Scuffle left a patient with a broken neck. So staff met to rehearse stories, cops say

Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.
Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.

Five days after Reginald Schroat broke and dislocated his neck in a tussle with caregivers at a state psychiatric hospital, the three employees who were with him met “at the city limits” to discuss their stories, according to police.

Their statements to authorities “needed to be the same,” one caregiver later said.

In the rehearsed version of events, Schroat, a 40-year-old from Texas, attacked a caregiver in his bedroom, then accidentally slipped over a cup of water and hit his head.

Medical examiners were not convinced: An autopsy concluded his Nov. 3, 2018, death was a homicide. Investigations into Schroat’s in-custody death, obtained by the Miami Herald, paint a grim picture of his final days at the state’s Developmental Disabilities Defendant Program, which is contained within Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee.

Reginald Schroat is the latest to die under questionable circumstances at a Florida-run facility for disabled people. His family wants answers. Family photo

Serious questions remain over the medical care Schroat received after his neck was broken at the Panhandle hospital. A report by the Chattahoochee Police Department says a nurse on duty at the program waited a day before summoning help, even as Schroat had told her repeatedly that he “could not move.” Schroat’s autopsy concluded he died of complications of a cervical spine fracture and dislocation.

“Time is of the essence when you have a situation like this where someone has expressed that they can’t feel their lower extremities,” saId Kristen Lentz, director of investigations for Disability Rights Florida, a federally funded watchdog for disabled people. “This is not a complaint about a hangnail. These are very serious concerns.”

Administrators at the state Agency for Persons with Disabilities have yet to release an investigation by staff at the Developmental Disabilities Defendant Program, or DDDP, which the disabilities agency oversees, though the Herald requested it 11 days ago. A spokeswoman confirmed only that four employees of the program — the nurse and three others involved in the incident — either resigned or were fired in the days after Schroat was injured.

The police investigation has been completed, and was forwarded to prosecutors for review, said Fred O’Brian, the department’s chief. The State Attorney’s Office in Liberty County did not respond to an inquiry from the Miami Herald.

“He could be a handful, but there’s no excuse for their abusing him,” said Destiny Schroat, Schroat’s cousin. “You send your family member, your loved one, there, and they don’t care. I’ve heard that things like this happen before, but I never thought it would happen to my cousin.

“It wasn’t his fault for being what he was,” added Schroat, 32, of Flower Bluff, Texas.

Said Lentz: “It is inexcusable that someone, anyone, with a disability who is in the care and custody of a state agency would die, let alone as the result of a homicide at the hands of staff members.”

Schroat became the second man to die under suspicious circumstances while under the care of state disability administrators since the start of last year. Another man, William “Willy” Lamson, who was 26, died in March 2018 of “traumatic asphyxia” following a quarrel with a caregiver at the now-closed Carlton Palms Educational Center in Mount Dora.

The two men’s deaths are eerily similar: In both cases, one or more caregivers struggled with a resident in his room. And, because disability administrators require that residents be given privacy in their bedrooms, surveillance cameras were able to capture only what occurred outside the rooms. It’s what happened inside that mattered.

Central Florida prosecutors declined to press charges in Lamson’s death, saying in a memo that because Lamson “had a history of attacking his caregivers… the state would be unable to establish beyond and to the exclusion of every reasonable doubt that the actions of [Lamson’s caregiver] constitute a reckless disregard for human life.”

William Lamson, right, died early in 2018 at Carlton Palms under still-murky circumstances. With him is his father, Jamie Lamson. Family photo

Schroat, called “B.J.” or “Bud” by family members, was diagnosed at around age 10 as having an intellectual disability. Relatives said he had the mind of a 7-year-old, though he stood five foot-10 inches tall and weighed 190 pounds.

As an adult, he moved to Florida to be close to his mother. But he failed to register as a sex offender as required, the result of an incident that occurred when he previously lived in Texas, and he was sent to DDDP after being declared incompetent to stand trial. Details about the Texas incident were not available.

