Fam­ily fights to re­unite with loved ones’ ashes

Re­mains were found at of­fice of dis­graced guardian Re­becca Fierle

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Monivette Cordeiro

The fam­ily of Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock has been try­ing to lay her to rest since she died in 2018.

This week, they got one step closer: Af­ter re­peated re­quests by the Or­lando Sen­tinel, the Florida Depart­ment of Law En­force­ment con­firmed Ham­mock is one of the 10 peo­ple whose cre­mated ashes were found last August in the Or­lando of­fice of for­mer guardian Re­becca Fierle.

The ac­knowl­edg­ment comes af­ter months of si­lence from author­i­ties, who wouldn’t tell Ham­mock’s rel­a­tives if hers were among the re­mains dis­cov­ered by FDLE when agents raided 1646 Hill­crest St., a small con­verted house north­east of down­town Or­lando that was the of­fice for Fierle’s

busi­ness, Geri­atric Man­age­ment.

The death of another of Fierle’s in­ca­pac­i­tated clients, 75-year-old Steven Stryker, sparked a scan­dal that has em­broiled Florida’s guardian­ship sys­tem. Stryker died at a Tampa hospi­tal last year while staff were un­able to per­form life­sav­ing mea­sures due to a “do not re­sus­ci­tate” or­der Fierle filed against his wishes and re­fused to

re­move.

Fierle is un­der crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion by FDLE, but is not cur­rently fac­ing charges. The once-prolific guardian, who han­dled hun­dreds of cases in more than a dozen coun­ties, has re­signed. In ad­di­tion to mis­us­ing DNRs, she has been ac­cused of ig­nor­ing her wards’ wishes, dou­ble-billing and con­flicts of in­ter­est.

Af­ter Ham­mock, 94, died in June 2018 at a Win­ter Springs as­sisted liv­ing fa­cil­ity, her aunt-in-law Martha Reg­is­ter said she in­sisted Fierle send the ashes to Ge­or­gia so Ham­mock could be buried among fam­ily members. But Reg­is­ter said the guardian told her she would keep the cre­mated re­mains un­til Ham­mock’s hus­band, who is Reg­is­ter’s nephew, also died.

John is now 82 years old, has de­men­tia and is un­der the care of a new guardian.

FDLE spokes­woman Gretl Plessinger con­firmed the agency is still in possession of Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock’s re­mains. The iden­ti­ties of the other nine peo­ple and one pet whose ashes were found in Fierle’s of­fice have not been made pub­lic. The state’s Of­fice of At­tor­ney Gen­eral ini­tially told me­dia out­lets the search un­cov­ered the re­mains of nine peo­ple, but Plessinger said Wed­nes­day that 10 were found.

“I’m frus­trated with the whole sys­tem, re­ally,” said Reg­is­ter, 93. “They’re not forth­com­ing with much in­for­ma­tion. There’s no­body down there who would tell you what you want to know.”

Fierle was ap­pointed by a judge in 2015 to care for Ham­mock and her hus­band,

John Ham­mock, then 77, Osce­ola County court records show. They came un­der her care af­ter a series of events typ­i­cal to guardian­ship cases.

Noemi Ri­vas Bass, 56, said she met the cou­ple in church about 12 years ago. They be­gan a friend­ship af­ter John Ham­mock dur­ing a ser­vice re­quested a prayer for his wife, who had fallen, and Ri­vas Bass of­fered to help. At the time, the cou­ple lived in a house off Teka Lane in St. Cloud.

“Mar­i­lyn was al­ready show­ing she was maybe hav­ing some de­men­tia is­sues but it was not ex­treme,” she said. “John was do­ing his best tak­ing care of her.”

One night, the Ham­mocks both fell and could not get up. Po­lice found them on the floor and took them to a hospi­tal, Ri­vas Bass said.

The el­derly cou­ple ended up at the for­mer Osce­ola Health Care Cen­ter on Nolte Road, now So­laris Health­Care Osce­ola. On June 11, 2015, Reg­is­ter be­came their health care proxy, mean­ing she was au­tho­rized to make health care de­ci­sions for them if they were un­able to con­vey their own wishes. John Ham­mock’s brother said he was un­able to take on a sim­i­lar role, ac­cord­ing to court records.

Reg­is­ter said she helped raise John Ham­mock and his brother af­ter their mother died. Known to his fam­ily as “Johnny Mack,” he joined the Navy and later met his wife in Florida.

The cou­ple had no chil­dren. Although they lived in dif­fer­ent states, Reg­is­ter said she was close to her nephew and his wife, and they en­joyed jok­ing, play­ing games and putting puz­zles to­gether dur­ing vis­its.

“They were al­ways very lov­ing,” Reg­is­ter said. “We al­ways had fun.”

Reg­is­ter said a lawyer for John Ham­mock’s brother con­tacted Fierle. Less than two weeks later, the guardian pe­ti­tioned a judge to find the Ham­mocks in­ca­pac­i­tated and ap­point her their de­ci­sion-maker.

“They did not de­serve to land in the hands of this woman,” Ri­vas Bass said. “John knew who he was. … He was still in that place where he could have made a de­ci­sion for him­self and for her — and they took that

away from him.”

Af­ter Fierle sold the cou­ple’s home, ve­hi­cle and be­long­ings to pay for their care and com­pen­sate her­self, she moved them to Ar­den Courts of Win­ter Springs in early 2016, Semi­nole County court records show.

