Sheriff Ronnie Lee Wins In Federal Court But Found Negligent In Hendry County
LABELLE, FL. -- In a complicated multi-year, multi-lawyered series of Federal and finally State court cases, Hendry county Sheriff Ronnie Lee has been found negligent in carrying out his duties and his department's negligence caused the death of a Ft. Myers woman in 1998. The court cases resulted from Lee hiring a jailed inmate, Terry Lynn Gartno as a confidential informant and allowed him out of jail early. Gartno killed a woman in a traffic crash in Ft. Myers during a period of time Gartno had been working for the DEA and the Sheriff in making drug buys.
Several Federal cases were filed by the family of Kristina Waddell against Sheriff Lee and Lieutenant Susan Sibbald, the Hendry jail supervisor alleging violation of Waddell's rights, but the family's arguments were lost at the Middle District Court level and lost again upon appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th District.
In October 1997, Terry Garnto, a longtime resident of Clewiston, Florida, was convicted of battery. In November 1997, Garnto was sentenced to 364 days imprisonment, reduced by 29-days� credit for time served in the Hendry County Jail. While serving his sentence as a �trusty� in the Hendry County Jail, Garnto spoke with Sheriff Lee of the Hendry County Sheriff�s Office about becoming a confidential informant on the illegal drug trade in Hendry County.
After Sheriff Lee spoke with Garnto, the matter was turned over to then HCSO Captain John Vetter and narcotics investigators Richard Notaro and Grady Johnson, Jr. When Officer Notaro learned of Garnto�s extensive criminal record, Officer Notaro expressed concern about using Garnto as a confidential informant. Captain Vetter, however, reasoned that Garnto�s record was no worse than that of confidential informants used in federal criminal prosecutions and approved use of Garnto as a confidential informant.
In February 1998, Garnto was enrolled as a confidential informant. That same day HCSO�s jail administrator, Lieutenant Sibbald, released Garnto from jail under a �work release� agreement. Under the agreement, Garnto worked at the HCSO�s Clewiston substation by day and stayed with his mother at night. Pursuant to the work release agreement, Garnto signed a document promising to consume no drugs or alcohol. Lieutenant Sibbald maintains that she did not know Garnto was to be used as a confidential informant for HCSO. Five days after his release, in the early morning hours of 8 February 1998, a police officer found Garnto wandering around Clewiston. Garnto was intoxicated.
Garnto had been arrested 41 times and had about 19 convictions including robbery, burglary, escape, and battery. Garnto�s driving record also reflected that he had been arrested and convicted for driving under the influence and reckless driving.
Although Hendry County officers, including Lieutenant Sibbald, contend that they had no knowledge of this outstanding warrant, evidence exists that Garnto had filed a request in jail to see a lawyer about an outstanding warrant in Palm Beach County. Upon discovering that Garnto, in Palm Beach County, had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear on a charge of attempting to obtain a controlled substance by fraud, the officer arrested Garnto. Garnto later was transferred to a jail in Palm Beach County.
On 25 February 1998, Lieutenant Sibbald wrote to the Palm Beach County State Attorney�s Office. She requested that Garnto, if convicted in Palm Beach County, be returned to Hendry County to serve his sentence. Lieutenant Sibbald wrote that Garnto was "working with us on several projects" and the Federal court says she may have deceptively indicated that Garnto would be incarcerated at the Hendry County Jail, when in actuality he was to be released again. On 2 April 1998, Garnto was sentenced to one-year imprisonment on the Palm Beach County charge. The judge recommended that Garnto be allowed to serve his sentence in Hendry County. On 19 April 1998, Garnto was returned to Hendry County and immediately was returned to work-release status. Garnto continued to make controlled drug purchases for HCSO.
One of the alleged drug traffickers HCSO had targeted was Jesus Sanchez. Because HCSO had limited funds with which to conduct its drug operations, Officer Notaro contacted Dennis Eads, a Federal DEA agent, to see if the DEA was interested in using Garnto to purchase drugs from Sanchez. After observing Garnto act in his confidential informant capacity, Agent Eads had Garnto sign an agreement to work with the DEA as a confidential informant.
