Family files complaint against paramedics after man's death

John "Darrell" Hamilton, 58, died almost two years ago after collapsing down stairs with chest pains; his family claims that crews "left him for dead"

The Ledger

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — John "Darrell" Hamilton was pronounced dead at 5:36 a.m. May 3, 2014, with reported signs of lividity and rigor mortis.

Those conditions take at least an hour after death to set in.

Yet Hamilton is heard on a 911 call about 5:25 a.m.  just 11 minutes before he was pronounced dead.

And a Winter Haven crime scene technician said rigor mortis had not set in when she examined the body at 6:13 a.m.

Polk County Fire Rescue and Winter Haven Fire Department responded to Lois Fulkerson's 911 call to 595 Lake Martha Drive N.E. after her 58-year-old son collapsed down the stairs with chest pains.

"They didn't come in with nothing as much as a stethoscope," Fulkerson recalls, sitting in the living room where Hamilton died almost two years ago. "They left him for dead."

A Christmas tree decorates the room. Fulkerson refuses to bring down the last tree her son helped decorate.

Using public records, which The Ledger also used to piece together the timeline above. Fulkerson, with the help of her daughter, Sherry "Cookie" Groover, filed a complaint June 30, 2014, with Polk County Fire Rescue against former paramedic Emery Roberts, who pronounced Hamilton dead.

It took a year of phone calls, emails and complaints from Groover for the county to start an internal investigation. The wait, County Manager Jim Freeman said, was because Polk County didn't have an Office of Professional Standards. It created such an office in February 2015 and started an investigation that June.

According to PCFR protocol, resuscitation can be withheld based on what Roberts reported: Hamilton's skin was cold and mottled; his pulse had flat lined; and he had signs of lividity and rigors.

But the investigation concluded Hamilton was conscious and verbal at least seven to 10 minutes prior, making Roberts' report "troublesome." Because of that, Roberts failed to follow protocol, which includes performing CPR and administering cardiac medications, the investigation further concluded.

Roberts could have been terminated, but he resigned from Fire Rescue in December 2014 and died of a heart attack in July, according to Freeman.

After reviewing the inconsistent testimonies by Fire Rescue EMT Timothy Christensen, Winter Haven Fire Lt. Justin Riner and Winter Haven firefighters Cory Hart and Jason Montgomery, Hamilton's family wants them to face consequences as Roberts would have.

Although not paramedics, the firemen had the training to perform CPR and could have questioned Roberts' assessment of Hamilton.

"There were five men who could have saved my brother's life and they didn't even try," Groover said. "We still don't have closure."

Groover filed a complaint in October against Winter Haven, which was investigated by Florida Municipal Insurance Trust, the city's insurer. It concluded Fire Department personnel responded appropriately, without error and in accordance with good practices, applicable policies and medical protocol. The files from part of that investigation are confidential under Florida Statute.

In December, Groover said, she filed a complaint against Christensen, Riner, Hart and Montgomery with the Florida Department of Health. The department does not confirm whether it is investigating, also citing Florida Statute.

"If they would have received something as minimal as one-month suspensions, I would have gone away," Groover said, "but their agencies are protecting them and they are running calls to other taxpayers' homes where they may be just as negligent as they were to my brother."

She picks up a framed baby picture of her son, knocked off the staircase wall when Hamilton fell. The picture was never rehung in the home that is seemingly frozen in time — the morning Hamilton died.

The family is frozen, too, consumed with finding what they think would be justice for Hamilton.

Justice for Jazz
Hamilton was divorced and survived by two adult children. He had careers in the U.S. Navy and radio business.

He was a First Class Petty Officer on a nuclear submarine for six years before pursuing radio.

He had stints at WLOQ, a smooth jazz station in Orlando, and Big 810, an oldies station also in Orlando. Before he died, he was planning to open his own station in Deland.

His "Jazz for Justice" talk show, where he touched on social and political issues, yielded a hash tag on social media after his death — "Justice for Jazz." Groover posts using the hash tag for people to easily follow updates on her efforts.

Hamilton also was an organ donor.

