ORLANDO, Fla. — The family of a man who state investigators say died after his court-appointed caretaker ordered his feeding tube capped and filed an unauthorized "do not resuscitate" order are now pressing for criminal charges to be filed.
- State law enforcement investigating guardian under fire over man's death
- Brevard man died under "do-not-resuscitate" order placed against wishes
- Family wants criminal charges brought against guardian Rebecca Fierle
Rebecca Fierle has faced mounting criticism in recent weeks after the death of Steven Stryker, 75, of Brevard County.
A Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesperson confirmed the agency is now investigating Fierle’s actions.
“Yes, we are investigating her,” an FDLE spokesperson told Spectrum News. “It is an active investigation and at this point we cannot provide any more details.”
A spokesperson for Attorney General Ashley Moody’s Office confirms it, too, is aware of the matter.
Court records show that judges in 13 Florida counties had appointed Fierle as guardian for more than 450 seniors, or "wards," including Stryker.
A Spectrum News Watchdog investigation revealed that a state investigation found that Fierle filed the DNR against Stryker’s explicit wishes and ordered his feeding tube to be capped against doctors’ advice.
“I definitely blame that choice she made on his death, for sure,” Steven’s daughter, Kim, told Spectrum News.
Kim Stryker said her father had a chronic condition called esophageal stricture, which would often mean his throat muscles would get too tight, leading to occasional choking.
“(Fierle) ordered his feeding tube be capped the week before he died, so he went three or four days, at least as far as I know, without being able to eat safely before Monday, May 13, 2019, when he choked and stopped breathing, and because of the DNR, they were not able to resuscitate him,” Stryker said.
Stryker said she wants to see a criminal investigator into Fierle’s actions.
“I think what she did was criminal,” Stryker said. “These guardians have way too much power over vulnerable people, and they need to be safe.”
A state investigation determined that “Fierle’s decision to place a DNR order against the Ward’s stated wishes constituted the removal of care necessary to maintain the Ward’s physical health.”
The same report continued: “… The removal of this necessary care directly resulted in the Ward’s death. Section 782.07(2), Fla. Stats. States: 'A person who causes the death of an elderly person or disabled adult by culpable negligence under s. 825.102(3) commits aggravated manslaughter of an elderly person or disabled adult, a felony of the first degree.' "
“The facts of this case are incredibly unique,” attorney David Haas said. A Spectrum News legal analyst, Haas is a current federal criminal defense attorney and former Florida State Assistant State Attorney and former U.S. State Attorney.
“There’s an argument that I think the state would look into, and by state, I mean criminal investigation, that these are intentional killings,” Haas said. “There’s also an argument as pointed out in the investigation that this is what’s referred to as aggravated manslaughter by culpable negligence or reckless disregard for human life, and that there could be a case looked into.”
Orange County Judge Janet Thorpe took notice of the investigation by the state’s Clerk’s Statewide Investigations of Professional Guardians Alliance.
Thorpe became the first judge to call Fierle’s actions into question, writing in a filing that she thought Fierle had “abused her powers, developed conflicts of interest with the Ward, and became a disqualified person.”
The judge cited examples of Fierle “… executing Do Not Resuscitate orders on wards without family or court permission”, as well as “… earning compensation as a Medicaid caseworker from her wards, having received payments from hospitals and other facilities without disclosure or court permission.”
With the threat of being removed, Fierle’s attorneys filed voluntarily resignation orders in 98 cases in Orange and Osceola counties. Since then, similar filings have been made in Seminole, Volusia, Pinellas, and Hillsborough counties, where judges are also moving quickly to remove Fierle as a guardian and revoking any do-not-resuscitate orders she may have filed.
Fierle is not facing criminal charges at this time. Her team of attorneys have not responded to multiple requests for comment or interviews.
A spokesperson for Moody told Spectrum News in an email that her office is “fully aware of the matter, and due to its ongoing nature, we cannot comment further at this time.”
Moody’s spokesperson added that they could not confirm nor deny whether an active criminal investigation was open.
“I’m afraid there are more people like her out there in the state of Florida who are not being kept tabs on,” Kim Stryker said, adding that she thinks there needs to be a “top-to-bottom” review of Florida’s guardianship program.
Gov. Ron DeSantis told Spectrum News’ Curtis McCloud on Wednesday that his administration is also aware of the case.
“We are obviously concerned about some of the reports,” DeSantis said. “(Department of Elder Affairs) Secretary (Richard) Purdom is pursuing it, and I told him to pursue it vigorously.”
DeSantis also said that his team will look at legislative means to ensure more oversight of the state’s guardianship program.
“Protecting vulnerable adults from harm is our utmost priority,” Prudom said in a statement. “Upon receiving these troubling complaints against Ms. Fierle, we immediately forwarded it for investigation. We are continuing to do everything possible under the law to hold Ms. Fierle accountable for her actions.”
The state’s guardianship program itself is now facing mounting questions. It was revealed this week that one day after Thorpe removed Fierle from 98 cases in Orange and Osceola counties, Carol Berkowitz, the director overseeing Florida’s 550 professional guardians, abruptly resigned. Her one-sentence resignation letter didn’t give a reason for her departure.