[PHOTO CREDIT: Facebook /Mount Dora Police]
[Original Publish Date: 07/26/20]
MOUNT DORA, Florida — Just two business days after meeting with Lake Legal News to create a better relationship with the media, Mount Dora Police Deputy Chief Michael Fewless was fired — for meeting with Lake Legal News.
In May, LLN was on scene — the only media on scene — of a murder at Lowe’s, 18795 U.S. Highway 441, Mount Dora attempting to get information from MDPD officers investigating the crime. After being stonewalled and ignored by several officers, LLN called Fewless and expressed concern over the lack of communication. A captain on scene finally gave LLN information and Fewless assured LLN that in the future, getting information would not be a problem.
In July, a double shooting occurred near Grant Avenue and Clayton Street, just a few blocks from Mount Dora Middle School. LLN received a tip moments after the shooting occurred and was on scene not long after the first 9-1-1 call was received. On the way to the shooting LLN texted Fewless, who said a lieutenant on scene would be available as a point of contact.
When LLN arrived, it was a highly active scene and LLN traveled around the outskirts of the scene for about 10 minutes. LLN parked about a block from the scene and ventured up to the crime scene tape, with a camera, notebook and press pass — an obvious member of the media and again the only member of the media on scene.
After several minutes, it became apparent LLN was going to once again be ignored by MDPD and LLN left the scene. Two days later, LLN reached out to Fewless a second time to express concern over the lack of information and professional acknowledgment when LLN was on scene of the shooting. Fewless listened to the concerns and suggested meeting with LLN in person, to better the relationship between MDPD and the media.
That meeting was July 17. (When LLN arrived at Fewless’ office, Chief Robert Bell was leaning against a nearby wall and appeared displeased to have LLN inside the department.)
During the meeting, Fewless and LLN discussed working together to build a better relationship. LLN works hard to build and maintain open and transparent relationships with all local public safety agencies to keep information flowing from the agency, to LLN and finally to the public. Information about criminal activity in the community is a matter of public concern, and the media’s relationship with law enforcement is as well. It is valuable to build a level of trust between law enforcement and the public, in which the media plays a major role. It was the goal of both LLN and Fewless to begin creating that transparency.
Following the discussion, LLN inquired if there were any updates on either the murder or the double shooting and Fewless took LLN to the office of Capt. Coy Hunter. Afterwards, Fewless introduced LLN to Patrol Capt. Michael Gibson, who was also helpful and offered his assistance in building an open relationship.
LLN departed the meeting confident that a clear path had been forged to build communication between MDPD and the media.
On Thursday, LLN was tipped off to Fewless’ firing. LLN spoke with Fewless’ attorney Ryan Andrews of Andrews Law in Tallahassee Thursday afternoon and Friday morning. Andrews confirmed Fewless’ firing and advised that Fewless was fired for speaking with LLN July 17. (Andrews represented Fewless in a prior case involving retirement issues with another agency.)
Multiple sources reached out to LLN since Thursday and told LLN that Fewless was allegedly fired by City Manager Robin Hayes at the urging of Bell. LLN has also been tipped off that Bell is just weeks away from retirement, following command staff complaints (including by Fewless), which informed Hayes of the unrest and hostile work environment in the department, created by Bell. At press time, LLN was awaiting numerous public records to confirm these allegations. Several calls to City Hall Friday went unanswered.
These are not the first accusations against Bell this year; In March, former MDPD Cpl. Jessica Howell-Gonzalez filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Mount Dora alleging violations of Florida’s Whistleblower Act, Family Medical Leave Act and the First Amendment. The suit alleges Howell-Gonzalez complained of fellow officer Ivy Severance using city time for her personal errands and it being a chronic issue. Howell-Gonzalez complained to a MDPD sergeant, “who always advised her he was told to leave Ofc. Severance alone at the instruction of then-Deputy Chief Robert Bell, who later became the MDPD police chief,” the lawsuit states.
Howell-Gonzalez took her complaints to a lieutenant in the department three times in April 2019 and Severance’s alleged behavior continued. Howell-Gonzalez was then transferred from her unit, the lawsuit states.
Howell-Gonzalez is represented by Christopher Pace of Jill S. Schwartz & Associates in Winter Park.
According to the suit, on June 19, 2019, Howell-Gonzalez met with Bell who was then the acting chief and raised the issues regarding Severance using city time to “perform personal errands and incurring overtime for which she was not entitled.” “In response, Bell became aggressive and moved close to Howell[-Gonzalez] and told her that Severance spends more time at MDPD than anyone, and that he [Bell] takes his daughter to school while at work and asked Howell if she was also accusing him of stealing time,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit further alleges Bell made it clear Howell-Gonzalez would never return to the community relations unit because of her objections to what Howell-Gonzalez refers to as Severance’s “theft of time.” Severance later made a list of “villains” and Howell-Gonzalez was included as “Lady Tremaine,” Cinderella’s evil stepmother, the lawsuit states.
Howell-Gonzalez’ lawsuit states that on Aug. 27, 2019, she filed a written complaint to City Manager Robin Hayes, Human Resources Director Sharon Kraynik and Chief Robert Bell, stating she was treated unfairly as a result of her objections and refusal to engage in improper activities. According to her lawsuit, Howell-Gonzalez “asked that this activity cease immediately and that her concerns be immediately investigated.” MDPD allegedly ignored her request, “and inexplicably, Howell[-Gonzalez] was instead told that the IA investigation into Severance must first be completed.”
On Oct. 3, 2019, Howell-Gonzalez was interviewed, and she identified a witness to support her claims. Just four days later, the witness received an anonymous letter “devoted entirely to Severance’s interests” threatening the witness with a defamation lawsuit. No MDPD or other investigator followed up with Howell-Gonzalez or the witness about the threat, according to the lawsuit.
In July 2019, Howell-Gonzalez took FMLA due to work stress; upon her return she was to switch to night shift, limiting her interactions with Severance and Bell. In alleged retaliation for taking FMLA, she was told she would be on dayshift, which would result in daily interactions with Bell and Severance. On Oct. 17, 2019, she was thereby “constructively discharged,” the suit states.
Our Editor-in-Chief, Marilyn M. Aciego, began writing for Lake Legal News in 2010. Born and raised in Lake County, she is a graduate of Umatilla High School and Lake-Sumter State College. She started her journalism career at LSSC, where she was editor of both student publications, The Angler and The Odyssey. Her professional career began at the Daily Commercial in 2004 where she covered cops and courts the majority of her time there until she left in 2009. Currently, along with being Editor-in-Chief of Lake Legal News, she is the Florida bureau chief for an international media organization. She has made more than two dozen appearances on live national television, including Nancy Grace and the Greta Van Susteren show, along with her appearance on Evil Twins. Contact her with breaking news, tips, and feedback by sending an e-mail to 352Tips@gmail.com. You can also contact us on our Facebook page — and make sure you “Like” and “Follow us” there. [PHOTO CREDIT: Bonnie Whicher]