Under the supervision of Agent Eads, Garnto purchased drugs from Marcus Dennis, an associate of Sanchez. After the DEA signed Garnto as a confidential informant, HCSO assisted the DEA by providing equipment and personnel to perform controlled drug purchases. Officer Notaro informed Garnto, however, that, if Garnto had information pertaining to Sanchez or Dennis, Garnto needed to call Agent Eads. HCSO continued to use Garnto for controlled drug purchases with other suspected drug dealers. Garnto sought to introduce Agent Eads -- in an undercover capacity -- to Dennis so that Agent Eads could purchase cocaine from Dennis.
At a debriefing on 3 July 1998, Garnto told Agent Eads that Garnto was planning to spend the Fourth of July weekend with Dennis at Fort Myers Beach in neighboring Lee County and that it might be possible to arrange a meeting between Agent Eads and Dennis at that time. Agent Eads told Garnto to page him if Dennis wished to meet. Agent Eads also asked Officer Notaro if he would be available to attend the possible meeting between Agent Eads and Dennis. Officer Notaro indicated he would be available but stated that he had to check with his supervisor.
On 4 July, Garnto went to Fort Myers Beach with Dennis, Mary Harper and another woman. On 5 July, Garnto consumed substantial quantities of alcohol. Upon leaving the beach, Garnto drove away in Harper�s car. Garnto later claimed that Sanchez began following him and that Garnto was on his way to page Agent Eads for instructions when Garnto lost control of the car. Gantro crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and ran into a vehicle occupied by Erik Hemerson, Gary Wheeler, and Kristina Waddell. Waddell died as a result of the injuries she sustained in the collision, and Hemerson and Wheeler suffered serious injuries.
On 7 July 1998, HCSO terminated its confidential informant contract with Garnto. Plaintiffs filed against Defendants three separate complaints which were consolidated by the district court. Plaintiffs alleged that HCSO and Sheriff Lee, in his official capacity, had violated Plaintiffs� substantive due process rights by unlawfully releasing Garnto, making him a paid agent, and failing to monitor him. Plaintiffs further alleged that HCSO, through its agents Sheriff Lee and Lieutenant Sibbald, had acted with willful and wanton disregard for the safety of the public and with willful indifference to Plaintiffs� rights. Plaintiffs also brought claims against Sheriff Lee and Lieutenant Sibbald in their individual capacities, alleging
In their third count, Plaintiffs raised state-law tort claims. The district court declined to exercise pendent jurisdiction over these claims and dismissed them without prejudice.
The district court concluded that no reasonable jury could find that Garnto was a state actor for the Defendants at the time of the traffic collision, and that Defendants� conduct did not meet the conscience-shocking standard necessary to constitute a substantive due process violation, and that, even assuming Defendants� behavior was wrongful in a constitutional sense, this conduct was not the legal cause of the accident. The district court also determined that it would be an unwarranted and impermissible extension of substantive due process to hold Defendants responsible for the losses caused by the incident. Plaintiffs appealed and again lost in Federal court.
But in Hendry county court, Larry Norman Waddell, as personal representative for the estate of Kristina Waddell won a victory against Sheriff Lee last month on May 18 when a Hendry jury found Lee negligent "in the hiring or retention of Terry Lynn Gartno" and that his negligence was a legal cause for the accident killing Waddell on July 5, 1998. The jury also said Lee was negligent in releasing Gartno from jail and that negligence was also a cause for the fatal accident. The jury did not find for the Plaintiff's claim that Gartno was in the employ of the Sheriff at the time of the accident nor find that Lee was negligent in supervising Gartno at the time of the accident.
It is expected that appeals will also be filed in this case by the Sheriff which will cause the ultimate findings to be delayed for several more years.