Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We Will Not Forget:What We Witnessed (Part II- Debra Duffield)

-by- Angela V. Woodhull, Ph.D. © AV Woodhull, 2011

As we searched the Seminole County court records looking for cases where Rebecca Fierle had been appointed as the plenary guardian, it was difficult to know where to begin. There were so many cases that came up on the docket with Rebecca Fierle as the plenary guardian, so we decided to focus on the more recent cases and cases where the victim seemed to be just too young to qualify for guardianship. We also took notice that there seemed to be only four attorneys who represent Rebecca Fierle in these predatory guardianships—Thomas Moss from Sawyer and Sawyer (an

Altamonte Springs husband and wife lawyer team—Mr. Sawyer also happens to be a medical doctor—how convenient), Karen Goldsmith,

Ian Gilden, and “Reverend” Anthony Nardella, who just happens to be a licensed minister when he is not representing Rebecca Fierle or putting his own relatives under guardianship. (I wonder if he administers the Last Rites when the victims have been totally fleeced and are no longer of any use to him or Rebecca Fierle?)

Soon, we found a case in the records that had all of the elements of looking suspicious. The victim, Deborah Duffield, was only 56 years old and had been diagnosed with manic depression and anorexia nervosa. She was being confined to a nursing home where the average age of the residents is about 76 years old. Prior to being institutionalize, Duffield had been living with a good friend, at the friend’s house, Suzanne McCormack, in Altamonte Springs in a lovely lake-bound neighborhood.

We set off to interview McCormack.

Suzanne is in her early sixties, attractive, thin, clad in artistic attire with nicely styled hair and wearing lots of interesting silver jewelry, has a uniquely furnished small house that is artistically decorated. She was delighted to see us and it turned out, she had also been conducting background research on Rebecca “Fierle.”

Suzanne owns her own jewelry story where she crafts and sells custom made jewelry. Duffield had been a frequent customer. And that’s how Duffield and McCormack had met many years before.

Orphaned at birth, Duffield had been adopted by parents who were now deceased and who had left her a small fortune. Duffield had a fully paid off house, several nice antique furnishings, and a trust that her parents had left for her. She had also worked part-time as an adjunct college professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. A few years back, Duffield had fallen in love with a woman from England who had moved in with her and taken advantage of her, robbing her, breaking her heart, and returning to England with about $60,000.00 in cash that she had taken from Duffield. Duffield then went into a deep depression and stopped eating. That’s when McCormack offered her help. According to McCormack, Duffield simply could not cope with the loss and betrayal of the girlfriend and was feeling quite suicidal. Duffield did not wish to live alone and so Duffield offered McCormack a power of attorney to sell her home (which was necessary to do since McCormack is not a licensed real estate broker). McCormack then did her best to find a seller for Duffield’s house and then moved Duffield into a wing of McCormack’s home. The wing had been used for storage for many years, so McCormack used part of the proceeds from the sale of Duffield’s home to furnish the wing in which Duffield would live. McCormack even refurbished the private bathroom for Duffield--$18,000.00—all with Duffield’s permission who was happy to have someone taking care of her.

Truthfully, the price seemed a little high—eighteen thousand dollars just to update a bathroom? But McCormack seemed nice enough. She is a grandmother of two and has a daughter with whom she is very close. She did not appear to be the kind of person who would take advantage of another. The phone rang frequently from her daughter and other friends as we sat and sipped on herbal tea and cookies while visiting with her. She was also on good terms with her ex-husband who just happened to be a licensed private investigator. It was through McCormack that we were provided with an extensive docier on Rebecca Fierle that had been obtained by McCormack’s ex-husband, the private detective.

