FORT WALTON BEACH, FL — Our Crisis in Corrections series continues with the story of a former Florida prisoner who's now paralyzed after being beaten by corrections officers.
The I-Team learned that while the state has paid out $4.65 million tax dollars to settle the case, the officers believed to be responsible for having beaten Cheryl Weimar have yet to face criminal charges, nearly three years later.
We traveled more than 400 miles to visit Weimar in Ft. Walton Beach at one of the few facilities in Florida that can provide for her extensive needs and accepts convicted felons.
Weimar appreciates the little things, like a few minutes of fresh air in a park, away from her nursing home.
“This is a blessing,” Weimar said when we met her.
She hopes by speaking out, she may help prevent other incarcerated individuals from suffering at the hands of corrections officers.
'It’s like someone took an ax and went right through me'
The day we met was our fourth planned interview. The others were canceled when the 53-year-old’s fragile health failed. She’s been hospitalized seven times in six months.
But that day, she enjoyed her favorite meal, a Big Mac.
“This hamburger is so delicious," Weimar said. "Do you see the cheese and the lettuce?”
Her care manager, registered nurse, Gina Arsenault, fed her.
“All she can do is lay in her bed, lay in her chair," Arsenault said. "She’s highly dependent for any task… brushing her teeth, combing her hair, getting a shower."
Every waking moment she’s in pain.
“I can feel my bones," Weimar said. "It’s like somebody took an ax and went right through me.”
Yet she believes Florida’s prison system is far more broken than her body.
“When I woke up in the ICU knowing that I was paralyzed from the neck down, I didn’t see me making it,” she said.
A troubled early life
“She had one of the worst upbringings I’ve ever seen of any of my clients,” attorney Ryan Andrews said.
Andrews represented Weimar in her lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections. He said Weimar may look like the girl next door in photos he provided, but she was an abused child, ran away from home, turned to prostitution and began drinking and using drugs. By her early 20s, she was homeless.
“She was living under a bridge after Hurricane Andrew and gave birth on all fours under an overpass,” Andrews said.
Weimar was arrested for petty crimes over the next two decades. In 2014, her then-boyfriend Steven Horowitz was arrested for punching and kicking her in the ribs at a Broward County motel.
“He beat her up," Andrews said. "He got out, came back. She was afraid, stabbed him, then she got arrested."
In 2015, Weimar was convicted of domestic violence for stabbing Horowitz with a steak knife and was sentenced to seven years at Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala.
“I had to fight, I had to do the best I could to get out of the situation,” Weimar said. “He nearly killed me.”
Arsenault previously worked as a nurse at the prison and said the living conditions were terrible for inmates.
A brutal beating leads to a broken neck
On August 21, 2019, Weimar was assigned to clean toilets, but she said she was in pain from a hip injury.
“I did about seven toilets and I realized I couldn’t do anymore," she said. "So, I got down to the eighth one and I said 'I can’t do it.'”
That’s when she said correction officer Ryan Dionne and Lt. Keith Turner handcuffed her and then attacked her in front of more than a dozen witnesses.
“The lieutenant came running up in the back with his steel-toed boots and put it right through my spine," Weimar recalled. "I mean, I went to my knees."
According to the lawsuit, while she was on the ground, "they brutally beat her with blows to her head, neck, and back."
The lawsuit alleges Weimar “was elbowed and kneed in the back of her neck by at least one of her attackers, causing her to suffer a broken neck.”
“In one of the videos, her chin is touching her chest in a way that’s physically impossible without a broken neck,” her attorney, Ryan Andrews said.
Andrews said he could not share the disturbing videos due to a settlement agreement.
“Her labored breathing, her attempts at crying; it was horrible," Andrews said. "Her begging. Saying she couldn’t move her extremities. It was horrific."
Weimar was airlifted to a hospital, where she underwent multiple surgeries and months of treatment.
Corrections officers had questionable pasts
Initially, the guards accused of assaulting her remained on the job, despite their questionable pasts.
“Everybody covers everybody’s back,” Arsenault said. “You just sweep it under the rug and go about your business.”
Both Dionne and Turner had records of violence toward women and girls.
According to the lawsuit, "Dionne was arrested in 2013 for beating his then-girlfriend… as well as biting her neck and head area."
The charges were dropped when his victim refused to testify, allowing Dionne to qualify for employment by the Florida Department of Corrections.
The lawsuit also alleges Turner showed, "violent, threatening, and abusive conduct towards women based on dozens of inmate complaints against him."
A DOJ investigation into the mistreatment of prisoners at Lowell said Turner was accused repeatedly of sexually abusing multiple prisoners. However, he remained in his position until 2019, when he was arrested on charges of sexually molesting two girls.
“They could have terminated one of the individuals for any of 10 different things that he had complaints against him for," Andrews said. "They didn’t and that gave him the opportunity to be there and do what he did to Cheryl Weimar."
Transcripts show Dionne and Turner asserted their Fifth Amendment right more than 600 combined times during depositions.
In the affirmative defenses, Dionne and Turner filed in the lawsuit, they stated that their actions were not committed in "bad faith, with malicious purpose, or in a manner exhibiting wanton or willful disregard of human rights or safety."
Attempts to contact Dionne and Turner for comment were unsuccessful.
The Florida Department of Corrections settled the lawsuit in 2020 and paid $4.65 million.
Dionne resigned from his position several days later.
After nearly three years, no charges against officers
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Department of Corrections spent more than two years investigating the beating.
Their findings were turned over to the Marion County State's Attorney in Nov. 2021, but nearly three years after the attack, neither officer has been charged.
“They have everything they need to charge these guys,” Andrews said.
“When I did a crime, I had to pay for my crime," Weimar said. "I feel as though they’re not above the law. I feel as though they should have to pay for what they’ve done to me… and they haven’t."
If you have a story you think the I-Team should investigate, email us at email@example.com.
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