Claims bill would clear $296K to survivor of 2010 mass shooting in Riviera Beach
Lydia Smith, sister-in-law of shooting victim Natasha Whyte-Dell, reacts outside site of bloodbath. Image via AP.

Riviera Beach shooting AP
‘The (Department of Children and Families) clearly was not doing its job in an effective manner, which led to this tragedy.’

More than a decade after a state investigator’s negligence failed to prevent a mass shooting in Palm Beach County that left six dead, the father of one of the survivors is on track to collect more than $296,000 on his son’s behalf.

On Friday, Republican Sen. Nick DiCeglie of Indian Rocks Beach filed legislation (SB 90) to clear a settlement payment from the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) to Michael Barnett and his son, Ryan.

The settlement, which Barnett and the state reached following a Florida Supreme Court ruling in September 2020, stems from a murder-suicide that took place almost exactly 10 years prior.

DiCeglie’s bill is classified as a “claims bill” or “relief act,” as it is intended to compensate a person or entity for injury or loss caused by the negligence or error of a public officer or agency.

Claims bills arise when appropriate damages exceed what’s allowable under Florida’s sovereign immunity laws, which protect government agencies from costly lawsuits. State law currently limits what can be paid without legislative action to $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident, though lawmakers have been trying to raise those payout caps.

DiCeglie told Florida Politics this is the second time he’s sponsored legislation authorizing payment to Barnett. He called the case “tragic.”

“The DCF clearly was not doing its job in an effective manner, which led to this tragedy,” he said. “I take that responsibility pretty seriously.”

On Sept. 27, 2010, 41-year-old Patrick Dell entered the Riviera Beach home of his estranged wife, 36-year-old Natasha Whyte-Dell, and fatally shot her and four of her children, the oldest of whom was 14. He also shot Ryan Barnett, then 15, in the neck. Dell left two others, his biological children, unharmed before leaving the premises and killing himself.

Ryan Barnett spent more than a week in the hospital recovering from his injuries that, as it became clear after the shooting, were as wholly preventable as the deaths of his half-brothers and sisters.

Eight months before Dell’s rampage, DCF received a call through its abuse hotline about a December 2009 incident that, coupled with other information available to the agency, should have set off alarm bells at the agency.

Whyte-Dell was visiting with a friend when Dell, notorious in the neighborhood for his hot temper and paranoia, threatened to kill her, charging at her with a knife before going outside to flatten all four tires on her vehicle, according to a police record. Quoting the report in 2012, the Palm Beach Post said Whyte-Dell claimed Dell told her through a door she and her friend barricaded themselves behind, “Your family is going to cry today” and “You will be going to the morgue.”

Police arrested Dell later that morning on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and criminal mischief.

DCF investigated but subsequently closed the case file on Feb. 25, 2010, concluding the children were not at “significant risk” of harm. Less than three months later, after he again attacked her, Whyte-Dell obtained a restraining order against Dell. In her petition, she said she heard he was trying to buy a gun and worried he’d use it against her and her children.

The DCF was grossly errant in its closure of Whyte-Dell’s case, evidenced by Dell’s troubling pattern of threats and violence in the leadup to the shooting. In the four years preceding the tragic event, the Riviera Beach Police Department responded to Whyte-Dell’s home 34 times. Eleven of those responses were for domestic violence disturbances.

DCF “knew or had reason to know of the threats and had numerous opportunities to remove the children from that dangerous environment, yet did not act and closed their case file,” DiCeglie’s bill said.

That sentiment was shared by Perry Borman, the formers southeast regional managing director of DFC, who called the investigation “subpar.”

It turned out, the child protective investigator assigned to the case, George Shahood, who had been with DCF just five months, was himself facing pending domestic violence charges.

Shahood didn’t speak with any neighbors or anyone outside the Whyte-Dell house, for that matter. His safety plan: for family members to call 911 “should any further incidents occur.”

He was later fired. But DCF “failed to perform any secondary review or reinvestigation after (Shahood’s) pending domestic violence charges were made public,” the bill said.

Michael Barnett, as the natural father and acting guardian of Ryan Barnett, and as the personal representative of the estates of three of the murdered children — Diane Barnett, Daniel Barnett and Bryan Barnettsued DCF in March 2012 for wrongful death and negligence. Leroy Nelson Jr., the father of the murdered child, Javon Nelson, filed a separate wrongful death action against the department.

Both complaints alleged DCF breached multiple nondelegable duties and failed to protect the children from “unreasonable risk of harm.” DCF raised several defenses, including that Florida’s limited waiver of sovereign immunity limited the aggregate recovery to a low six-figure sum.

After years of legal proceedings, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in October 2018 that the Whyte-Dell murders represented “a single claim of negligence against the (DCF) in the failure to properly investigate the family and stepfather before closing its file.” As such, Barnett and Nelson could only seek damages for a single incident, payable by up to $300,000, rather than $200,000 per person, which would have put DCF on the line for far more.

The Florida Supreme Court unanimously agreed with that decision on Sept. 24, 2020, ruling it appropriate to treat the Whyte-Dell family shooting as a single incident, stemming from Shahood’s negligence, rather than one in which each murder was its own occurrence of negligence. Shortly thereafter, Barnett entered into a settlement agreement with the state for $296,400.

For a time, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case marked a major setback for the survivors and families of victims from the 2018 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, as their compensation claims — involving 17 people killed and another 17 wounded — hinged on what the court decided the state’s monetary responsibility was in the Whyte-Dell matter.

That proved to not be the case. In December 2021, the Broward County school district agreed to pay more than $26 million to the families of those killed and injured in the school shooting. And this past March, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to a $127.5 million settlement with the victims and their families after they lodged 40 civil cases alleging the Federal Bureau of Investigation acted negligently when it declined to act on tips that could have prevented rampage.

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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