LAKE PLACID — A non-emergency call to the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office on Feb. 9 from a councilwoman sheds light on harassment claims between an elected official and the Lake Placid Police Department.
The incident also brought to light other accusations made by Councilwoman Debra Worley against police. In response to a public records request from the Highlands News-Sun under the Freedom of Information Act, Town Administrator Phil Williams said an internal affairs investigation has shown those accusations to be false.
Williams, former LPPD chief of police, conducted the months-long investigation that began February. Information was not available while the departmental investigation was in progress. In his role as town administrator, Williams said he will continue to supervise the police department and any further concerns that arise, as he would for any other town department.
At 7:35 a.m. Feb. 9, a call came in to Central Dispatch. The female caller told the dispatcher her call was not an emergency. She reported she lived next door to “the college” [South Florida State College satellite campus at 500 E. Interlake Blvd.] and that there was a door open on the west side of the building. She told the dispatcher she was unaware of how it became open because it was closed when she went to bed the night before.
The caller also said she noticed the door open at about 3:30 a.m. after she was awakened by her cat. The dispatcher told the caller not to wait hours after an incident in case someone was in the facility.
The caller did not identify herself but did say she resides at 380 E. Interlake Blvd. According to the Highlands County Tax Appraiser’s website, the property is owned by “Worley Debra Ann Trust.” Town Clerk Eva Cooper Hapeman reports Worley’s official residence as 380 E. Interlake Blvd.
“What’s your last name?” the dispatcher asked.
“I don’t want them — I don’t want the Lake Placid Police Department on my property; they are harassing me,” the caller replied. “That’s one of the reasons I didn’t call. Because I don’t want them to come. I’d rather have the Sheriff’s Office come. I was told that I can call the Sheriff’s Office and they will come instead of the Lake Placid Police Department.”
The caller refused to give her name to the dispatcher because of her belief Lake Placid Police would arrive. The dispatcher assured the caller they did not have her information, so no one would know it was her who called. The unredacted non-emergency transcript details the caller giving an address of 380 E. Interlake Blvd.
“They’ll come because I live next door and they always come on my property. And I don’t want them on my property,” the caller said.
An email from Lake Placid Police Chief James Fansler to Town Administrator Phil Williams, dated Feb. 9 at 2:02 p.m., identified Worley as the caller. The email states Highlands County Sheriff’s Deputy Paul Bogart responded to the scene.“Worley walked out the door and met him [Bogart],” Fansler’s email states. The email also states Bogart learned Worley was the caller and she allegedly told the deputy she did not want Lake Placid Police on her property. She also allegedly told Bogart she did not trust LPPD and she was being harassed by them.
In that same email, Fansler asks Williams to conduct an internal affairs investigation of Lake Placid Police Department officers and himself in light of Worley’s accusations.
Fansler said he heard about Worley’s call for help after the incident. “I was made aware the same day after the responding deputy informed my officer,” he said. “The officer in turn, contacted me. I have heard it [the call].”
Regarding whether or not the harassment charges were true, Fansler said, “Absolutely not.”
“We have a deep respect for our town government officials,” he said. “We are in the business of serving and protecting. I would not tolerate any of my officers harassing anyone for any reason. We operate a professional law enforcement agency; one that is well respected in our community.”
Highlands News-Sun reached out to Worley multiple times for comment. She ultimately declined to comment.
Past experiences causing trust issues?
“There is a lot of ongoing concerns and I think it starts with the arrest of Debbie’s son [Andrew Elliott Worley]. It started with that in that time period,” Williams said.
Andrew Worley was arrested on April 2 and 17 of 2018. Those arrests resulted in grand theft charges relating to reported burglaries at Debra Worley’s residence. Around that time, Williams said Debra Worley allegedly told him she was concerned about the LPPD officers not trying to get her stolen property back.