Rebecca Fierle’s docier provided us with many interesting pieces of information we had not previously known. We discovered that “Fierle” is not even her real name. Her real name is Rebecca Fierle-Santonian or Rebecca Santonian (depending upon which legal document she is signing). Fierle is married to her second husband, an older man (about 20 years age difference between them) who is a cardiologist based out of Ocala. Fierle’s first husband, Jeff Fierle, filed for bankruptcy in 1997 with her. The two of them also went through a home foreclosure. So, from 1997 to 2007—just ten short years—Rebecca “Fierle” went from totally bankrupt and homeless to multi-millionaire. Interesting. Most people working ordinary jobs cannot make such a claim. The guardianship business is certainly “good.”

We also learned from reading the docier that Fierle owns a fleet of Mercedes, carries a concealed weapon, and owns several million dollar properties in Windsor, Florida and other Florida locations.

Next, it was time to set off for the nursing home where Duffield was being housed. How did this happen? How did Duffield, at such a young age, end up in a nursing home? According to McCormack, Duffield had slipped and broken a hip on the slippery tile floors in McCormack’s home while McCormack was at her jewelry store. Because she was so thin from not eating, she broke a hip. Duffield called an ambulance and was taken to the emergency room for surgery. It was while she was at the hospital that a social worker discovered that Duffield was living with her friend who held a power of attorney. Professional guardians, social workers, and law enforcement view anyone with a power of attorney as a suspicious individual. And, hence, Rebecca Fierle was alerted by the hospital regarding this situation and she placed Duffield under an emergency temporary guardianship using the “Reverend” Attorney Anthony Nardella as her counsel. Ann Marie Giordano-Gilden, once again, was the court appointed attorney for Duffield (whose husband, Ian Gilden, usually represents Rebecca Fierle in a plethora of guardianships—what a “cozy” arrangement).

It was time to go see Duffield. We invited McCormack to come along, but she was not permitted to see Duffield since Rebecca Fierle had become the guardian and confiscated all of Duffield’s possessions.

We learned of another player who is frequently on the scene when it comes to Rebecca Fierle cases—a DCF worker by the name of David McKenzie. It seems that whenever Fierle is about to become the guardian or has already been appointed as the guardian, there is always David McKenzie to step in and do the “shake down.” McKenzie arrived at McCormack’s house on several occasions threatening her with criminal prosecution. “All you have to do is give back all of the money you took,” McKenzie told McCormack, “and we won’t prosecute you.”

McCormack, frightened, had cash on hand which she provided to Fierle. She gave back all accounts and investments that she had made on Duffield’s behalf. The money had actually been growing, the way McCormack had invested it. She had been creating, according to McCormack, a nest egg for her girlfriend. Before we left, McCormack showed us photos of Duffield at the family dinner table, along with McCormack’s family members and grandchildren, eating a Christmas dinner. “As you can see from these photographs, Debra was doing quite fine while she was here with me.” “She was capable of carrying on a bright and intelligent conversation.”

The photos depicted a vibrant woman seated at the dining room table among McCormack’s relatives.

At the nursing home, we quickly learned that it is best not to ask the location of an “inmate.” It raises too much suspicion—especially if it is someone who is without friends and relatives. Such a person is not expected to have visitors.

So, David and I learned to simply walk briskly down the hallways with him checking on the left and me checking on the right for the victim’s name to appear on one of the doors. Alas, we came upon a room labeled “Debra Duffield.”

The young woman was lying in bed in the middle of the afternoon watching television. She didn’t make a lot of sense at first but snapped back into reality once we started speaking with her at length. She appeared lethargic and resigned to the fact that she had been placed against her will in a nursing home. She strongly smelled of fecal matter and she frequently adjusted her body from side to side to attempt to avoid the uncomfortable fecal matter that was in her diaper. The sound of the crinkly diaper was ever present as she kept adjusting herself from side to side. Duffield had nothing negative to say about McCormack. In fact, she asked how she was doing and asked to give her regards. “Would you like her to come and visit you?”

“She’s too busy,” Duffield said. “She has a jewelry store to run.”

We asked Duffield if she knew who Rebecca Fierle was. She said that she did not know Rebecca Fierle—that she had never met her. There were several beats of silence. Duffield sometimes switched the channels and commented on what she saw on TV.

