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Florida County Sheriff Liable for $1.5 Million for Acts of Informant on Work Release

Florida County Sheriff Liable for $1.5 Million for Acts of Informant on Work Release

On May 18, 2007, a Florida jury found the Hendry County Sheriff is liable for injuries caused by a prisoner it placed on work release status to hire him as a confidential informant. After the verdict, the parties agreed to a $1.5 million judgment.

While in the Hendry County Jail to serve a one year sentence, Terry Lynn Garnto was placed on trusty status and spoke to Sheriff Ronnie Lee about being a confidential informant on the illegal drug trade in Hendry County. Despite Garnto having an extensive arrest record (42 felony arrests as an adult plus a juvenile arrest record) that included DUI convictions and he had pending arrest warrants, Lee placed Garnto on “work release,” hired him as a confidential informant, and provided him a vehicle.

Five days later, Garnto was arrested for being drunk. He was then sent to Palm Beach County for a pending warrant and sentenced to one year in jail. Hendry County officials convinced Palm Beach County to allow Garnto to serve his time in Hendry County. Upon return to Hendry County, Garnto was immediately returned to the prior work release status.

In that capacity he made several drug buys for Hendry County and the DEA, targeting two alleged “violent drug dealers.” Following a debriefing, Garnto advised agents he was going to Ft. Myers Beach for the July 4th weekend with one of the drug dealers, Garnto drove across the center line at a high rate of speed, crashing into an oncoming vehicle on July 5, 1998.

The accident killed Kristina Waddell, caused a closed head injury and broken bones to Erick Hemerson, and left Gary Wheeler with a brain injury that caused permanent impairment. Two days later, Hendry County terminated Garnto’s employment as a confidential informant. The award, which is on appeal, provided Waddell’s estate $600,000, another $600,000 to Wheeler, and $300,000 to Hemerson. See: Walden v. Lee, Hendry County Cir. Court, Fla., Case No 2000-CA-690.

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Related legal case

Walden v. Lee