In a separate instance, a real estate business tax delinquency notification was allegedly sent to Debra Worley’s house/business. Lake Placid Police collects business taxes and turns payments over to the town. Worley allegedly told LPPD she sent them the check but she could not find the canceled check. According to the Highlands County Tax Collector’s website, taxes for properties owned by Worley [as Worley Debra Ann Realty Inc. and Worley Debra Ann Trust] have been paid as of April 22.
According to Williams, Worley was trying to sell property close to 401 S. Oak Ave. and thought it was in disrepair. He said she had a problem with the residence, where a mechanic lives, because she felt it would impede her ability to sell her nearby property.
Williams said Code Enforcement officers were not doing enough to clean up dilapidated properties or follow up on permit violations. In an April interview, he said code enforcement issues in the town have improved.
Williams said around the time of the code enforcement complaints is when things allegedly started happening to Worley, like sugar allegedly being put into her car’s gas tank.
On April 2, Officer Nicholas McGehee took a report from Worley, whose car had broken down and had to be towed. Alan Jay Toyota Manager Phillip Auble reportedly alerted Worley that sugar was found in her gas tank and fuel lines.
“It has cost me $1,000 of insurance recovery,” Worley said in an email statement to Williams dated Feb. 14.
“Which, because of the police situation, Debbie makes a statement ‘the police put sugar in my gas tank.’ Now, she said she didn’t say it but she said it in front of me and Joey Barber (town utilities director),” Williams said. “She said, ‘I didn’t mean it that way.’ I said ‘well, that’s what you said.’”
Auble told law enforcement he was familiar with the tactic.
McGehee took the report from Worley at Alan Jay Toyota where she allegedly said a neighbor she is having problems with, who is a mechanic, may have done it. She allegedly could not remember the mechanic’s name, but gave the officer times and dates when the crime may have occurred.
A latent palm print was found on the car by McGehee and was taken for evidence. His report states the palm print would be run in the fingerprint database AFIS. McGehee did not run the unknown palm print through AFIS because he needed elimination prints for comparison.
Worley was asked to provide her finger and palm prints in order to eliminate her prints from consideration. She claims she had Beverly Hunt, LPPD property and evidence manager, take the elimination prints. Hunt has no recollection of ever taking fingerprints from Worley, according to Fansler. Eventually, Williams explained, he took Worley’s finger and palm prints in his office himself as he is a fingerprint expert.
In February, Lake Placid Police Detective Sgt. Stuart Troutman was asked by Fansler to review the unknown palm print. Officials took the print to Highlands County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jeff Fennell, who assisted police with running the palm print through the Biometric Identification System (BIS). Fansler admits this should have been done sooner.
“At the time we initially investigated this case, a palm print was lifted near the fuel door, however we had no suspect. Yes, we should have started by obtaining the mechanic’s (one performing the work on the vehicle prior to the sugar being found in the gas tank) prints for elimination,” he said.
On March 13, a follow up with Fennell revealed no hits were found on the palm print and “no suspect could be identified without comparison prints,” Troutman’s report states.
“At the beginning of the investigation, we made a request for Councilwoman Worley’s prints for elimination as well, however, until recently, they had not been made available to us,” Fansler said. “They have since been compared to the questioned print and determined not to belong to Councilwoman Worley.”
Highlands News-Sun asked Fansler point blank if he or his officers put sugar in Worley’s tank.
“Unequivocally no,” he said. “I trust the character and integrity of each of my officers.”
“There’s nothing that supports the Lake Placid Police Department had any involvement whatsoever to her vehicle,” Williams said.
“As police chief I would encourage anyone who feels they cannot trust, or feel they have been harassed by a LPPD officer(s) to contact me immediately, or if I am the subject believed to be harassing, [contact] Phil Williams (Town Administrator),” Fansler said. “Neither of us will tolerate mistreatment or misconduct. A council member, or anyone for that matter, who has trust issues with any department should immediately contact town administration.”
As of 2 p.m. Monday, Williams said the case regarding Worley’s car has been closed because of lack of evidence.