I found this situation to be particularly emotionally upsetting for me. Here was a relatively young woman, confined to a bed in a nursing home—probably one of the youngest persons. Certainly with only a diagnosis of manic depression she could be somewhere other than a nursing home smelling of fecal matter.

There are many members of society who have been diagnosed with manic depression who are not confined to nursing homes. David and I were later to learn, when we took the guardianship certification course from master guardian Irene Rausch in Clearwater, Florida, that one of the stated purposes of a guardianship is to attempt to rehabilitate the “ward” as much as possible.

I witnessed no effort of “rehabilitation” toward Debra Duffield. In fact, after observing photographs of Duffield at Christmas time in McCormack’s house—just a few months before—and now witnessing this thin, gaunt woman with scrambled hair lying on a cot with a 90 year old roommate who moaned and made babbling noises the entire time we were visiting with Duffield, I was rather distraught. At one point, I left the room, nauseous not only from the smells of fecal matter and urine that this young woman was allowed to sit in for more than an hour, but just to imagine that here was a woman—one year younger than me. It was upon meeting Duffield that I realized, “This could happened to me! Rebecca Fierle could place me—or anyone else—in one of these places. All it takes is an allegation.”

When I returned to the room, I whispered to David, “Let’s go. I can’t take this.” We bid farewell to Debra Duffield. It felt like I was leaving someone on the side of the road to die. I felt helpless, overwhelmed, and truly horrified by what I had seen.


Back at the Seminole County courthouse, we read Debra Duffield’s file a little more carefully. We discovered that Rebecca Fierle had listed some of Duffield’s antiques on a list and the prices for which she allegedly sold the items. We then returned to McCormack’s home and showed her the list.

McCormack assured us that these valuable items were far underpriced*—for example, an antique table allegedly was sold for $30. “This can’t possibly be true,” McCormack stated. “That table was worth at least $300.00.”

McCormack then mentioned at least a dozen items that didn’t even appear on the inventory list.

In addition to taking back cash and investments that McCormack had created for Duffield’s benefit, Fierle had also obtained a judgment against McCormack for $120,000.00. In effect, the court order allowed Fierle to obtain TWICE what McCormack had returned to Fierle. “How am I supposed to pay back $120,000.00?” McCormack asked, when I’ve already given back everything?

That was the last time we saw Suzanne McCormack. The next time we went to visit her, there was a For Sale sign on her home. Neighbors stated that she had already moved.

Checking the court records periodically, we learned that nothing—absolutely nothing—was being done to “benefit the ‘ward.’” “Reverend”

Attorney Anthony Nardella simply put in regular billings statements for doing such things as trying to find and track down Suzanne McCormack, read and review the court file, run a property check on McCormack, etc.

But there was nothing—absolutely nothing—in the record to indicate that anyone had done anything for Debra Duffield who, I would imagine, is still lying in that bed, smelling of fecal matter, watching TV.

It did seem a bit odd that McCormack had spent $18,000.00 alone just to remodel a bathroom. But the point is this—whatever financial “abuse”

McCormack may have committed, the guardian and her attorney have now stepped in to finish it off. What the legal “protectors” have taken is far more than anything McCormack—who was actually caring for her friend—may have “taken.”

To date, more than half of Duffield’s money has been converted to attorneys’ fees to benefit Reverend Nardella. There is no one fighting this guardianship. Yet Duffield’s money is being spent at such a rapid rate that she is probably destitute by the time of this writing. And now the taxpayers of the state of Florida are paying for a young woman to rot away in a nursing home while Rebecca “Fierle” is seen on Facebook smiling, showing off her new pool.


*We also learned later from taking the guardianship certification course with Irene Rausch that antiques are supposed to be appriased. Fierle had not bothered to do this court-required mandate.


Angela V. Woodhull, Ph.D.
licensed private investigator
(352) 327-3665
(352) 682-9033

No comments: