ORLANDO, Fla. — Cheryl Weimar is frail, but it’s hard to see how her frame has deteriorated because she spends most of the day bundled up in layers of blankets. Peeking out through the top of the thick comforter are her folded hands, which she can’t control because she’s paralyzed from the chest down. She has no control over her body functions or movements, a result of a brutal beating she endured while serving out her five-year prison sentence at Lowell Correctional Institution, just under two hours north of Orlando.
It’s been two years, and no one has been charged for what happened to Weimar, who was released early from state custody in 2020 after she settled a lawsuit with the Department of Corrections for $4.6 million. She first had to demonstrate to the Florida Commission on Offender Review that she had the financial means to obtain the care she required. Her long-term care could cost much more than that, depending on how long she lives. Weimar requires 24-hour-care, and is mostly bed-bound at a rehab center in the Panhandle.
Lowell Correctional Institution is the largest prison for women in the country. Cheryl was sentenced in 2016 to 80 months in state prison, minus any time served for aggravated battery with a deadly weapon. Court records in South Florida show she had been in an ongoing domestic dispute with a man who was previously arrested, at least twice, for attacking her. He survived and is currently serving a prison sentence of his own.
When we met with Cheryl by her bedside, she didn’t waste time recalling the day she was attacked by corrections officers in 2019. “Sit down, so I can tell you what happened,” she said, unable to turn her head in my direction because of her paralysis, her head remains in an upright position, forcing her to stare at the ceiling most of the day. “The Lieutenant said, ‘get on your knees and get in there and finish that toilet,’ I said, I can’t, she recalled as she fought back tears.
According to the lawsuit Weimar filed against the DOC, Weimar was on prison work duty. She was assigned to clean toilets in one or more of the confinement areas at Lowell CI, including the work camp. Weimar had a documented pre-existing hip condition, mental and intellectual impairments. She told us it impacted her ability to clean the toilets that day, and when she complained, and asked to be assigned to a different task, two corrections officers let her have it. “All I see in front of me is a brick wall, and all I remember is my head went flying through it,” Weimar said.
Her attorney, Ryan Andrews, provided us with the depositions he took with other inmates who said they witnessed, in horror, what happened to Weimar, stating they thought the officers were beating an inmate who was already dead, as they watched her being dragged across the ground like a rag doll, her head bobbing side to side. Former corrections officer Janice Spears had been an outspoken advocated for inmates, and told us she left the job because of the mental toll it took on her. “I never had to be on medication prior to working at Lowell. I was having panic attacks to the point that I thought I was having a heart attack,” Spears said. “Someone that you knew, would you be okay with them being treated, mistreated. And our laws say they shouldn’t be mistreated. In the Department of Corrections, they say care, custody and control, well the first thing they taught me to do was not to care.” Spears has been present for some of the protests that have taken place outside of Lowell since Weimar’s incident, along with former inmates who continue to demand change at the prison. “We’ve paid Cheryl Weimar, but why haven’t held anyone accountable, this is ridiculous,” Spears said.
The DOC settled a lawsuit with Weimar, which allowed her to show the Commission on Offender Review that she had the means to provide the care she now requires. According to the lawsuit, under DOC policy and procedure, prison officials should have immediately called medical personnel to intervene once Weimar declared and inmate medical emergency, because of that hip pain. Instead, Attorney Ryan Andrews alleges, Keith Turner and Ryan Dionne did not follow procedure. Andrews says the stress of the confrontation caused Weimar to experience an adverse psychological episode as the officers aggressively approached her and became violent, with a bad hip and nothing more than cleaning supplies, Weimar was defenseless. As the incident escalated, Weimar began to declare an inmate psychological emergency, her second request for accommodations, the lawsuit states. “It’s similar to what some other inmates go through, in the Department of Corrections, inmates with disabilities. I mean like is harder for them, there is this school of thought that questions whether Cheryl should’ve even been in prison, but rather some sort of outpatient mental health treatment, instead of being in prison,” Andrew said.
The Department of Corrections told us in a statement that, “Any officers involved in the incident you are referencing were removed from contact with inmates pending the outcome of the investigation. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is the lead investigative agency, with assistance from the FDC Office of Inspector General. While the investigation is still open, releasable information related to this incident is very limited. When the investigation is complete, the report will be made available to the public.” And a month after the incident with Cheryl, the DOC Secretary, Mark Inch, was questioned about inmate abuse. “We have a system in place to address every criminal act or allegation of criminal act by a staff member.” Inch said.
Keith Turner was terminated on November 7, 2019, but only because he was arrested on unrelated charges. That child molestation case is still pending in court. Ryan Dionne voluntarily separated from FDC on August 7, 2020, days after Weimar settled that lawsuit with the department. And depositions with both reveal they invoked the 5th amendment when questioned about Cheryl ended up so severely injured.
An FDLE spokesperson told us that its investigation is still ongoing. “FDLE continues to diligently investigate this incident. All of our cases are unique and are often complex, requiring extensive investigative and analytical work to ensure that the all the facts are ascertained. To date, FDLE agents and analysts have worked more than 2500 hours on this case alone, producing 146 investigative reports and 200 supplemental related item records. When we are finished with our investigation, we will present the case to the state attorney’s office, who will make any charging determinations.”
Months before Cheryl’s beating, we reported on another inmate who was severely beaten. Her face was permanently disfigured, she lost several teeth and her bottom lip was split in half after a correctional officer swept her legs out from under her, causing her face to smash into a concrete walkway, according to sheriff’s office records. Two correctional officers at Lowell Correctional were charged about a month later.
Kurtis Mitchell and Adrian Puckett, reportedly did it because they said the inmate had disrespected the captain and “needed to fall.” Puckett allegedly then put the inmate in a “chicken wing” and swept her legs out from under her, causing her face to strike the concrete. The inmate’s hands were restrained behind her back.
When questioned about the use of force, Puckett said the inmate physically resisted him. According to the affidavit, witnesses countered that claim. Puckett was could have been sentenced to up to 20 years in prison, instead a judge gave him 30 days in jail and 60 days probation during a hearing in 2020. Mitchell’s charges were dropped by prosecutors.
The week we visited Cheryl in the Panhandle, she had to be taken to a local hospital for treatment of yet another infection. Her care worker told us recently that she’s better, but she is now scheduled for surgery to place her Foley catheter directly into her bladder from her lower abdomen, in hopes it will end the frequent infections she’s endured, that continue to cause her health to decline. “She has to be fed, you have to brush her teeth, you have to give her a bath, you have to wash her hair for her. You have to roll her around in the bed because she does not have any dexterity in her upper extremities,” Gina Arsenault said. She also manages medical bills and told us there are strict rules that govern how and when Cheryl can use the money from the settlement, which Cheryl told us she’d give back in a heartbeat. “God if I could change it I would,” Weimar said.