Insult to Injury

Some ex-deputies say BSO treated them like damaged goods after they got hurt on the job

It's an unwritten rule at BSO to get arrested deputies through processing and out to a bond hearing as fast as possible, while keeping the deputies in their civilian clothes; otherwise, Wimberly says, they need to be isolated to protect them from possible retribution by other prisoners.

That's what she proceeded to do. But her superiors had already decided to treat Stewart differently. After Wimberly called the jail and asked a deputy there to treat Stewart "with kid gloves," she was immediately suspended. Then she was investigated by BSO's Office of Professional Compliance, charged with indiscretion, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming an employee.

The investigator's report admits that special treatment is sometimes accorded to arrested law enforcement officers but says that in this case, "due to the nature of the arrest, it would not be in the best interest of the department to provide partisan treatment." That decision had been made by Lt. Col. Pat Tighe and Maj. Michael Barkhurst. It was to be carried out by Lt. William Lawhorn, then executive officer at Central Intake, who says he told Wimberly their decision before she called the main jail. Tighe had ordered Wimberly's suspension, and Lawhorn made the charges against her.

Colby Katz
Brown and her father, Don O'Brien, gave years of service to BSO. In return, she got the ax.
Colby Katz
Brown and her father, Don O'Brien, gave years of service to BSO. In return, she got the ax.

The reason for the harsh reaction to her efforts, Wimberly alleges, is that Stewart was involved in organizing an all-black deputies' union. She says that Tighe wanted Stewart to suffer in retribution. Wimberly (who, like Stewart, is black) has made a discrimination complaint to the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

Meanwhile, Wimberly's back got worse, and she went to the emergency room on May 7. While Wimberly was still suffering back pain, she was called in for the investigative interview. She returned to work on light-duty status for 60 days, but she didn't have to be reassigned. "I sat there and did my same job," she says. Booking was usually a desk job, but sometimes she was asked to help with other tasks, she says. She just cut those out when she went back. After 60 days, she reapplied for light duty but got no response. Shortly before Thanksgiving 2001, she was sent home on Workman's Comp. Then she received a letter from Janet O'Brien telling her to check BSO's on-line job listings for a job she could do or to call Veranda Daniel.

A Workman's Comp doctor said Wimberly was physically unable to do her booking-desk job, and O'Brien sent her notice that if she didn't find another position, she would be terminated on February 8, 2002.

Daniel's office set up a clerical test for her. But Wimberly, on painkillers and diagnosed as suffering from depression, broke down in tears during the test: She realized that her 18-year career depended upon a typing test. She failed. She was offered a communications job for less money, which would also cost her her seniority.

Workman's Comp sent her to a psychiatrist, who ruled that she should be able to return to work in July 2002. But BSO didn't like that, she says, so it ignored the psychiatrist's report and fired her in February.

Wimberly was accustomed to working lots of overtime. She routinely brought home about $4000 per month, which she needed to keep her large household going. Now, the mother of four is living on Workman's Comp. "Here I was making over $25 an hour, and now I'm down to making just pennies an hour," she says. Wimberly is applying for Medicaid, but Social Security disability has just turned her down for the second time.

Her back has since deteriorated further; the 39-year-old moves slowly and stiffly across the bare tile of her sparsely furnished house in Miramar. Two herniated disks and arthritis in her spine keep her in constant pain, which morphine lollipops are unable to deaden. Her right leg is now weak, and recently she reinjured herself by falling in her front yard when her leg collapsed. She worries that she is still being spied upon by BSO investigators. Wimberly discusses her fears and fading hopes dispiritedly as she sits on her couch in a plain housedress in late afternoon, but even strong painkillers can't mask her disgust at the way she believes she's been railroaded.

"Just because I pissed Lt. Col. Tighe off, this was their way of getting rid of me altogether," she says angrily. "There is no way I should have been fired. As soon as I get better I should have my job back. I love my job. I love what I do, and I still want my job back." Tighe is on vacation until July 15 and could not be reached for comment, BSO spokesman Leljedal told New Times.

Failing that, Wimberly says, she should be eligible for medical retirement regardless of departmental politics. She now awaits a mediation hearing on August 7, when she hopes to settle her case.

Brown's tale, and Wimberly's, sound all too familiar to Lisette Cox. The peppy 32-year-old former detention deputy's large hazel eyes flash with anger as she talks, sitting on the patio of her house in Wellington. She, her husband, and their three children moved to this smaller house after the loss of her BSO paycheck; now, she can't find a quiet spot to tell her story as her children run in and out. Between admonitions to her kids to stay away from the fireworks some neighborhood teens are lighting, Cox gives her account.

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