The Chattahoochee Police Department’s report on his death suggests that Schroat could be difficult to handle . On the day of his injury, Oct. 12, 2018, Schroat had been “aggressive” and quarrelsome with both staff and other residents, the report said.

Three DDDP staff members had contact with Schroat that day before he became injured: Keldrick Dewayne Peoples, who previously had worked for the state Department of Corrections, Marchester Tucker, Jr., and Demetrice L. Borden. The three employees’ statements all were consistent, though two of them, Tucker and Borden, both acknowledged that Peoples insisted on filling out the paperwork and had encouraged the other two to coordinate their stories with him.

Tiffany Porter, the nurse, declined to speak with a reporter. The Herald was unable to reach the other three former employees for comment.

Tucker showed police a “screen shot of a Facebook message” from Peoples dated Oct. 17 a little before midnight: “call me asap,” it said. The next day, Peoples wrote “You got to write a statement in the morning call me so I can tell you what to write so we can be on the same page,” the police report said.

Borden told police “she and Mr. Tucker rode together and met with Mr. Peoples at the city limits of Chattahoochee. Mr. Peoples was telling Mr. Tucker their statements needed to be the same and to write that there was a cup of water on the floor, which caused them to fall. Mr. Peoples also messaged Ms. Borden on Facebook and told her what to write in her statement,” the police report said.

Peoples declined to speak with police. But in an interview with a DDDP investigator, he said Schroat had been argumentative with his roommate a little after 10 a.m. that day. Peoples sent Schroat to his room, he said, but Schroat emerged again and “started pushing Mr. Tucker,” who had come over to help.

A photo of a young Reginald Schroat. He grew into a strong man, but his intellectual capacity remained that of a 7-year-old, his family said. Family photo

Peoples said Schroat had choked him, and when he pushed Schroat away, the resident slipped on a cup of water and hit the back of his head on a bin. Tucker’s statement was similar: He said Peoples “shoved” Schroat when Schroat choked him, causing “him to lose his balance and fall.” Tucker said Schroat hit his head either on a bunk or a hard plastic bin.

Borden shed little light on what occurred inside Schroat’s room. She said she arrived after Schroat had been hurt and saw him sitting on the floor with his back to the wall.

“Mr. Peoples told Resident Schroat to get up from the floor,” Borden told police. “Resident Schroat…asked Ms. Borden for help because he could not get up.”

Some residents of the facility told a different story, though their names were redacted from the report provided to the Herald. One said he saw Tucker “hitting Resident Schroat in the rib cage, while Mr. Peoples was watching.”

Another said “Mr. Peoples and Mr. Tucker grabbed Resident Schroat by the shirt and slammed him, causing him to hit his head. That resident said “Mr. Peoples was choking Resident Schroat and Mr. Tucker was punching Resident Schroat in the face and stomach.”

Records are clear that most of a day elapsed before Schroat, who had a broken neck, was able to get medical care, as the nurse downplayed his injuries. Shortly after the incident, as Schroat was unable to lift himself from the floor, the police report said, Porter “said nothing was wrong with him and to just help Resident Schroat onto the bed.”

In Porter’s interview with police, she said she checked on Schroat multiple times the day he was injured. During one visit, Schroat told her “he could not move, but did not indicate he was hurt,” she said. Later, he had “rolled out of the bed.”

She checked his vital signs and ordered that he be checked every 15 minutes. Later still, Schroat complained that his back hurt him. She scraped his foot with a key, and detected movement in his thigh, she said. Though Schroat had told Borden that night that he “did not feel good,” Porter left to go home.

The next day, Borden “noticed that Resident Schroat had not gotten out of bed, had not eaten breakfast, or taken his medication,” the report said. Porter found him lying on the floor on his stomach.

“Nurse Porter rolled him over and asked him what was wrong,” the report said. “Resident Schroat indicated he could not feel his legs.” Porter called a doctor, who ordered that Schroat be taken to Florida State Hospital’s emergency room. He was sent to a trauma center in Tallahassee instead, where 22 days later he died.