Statute Section 825.102 defines elderly abuse as an intentional act that could result in physical or psychological harm to an individual who is over the age of 60 years old.

Elderly abuse can range from a third- to first-degree felony in Florida depending on the severity of the alleged abuse. If there has been no permanent bodily harm or disfigurement, then it is considered a third-degree felony. The penalties for a third-degree felony include up to a $5,000 fine and/or up to five years in prison.

If the defendant is accused of maliciously punishing, torturing, or causing great bodily harm or permanent disfigurement to an elderly person, it is considered aggravated elderly abuse. Aggravated elderly abuse in Florida is a first-degree felony. The penalties for a first-degree felony include up to a $10,000 fine and up to 30 years in prison.

2020 Florida Guardianship Bill

Fierle’s arrest raised concerns for guardianship in Florida. In 2020, Florida Legislature voted to amend the State’s guardianship law. SB 994 titled Guardianship was passed as amended on March 5th, 2020 in a unanimous 39-0 vote.

Under SB 994’s amendment, a ward’s (elderly person) personal and property interests are protected by and from the chosen guardian. It will now require a court to appoint and approve a guardian after considering any potential conflicts of interest.

SB 994 also now requires a court to approve a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order for a ward. If there is an emergency and the guardian claims that the ward requested a DNR, the court must hold a hearing on a petition for the request within a 72 period. After the hearing ends, the court must rule on the requested relief or conduct an evidentiary hearing no more than 4 days after the preliminary hearing.

The bill also requires the appointed guardian to create an initial and annual plan that includes a list of preexisting orders and any payments or remuneration received from any source for services rendered for the ward. The guardian is prohibited from paying, soliciting, or receiving a commission in return for engaging in a transaction of goods and services for the ward.

To find out more about SB 994 and all of the amendments, read the full bill summary here.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Getting accused of abuse is serious in Florida. Despite the person’s age, it is illegal to harm or abuse any other human being. If the alleged victim is over the age of 60, you could face charges for abuse against an elderly person. A conviction can result in expensive fines, imprisonment, and the stigma of having a violent crime on your criminal record. Working with a skilled Tallahassee defense attorney is your best bet at strategizing a strong defense to your case. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients across the State for various charges. Call us for a free consultation today at (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message today.

Written by Karissa Key

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