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye on stuff,” Reg­is­ter said re­gard­ing Fierle. “She wouldn’t tell me much.”

Fight­ing for in­for­ma­tion

In 2018, Reg­is­ter said Fierle called her to say Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock had bro­ken her hip af­ter she fell while mov­ing from a wheel­chair to a walker.

“[Fierle] said they de­cided that she would prob­a­bly not sur­vive hip surgery,” Reg­is­ter said. “They de­cided they would just put her back in bed and keep her com­fort­able un­til she died.”

Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock died weeks later, on June 23, 2018, ac­cord­ing to court records.

Nei­ther Fierle nor her at­tor­neys re­sponded to a re­quest for com­ment on her for­mer ward’s death.

Reg­is­ter said she ar­ranged to bury Ham­mock’s cre­mated re­mains at a ceme­tery near her home in Ge­or­gia. Fierle agreed to pay for the fu­neral ex­penses through the Ham­mocks’ es­tate but re­fused to im­me­di­ately send Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock’s ashes to Reg­is­ter.

“We had al­ready pre­pared the thing here on the ceme­tery and were wait­ing on the ashes when [Fierle] said she was hold­ing them un­til the time of John’s death, then she would send them both to me,” Reg­is­ter said.

Gina Rossi-Scheiman, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Florida State Guardian­ship As­so­ci­a­tion, pre­vi­ously told the Sen­tinel it was “not un­com­mon” for guardians to tem­po­rar­ily keep the cre­mated

re­mains of dead clients un­til a fi­nal rest­ing place was found.

Reg­is­ter and her niece, Melody Gar­cia, who lives in Texas, spoke to FDLE agents shortly af­ter they found the re­mains in Fierle’s of­fice in early August. But Reg­is­ter and Gar­cia said the agency stopped short of con­firm­ing that Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock’s ashes were among those found and later did not re­turn re­turn their calls re­quest­ing more in­for­ma­tion.

Plessinger said Reg­is­ter is not con­sid­ered Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock’s clos­est liv­ing rel­a­tive — her next-of-kin is her hus­band, whose new guardian is Denise Wil­lis.

“FDLE is work­ing with Ms. Ham­mock’s next of kin’s guardian,” Plessinger said in an email. “Ms. Wil­lis wouldn’t ac­cept the re­mains with­out a court or­der. So we are work­ing to ob­tain that now.”

Reg­is­ter and Gar­cia said they were re­lieved to know that Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock’s re­mains are safe but still feel frus­trated that they haven’t been able to lay her to rest.

“It hurts me be­cause it’s hurt­ing my aunt,” said Gar­cia, 59. “She raised those kids most of their lives and was very close to them. … They’re just dis­card­ing these peo­ple like they’re trash, like they don’t have to an­swer to any­body or have ac­count­abil­ity for their ac­tions.”

‘She’s a hu­man be­ing’

Both women said they have tried to con­tact sev­eral peo­ple in­volved with John Ham­mock’s guardian­ship case in the months since Fierle re­signed, in­clud­ing Wil­lis, but no one has called them.

“I mean, I’m very happy they found out that Mar­i­lyn was one of the [re­cov­ered re­mains], but what’s the next step when you can’t get in touch with the guardian?” Gar­cia asked.

On a re­cent visit to see John Ham­mock, Ri­vas Bass said she saw a bruise on his head. Reg­is­ter said the fa­cil­ity’s staff told her he fell af­ter try­ing to get out of his wheel­chair. Reg­is­ter is anx­ious be­cause, at 93, she can’t travel to see her nephew, hav­ing re­cently been hos­pi­tal­ized her­self.

“That’s what started Mar­i­lyn’s death — a fall out of the wheel­chair,” Reg­is­ter said. “I don’t want the same thing hap­pen­ing to him.”

Wil­lis, who was ap­pointed to the case in August, told the Sen­tinel she has not re­ceived mes­sages from John Ham­mock’s fam­ily. She said she tried to con­tact Reg­is­ter once, weeks ago, but the per­son who an­swered the phone told her Reg­is­ter was in the hospi­tal.

The guardian said she could not com­ment on her client’s health. Wil­lis added she was con­tacted by an in­ves­ti­ga­tor be­cause a con­tainer of ashes found in Fierle’s of­fice had the name “Ham­mock” on it, but she said she never re­ceived the ashes.

“I don’t know any­thing about the sta­tus of that or what they’re do­ing with those,” she said.

John Ham­mock can’t speak much any­more, Ri­vas Bass said, but, some­times dur­ing their vis­its, he tells her he misses his wife. She would like Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock to fi­nally have a me­mo­rial ser­vice at their church a year and a half af­ter her death.

“For cry­ing out loud, she’s a hu­man be­ing,” Ri­vas Bass said. “She was loved by not only me but other peo­ple. … There’s no rea­son why these things should hap­pen when we live in a coun­try that’s sup­posed to be the best coun­try in the world.”

JEFF WEINER/ OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Dur­ing a raid in August, FDLE agents found the cre­mated re­mains of nine peo­ple in­side Geri­atric Man­age­ment.

MELODY GAR­CIA/COUR­TESY

The Florida Depart­ment of Law En­force­ment con­firmed Mar­i­lyn Ham­mock, pic­tured with her hus­band John, is one of the 10 peo­ple whose cre­mated ashes were found last August in the Or­lando of­fice of for­mer guardian Re­becca Fierle.

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