Before her rights were taken away, 71-year-old Connie Rae Tibbetts tried to convince a mental health counselor that she could still take care of herself.
“I miss walking,” Tibbetts told Marci Elliott on May 6, 2016, according to court records provided by Elliott. “I’m a person. I have a life.”
Elliott was a member of the Orange County’s Guardianship Examining Committee, a group made up of medical professionals and other experts who determine whether someone is incapacitated, meaning they can’t care for themselves or their property.
Based on her evaluation and statements from Tibbetts’ estranged children, Elliott determined Tibbetts needed to be under constant supervision, which cleared the way for Rebecca Fierle to become her court-appointed guardian.
It was a decision Elliott would later regret — so much so that she resigned from the guardianship committee seven months after examining Tibbetts.
“I cannot continue to participate in any kind of action that could possibly put another human being under Rebecca Fierle’s control,” Elliott wrote in a Dec. 4, 2016, letter to Frederick Lauten, at the time the chief judge for the Orange-Osceola circuit, and Circuit Judge Jose Rodriguez. “I can no longer stand by and be silent.”
Nearly two and a half years later, another person under Fierle’s guardianship, 75-year-old Steven Stryker, died after a “do not resuscitate” order the Orlando-based professional guardian filed against his wishes prevented hospital staff from performing life-saving procedures, according to a state investigation. Fierle has since been forced to resign from nearly 100 cases in Orange County alone, and dozens more across Central Florida.
On Thursday night, Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesman Jeremy Burns confirmed Fierle is currently the subject of an active criminal investigation.
Elliott and Tibbetts’ daughter, Christine Tibbetts Morrison, both said they complained to the court and a state agency that Fierle had lied to them about Tibbetts’ care — falsely claiming the cancer-stricken woman had rejected treatment — and ignored her medical needs before she died at age 72 on March 25, 2017.
Nothing ever came of it until about three months ago, when an investigation into their complaint was opened on April 3 by the Okaloosa County Clerk of Court — more than two years after Tibbetts’ death.
Elliott called Stryker a “sacrificial lamb” whose death put scrutiny on years of allegations against Fierle.
“A man has apparently died, and that didn’t have to happen,” she said. “There were plenty of warnings from lots of people. I’m not the only person.”
In her first public statement since the scandal surrounding Stryker’s death erupted, Fierle, through her attorney, Harry Hackney, denied mishandling Tibbetts’ care.
“I am sorry that their expectations were not met, but it was not for lack of my trying to accommodate them,” Fierle said.
‘Judges are in the dark’
During the nine months Tibbetts was under Fierle’s guardianship, Elliott and Tibbetts Morrison complained to judges and Florida’s then newly formed Office of Public and Professional Guardians.
In a Sept. 22, 2016, letter provided by Elliott, then-OPPG Director Jason B. Nelson thanked the mental health counselor for contacting the agency regarding Tibbetts’ guardianship case. The office would “have a role in reviewing complaints against professional guardians,” but until it was fully operational, Nelson recommended Elliott also contact the Ninth Circuit’s chief judge, hire a lawyer or call the Florida Abuse hotline if she suspected Tibbetts was being abused, neglected or exploited.
Elliott received an email from Okaloosa County Clerk of Court inspector general investigator Andrew Thurman three months ago indicating that her 2016 complaint had finally been opened that month.
“I sincerely apologize for the long delay, but the case was with another office and was just recently sent to us,” Thurman said.
Neither the Florida Department of Elder Affairs, which oversees OPPG, nor the Florida Department of Children and Families, which operates the abuse hotline, could immediately comment on the reason for the long delay in addressing the complaint Elliott filed. OPPG is in charge of forwarding complaints against guardians to the Clerks’ Statewide Investigations of Professional Guardians Alliance, which handled the probe of Stryker’s death.
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Elliott says she called the hotline and both she and Tibbetts’ daughter sent letters to Lauten and Rodriguez, who was the judge on Tibbetts’ case.
Rodriguez, who is now retired, said Elliott’s resignation from the guardianship committee did raise a red flag for him, but the dispute seemed to be about personal issues between Fierle and Elliott. The complaint submitted at the time did not rise to the level of probable cause needed to intervene, Rodriguez said, unlike the probable cause Circuit Judge Janet C. Thorpe found when she sought to remove Fierle from all of her Orange County cases earlier this month.
“I don’t think it’s appropriate for the court to meddle in matters of personality,” he said. “On these issues, we walk a tight rope because if we start opening investigations on everything, we will never do what we need to do.”
He said it did prompt him to take a closer look when he was assigned Fierle’s guardianship cases.
“Judges are in the dark,” Rodriguez said. “We’re supposed to be absolute neutral, passive observers who rule on cases brought before us, however in guardianship cases, we are given the task to hold lawyers and guardians accountable. This is one of those cases where you just don’t have any idea when you’re sitting on the bench of what’s happening around you until it may be too late.”
Lauten said he did not remember the complaint regarding Fierle and Tibbetts because he got “thousands” of complaints during his tenure as chief judge, which ended last month. Part of the problem with guardianship cases is there are not enough resources to properly monitor hundreds of cases at a time, he said.
