Lawmaker refiles claims bill to pay $296K to Palm Beach shooting survivor
Lydia Smith, sister-in-law of shooting victim Natasha Whyte-Dell, reacts outside site of bloodbath. Image via AP.

Riviera Beach shooting AP
In 4 years leading up to the bloodbath, police responded to 34 disturbances at the home.

For the second consecutive year, a Republican lawmaker is seeking government funds to pay the survivor of a 2010 shooting that left six dead in Palm Beach County due to a state investigator’s negligence.

This time it’s first-term Miami Sen. Alexis Calatayud, who filed legislation (SB 16) to clear more than $296,000 to fulfill a settlement between the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF), Michael Barnett and his son, Ryan.

The Barnetts reached an agreement with DCF in 2020 following a Supreme Court ruling concerning a murder-suicide almost exactly 10 years prior.

SB 16 is classified as a claims bill or “relief act,” as it is intended to compensate a person or entity for injury or loss from the negligence or error of a public officer or agency.

Claims bills arise when appropriate damages exceed what is allowable under Florida’s sovereign immunity law, which protects government agencies from costly lawsuits. Statutes currently cap payouts to claimants against the state at $200,000 per person and $300,000 per incident.

The shooting that wounded Ryan Barnett and killed four of his siblings was preventable. It took place Sept. 27, 2010, when 41-year-old Patrick Dell entered the Riviera Beach home of his estranged wife, 36-year-old Natasha Whyte-Dell, opening fire on her and five of her children.

A bullet struck 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 injuries he needn’t have sustained.

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.

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 police records.

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, “You will be going to the morgue.” He also told her, “Your family is going to cry today.”

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

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

Those were just two of 34 times the Riviera Police Department responded to disturbances at Whyte-Dell’s home in the four-year leadup to the shooting. Eleven of those responses were for domestic violence.

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 its case file,” Calatayud’s bill says.

Perry Borman, a former southeast regional managing director of DCF, called the investigation “subpar.”

Lydia Smith, sister-in-law of shooting victim Natasha Whyte-Dell, reacts outside the scene of the bloodbath. Image via AP.

As it turned out, the child protective investigator assigned to the case, George Shahood, was himself facing pending domestic violence charges after being on the job just five months. State records show Shahood did not speak with any neighbors or anyone outside the Whyte-Dell house. He recommended Whyte-Dell or her children call 911 “should any further incidents occur.”

Shahood was later fired, but DCF “failed to perform any secondary review or reinvestigation after the investigator’s pending domestic violence charges were made public,” the bill says.

DCF is the subject of another claims bill filed for the 2024 Legislative Session that would authorize $20 million in state funds to pay for the care of a boy who suffered severe brain damage after overdosing on his mother’s methadone.

As was the case with Dell, DCF received abuse hotline complaints about the mother, whom DCF licensed as a foster parent, but did not act to protect the child.

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

Both complaints alleged DCF breached multiple, nondelegable duties and failed to protect 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.

Years of legal proceedings followed before the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in October 2018 that the murders of Whyte-Dell’s children represented “a single claim of negligence against (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 put DCF on the line for far more.

The case ultimately reached the Florida Supreme Court, which unanimously upheld the lower court’s decision on Sept. 24, 2020. 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 survivors and families of the 2018 Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School whose compensation claims involving 17 people killed and 17 wounded hinged on the Whyte-Dell matter.

That proved impermanent. 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. Three months later, the U.S. Department of Justice agreed to a $127.5 million settlement with the victims and their families after the lodged 40 civil cases alleging the Federal Bureau of Investigation acted negligently by declining to act on tips that could have prevented the massacre.

Calatayud’s sponsorship of SB 16 follows prior legislative attempts by Indian Rocks Republican Sen. Nick DiCeglie, who tried twice to deliver relief to the Barnett father and son for what he called a “tragic” lapse in responsibility on the part of DCF.

DiCeglie’s bill last Session, SB 90 died without a single hearing. Its House analogue (HB 6009) by Republican Rep. Wyman Duggan of Jacksonville fared slightly better, advancing through one of three committees to which it was assigned before losing traction.

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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