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Trial scheduled to begin for former professional guardian accused in man's death

Rebecca Fierle trial expected to last all week
DNR graphic
Posted at 2:59 PM, Sep 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-14 17:53:40-04

TAMPA, Fla. — The trial of former professional guardian Rebecca Fierle is scheduled to begin Tuesday in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.

Fierle is charged with aggravated abuse of an elderly person and neglect of an elderly person, both felonies, in connection with the death of Steven Stryker in 2019.

The ABC Action News I-Team has been following the case since it first came to light more than three years ago and led to changes in Florida’s guardianship law.

We have completed dozens of stories since 2013 as part of our “The Price of Protection” series, focusing on problems with Florida’s court-appointed guardians.

“Rebecca demanded that his feeding tube be capped”

The Fierle case started with a report prepared by the Okaloosa County Inspector General’s Office, which was released in June of 2019. That report accused Fierle of taking actions that led to Stryker’s death while serving as his guardian.

Stryker, a 74-year-old Navy veteran, had a chronic medical condition that made it difficult for him to swallow and required him to have a feeding tube.

Steven Stryker
Steven Stryker

“Rebecca demanded that his feeding tube be capped,” Linda Lanier said in June 2019. Lanier was Stryker’s friend and power of attorney.

She was on vacation in another state when Stryker ended up in a hospital in Orlando.

A judge appointed Fierle as his professional guardian, which allowed Fierle to make medical and financial decisions on his behalf. Fierle requested that Stryker be transferred to an assisted living facility in Tampa.

Rebecca Fierle in 2019
Rebecca Fierle in 2019

In May of 2019, Stryker had a medical episode and was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital.

According to the investigative report, Fierle requested that Stryker’s feeding tube be removed and requested that a do-not-resuscitate order (DNR) be placed on Stryker.

“Knowing that he’s going to aspirate because he couldn’t take anything by mouth yet, it’s pretty much a death sentence,” Lanier said.

Stryker’s daughter, Kimberly Stryker, sent an email to the judge in Stryker’s guardianship case on May 9, 2019, that said, “his guardian has insisted on including a DNR… despite his vocal opposition."

Email sent to judge in Stryker case by Stryker's daughter regarding Fierle's performance as his guardian
Email sent to judge in Stryker case by Stryker's daughter regarding Fierle's performance as his guardian.

The email continued, “he is doing much better and is quite lucid and extremely upset that this woman has full control over his medical and financial records."

“To see him at the end literally begging, begging for his life. He was very lucid,” Lanier said. “He knew what Rebecca was doing.”

Stryker choked to death in the hospital six days after the email was sent.

Fierle had multiple prior complaints

Fierle had been the subject of eight complaints to the Office of Public and Professional Guardians, the state watchdog agency appointed to police professional guardians.

That agency had taken no disciplinary action against her at the time of Stryker’s death.

Months earlier, the I-Team previously uncovered out of 132 complaints that the watchdog office received during its first two years, OPPG didn’t revoke a single guardian’s registration.

“You’ve had over 130-some cases, and nothing has happened to anybody? That just doesn’t strike me as being acceptable,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in February 2019 after we uncovered many of the investigations opened years earlier had not even been completed.

At the time of Stryker’s death, Fierle had 450 wards from 15 counties under her care.

Adam Walser questions Rebecca Fierle in 2019
Adam Walser questions Rebecca Fierle after she was removed from more than 100 guardianship cases in 2019.

“I think that there’s going to be action taken, whether it’s administratively, or legislatively or a combination, because I think something needs to be done,” Gov. DeSantis said after hearing about Stryker’s death.

The next month, the executive director of OPPG resigned.

Stryker case led to changes in law

Florida legislators immediately began taking action to address the concerns raised by the case.

“I was horrified. I was not aware that that practice was being employed by her or any other guardian. So immediately jumped into action,” Sen. Kathleen Passidomo said.

Lawmakers unanimously voted to amend Florida’s guardianship law in 2020, requiring guardians to get permission from a family member or a judge before requesting a do-not-resuscitate order.

The legislation also changed how guardians are appointed and how many wards professional guardians can be assigned.

In February 2020, Fierle was arrested following an eight-month investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Florida Attorney General’s Office.

During a search of her office, FDLE agents found unidentified cremains of nine people and a dog.

Jury selection is expected to begin at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and the trial should last through the week. Fierle has pleaded “not guilty” to the charges.

If you have a story you’d like the I-Team to investigate, email us at adam@abcactionnews.com.