“We got one [new] judge from the Legislature last year, despite the fact that we were certified for two,” Lauten said, renewing his call to increase funding for the court system. “We need more judicial labor.”
‘She was a human being’
During Elliott’s evaluation of Tibbetts at Sanjean Facility Care, a 34-bed assisted living facility off Michigan Street in south Orlando, the woman pleaded to be in “a place where I can be a human being.”
“I’m literally in a prison here,” Tibbetts said, according to Elliott’s report.
The psychotherapist found Tibbetts to be pleasant but ultimately confused — about her life, about where she was living, about her family. Tibbetts’ children told Elliott their mother was homeless and a chronic alcoholic, who had been arrested several times for trespassing and had been diagnosed with dementia, depression, a personality disorder and other mental illnesses through the years.
In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Tibbetts Morrison, 51, said she was always “two steps behind” in trying to get help for the mother who had been cruel to her and her brothers growing up in their dysfunctional household.
“She drove away her kids and ended up homeless after a lot of years of struggle,” she said. “I had not seen her in 20 years.”
Then, she was contacted by a social worker at Winter Park Memorial Hospital. After getting kicked out of the homeless shelter, Tibbetts had been checking into the hospital to get a bed for the night and take care of her health issues, her daughter said.
The social worker asked Tibbetts Morrison if she would like to be her mother’s guardian, but she said she was hesitant because she lived in North Carolina.
“Finally I got my mother on the telephone and asked, ‘Would you like me to be your guardian if I can arrange it?’” Tibbetts Morrison said. “My mother said, ‘No, I can run my own life,’ and hung up on me.”
The hospital discharged Tibbetts before a decision was made, Tibbetts Morrison said. A few months later, she got a call in April 2016 telling her Rebecca Fierle was petitioning to be her mother’s guardian. She felt relieved that her mother would have shelter and medical care.
During the competency examination, Marci Elliott had given Tibbetts her card, in case she had any questions. Elliott said she was surprised when, weeks later, Tibbetts called her asking when she was going to get a counselor and medical care for her toothache and vein problems — after Fierle was supposed to be managing and overseeing the elderly woman’s care.
“The calls continued with her sounding like she was still in the dark,” Elliott said. “She said she kept calling Ms. Fierle and … she would never get a return call.”
Elliott finally contacted Fierle.
“[Rebecca] said Ms. Tibbetts was forgetful, but that everything was moving along just fine,” Elliott said. “I felt better after that chat, but then Connie would call with the same complaint.”
Tibbetts Morrison said she tried to work with Fierle and her employees at Geriatric Management for months to bring her mother up to North Carolina, by visiting assisted living facilities near her home and offering to pay for part of the housing expenses. But often her questions went unanswered, and the move never happened, she said.
“It was like pulling teeth to get any information,” she said.
In the statement provided by her attorney, Fierle said she “worked diligently to try to relocate Ms. Tibbetts to North Carolina so she could be closer to her family.”
“Her condition declined before arrangements could be made (A suitable facility that would take her had to be located and then permission obtained from the court),” Fierle said. “She could not be moved once her condition declined. The family was advised of this.”
Fierle said she called Tibbetts Morrison to discuss cancer treatment for her mother’s multiple myeloma.
“The daughter agreed that aggressive treatment of her cancer should not be pursued under the circumstances,” Fierle said in a statement. “As I recall, the daughter said this type of cancer ran in the family. That is not a decision I made alone.”
But Tibbetts Morrison said Fierle told her Tibbetts was refusing medical care, including cancer treatment. Before her death, Tibbetts denied refusing medical treatment to both her daughter and Elliott, both said.
“When I … mentioned Rebecca claimed she refused to go to medical appointments, Connie’s comment was, ‘Why would I refuse to go to a doctor? Why would I refuse to do something to fix my body?’” Elliott said.
Tibbetts’ daughter said she was never asked to make a decision about her mother’s treatment.
“One of Rebecca’s assistants called me and just said, ‘How do you feel about chemotherapy?’” Tibbetts Morrison said. “I told her I would think twice about it for myself, but it’s not for me to decide because my mother’s still alive and she’s in charge of her own life. It was like this hypothetical conversation. I was never told I was making a decision about my mother’s care.”
In the weeks leading up to her death, Tibbetts had no appetite, likely because of the cancer, but her daughter noted she hadn’t been placed on intravenous fluids. Photos of a death certificate provided by Tibbetts Morrison show her mother’s cause of death as malnutrition and multiple myeloma.
“She’d been overweight her whole life, but she was skin and bones,” Tibbetts Morrison said.
Fierle said through her attorney that she is “not a healthcare professional” and she consults with physicians regarding care for her wards.
“I do not independently make medical decisions regarding IV drips or appropriate medical care,” the guardian said. “I do know from my many years of experience working with the elderly that they often lose their appetites and ‘fail to thrive.’”
Tibbetts Morrison said she knows her mother alienated her family and caused them pain, but she deserved humane treatment at the end of her life.
“I think she would have several more years had she gotten proper medical care, maybe some time for grace and healing, but they didn’t really do anything to help her,” Tibbetts Morrison said. “She was mentally ill, but she was a human being and she deserved better care at the end of her life.”
Read more at Orlando Sentinel