"Because he was never worked on or taken to the hospital, his last wish of helping people was never carried out," Groover said. "People who could have benefited never got what they needed.

"So many bad decisions made that (morning) should not go without recognition," she added.

Hamilton had no previous medical history, Groover said, but he was a two-packs-a-day smoker and had recently taken up vaping — inhaling and exhaling vapor through an electronic cigarette.

He lived with Fulkerson to help care for her. He started complaining to his mom two or three days before he died that he felt ill and had heart burn. He resisted going to a doctor.

Fulkerson said Hamilton went to bed about midnight, but woke his mother up when he started yelling from upstairs to call 911.

Her call was received about 5:23 a.m. She's heard asking Hamilton to take aspirin. A voice labeled "unknown speaker" responds, "already did,” according to the transcribed 911 call in the investigative report.

The Winter Haven Police Department determined no one other than Fulkerson and Hamilton was in the home.

Fulkerson performed CPR on Hamilton until Roberts and Christensen arrived at 5:32 a.m.

They made contact with Hamilton at 5:34 a.m., according to Roberts' report, and hooked him up to a monitor, determining he had no cardiac electrical activity. The investigation found Hamilton actually had pulseless electrical activity. But electrical activity or not, it is protocol to try to resuscitate the patient.

Roberts didn't and further reported that Hamilton had lividity and rigors, leading the family to believe he falsified the report to support his decision not to resuscitate. Riner's report is similar to Roberts', noting lividity and rigors.

Chief Medical Examiner Stephen J. Nelson, who performed Hamilton's autopsy and concluded he died of heart disease, said lividity and rigors take hours to set in.

"Lividity is the postmortem settling of blood that takes a few hours to be visible with a purple-red color where the blood has pooled," Nelson said. "Rigor takes a number of hours as well, and comes on in the small muscles of the eye, typically hanging around for about three to four hours before going away."

Kristin Reid, WHPD crime scene technician, reported at 6:13 a.m. that Hamilton had not set into rigor mortis.

Investigaton: "Troublesome"
Christensen, Riner, Hart and Montgomery would not comment for this story.

But in interviews with Kelli Collins, the county's Fire Rescue professional standards investigator, they tell different stories of how Hamilton was treated the morning of his death. Members of both agencies say they were on the scene first and made patient contact first, but they all ultimately approved Roberts' assessment of lividity, rigors and death.

Roberts worked for Fire Rescue for 15 months. Christensen has been an EMT there since 2004.

Riner has been an EMT since 1999 and has worked with the Winter Haven Fire Department since 2000. Hart has been a firefighter there since 2012, Montgomery since 2009. They all have had "good" to "exceptional" evaluations during their tenure.

Christensen said in his interview that he knew Fulkerson said she was talking to Hamilton before their arrival, but Roberts' report said it was an unwitnessed cardiac arrest.

Raf Vittone, Fire Rescue's deputy chief of medical services, asked Christensen whether he felt the need to tell Roberts that Fulkerson had been talking to Hamilton, which would have conflicted with his assessment of lividity and rigors, as well as his report that the arrest was unwitnessed. He said no.

Still, Freeman said it would be inappropriate to reprimand Christensen.

"The paramedic is the trained medical professional who makes those determinations and it is not the EMT's responsibility," Freeman said.

Rick Groover, Hamilton's brother-in-law, said if Christensen's failure to speak up doesn't constitute some sort of consequence, the system needs to be changed.

"They throw (Roberts) under the bus, but they still have moral and basic life-support responsibilities," Rick Groover said.

But the county's case is closed.

"We are saddened by the death of Mr. Hamilton, but we respond to 75,000 annual emergencies each year," Freeman said. "There are thousands of people walking the earth today because of our dedicated paramedics.

"That fact doesn't change this outcome or lessen the family's grief, but I have confidence in our paramedics."

The Groovers say they hope the state will step in.

"Roberts didn't make them lie on their reports, lie in their testimonies and withhold information that could have saved my brother," Cookie Groover said. "We're not even asking for them to be terminated, but some sort of suspension or re-certification should be required for such negligence.

"We just want closure."

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