Tuesday, May 22, 2018
News Roundup

Woman says Tampa domestic violence shelter put secrecy before safety when her child was molested

TAMPA — A year after her husband punched her in the face, Taneka Rodman called the police again. This time, she told them, he dragged her to the ground by her neck. This time, she'd had enough.

The 36-year-old mother packed her five kids into their van and drove to the only place they had left to go: the Spring of Tampa Bay, a shelter for domestic violence victims guarded by barbed wire and security cameras. Here, they would finally be safe. Or so she thought.

Four weeks into their stay in late 2014, Rodman's 5-year-old daughter went missing inside the shelter. After a frantic search, a worker found her in a locked bathroom, alone with another resident.

Acting on instinct, Rodman herded her kids back into the van and searched for words a kindergartner might understand.

"Do you want me to beat her up?" Rodman asked, studying the girl's face in the rearview. She had never seen her youngest so dazed.

"Yes," the child said.

"Okay, but you're going to have to tell me: What would you want me to beat her up for?"

This is how it began to come together, each answer a puzzle piece, adding up to a sickening picture drawn by the little girl: The woman had taken her into the bathroom, pulled the girl onto her lap and violated her with her hands.

Rodman called police and demanded action.

She expected a thorough investigation.

She expected the shelter to cooperate.

She was wrong.

• • •

Founded in 1977, the Spring of Tampa Bay is the only place in Hillsborough County specially equipped to take in abuse victims with no money or safe place to go.

Its 128-bed emergency shelter is a temporary home to an average of 1,200 people each year. Many are in fear for their lives. Half are children.

The shelter provides advocates, lawyers and an on-site elementary school so children don't have to leave the secure facility.

The charity that runs the shelter is among the most esteemed in Tampa, a $4 million nonprofit that received almost half of its revenue from tax dollars in 2014.

Much of the rest comes from private donors and fundraising parties. Two weeks ago, the wives of the Tampa Bay Lightning hosted a fashion show and auction, in which hand-picked attendees showered the charity with $100,000 for eight experiences with the hockey players — $10,000 for bowling, $15,000 for pizza and video games, $20,000 for a game of golf.

Among its supporters, the Spring counts local celebrities and leaders in business and government. Its advisers include Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober, Tampa City Council member Yolie Capin and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

"I only have great things to say about the work of the Spring in our community," said advisory council member and Plant City businesswoman Yvonne Fry. "The legacy and programs of the Spring are an incredible asset in our county and the current board and staff has my full faith."

"Whatever you write, I hope that you will go easy on the Spring," Gene McNichols, another advisory council member, told a Tampa Bay Times reporter. "Because they really do important things for this community."

• • •

Just before Thanksgiving, after three weeks at the Spring, Rodman noticed a new resident. She seemed lonely.

The woman lingered near the family's room and seemed to follow them at dinner time. Rodman had a soft-spot for loners; her 5-year-old had trouble with bullies. She invited the woman to sit with them. Akilah Wimbley, 33, seemed nice enough.

When Wimbley began to take an interest in the girl, giving her small gifts and offering to buy her shoes, the mother was only relieved. Someone was being nice to her daughter.

Rodman trusted Wimbley to watch her kids one day when she needed to go to the store. The Spring requires parents to sign a "babysitting agreement" to leave them with another resident. The women signed one of those forms.

What no one knew: Wimbley was a felon with a violent past.

Ten years ago, she threatened to kill her ex-boyfriend's family and burn down his house. Police found her on his block with a knife. She pleaded guilty to aggravated stalking.

The next year, she beat her mother and went to jail, where she hurt a couple of deputies as they tried to uncuff her. Authorities transferred her to a mental health center, where her doctor said she had "severe delusional fantasies."

In 2009, she called 911 during a dispute with her brother, who told Wimbley not to beat her 4-year-old son with a shoe. She told deputies he held a knife to the boy's throat, an allegation the boy denied.

"She told me to tell you that my uncle had a knife," the boy told deputies when they arrived. "But he didn't."

The next year, deputies accused Wimbley of child abuse after they found multiple injuries on her young daughter, including a 3-inch open wound on her thigh. Police said she burned the girl with scalding water as punishment for messing her diaper.

Wimbley pleaded guilty to child neglect and was still on probation when she entered the Spring.

Rodman didn't know any of that on Dec. 1, 2014.

She was in bed that day feeling sick and thought her 5-year-old was in the computer room with her brothers. One of the boys came to rouse her, and they couldn't find the girl.

She wasn't in the lobby. She wasn't on the playground. The mother tried not to panic as she and a shelter worker, Susan Potier, searched. Potier wound up in Wimbley's room in the wing for women without children.

"Taneka, come!" Potier called.

From the hall, Rodman saw Wimbley poke her head out of the room: "We're not doing anything."

In a later statement to police, Potier told officers that Wimbley said the following:

Her mother gave me the child to have. She put it in writing. She is mine now.

But when police spoke to Wimbley two hours later, she said she wasn't with the girl.

She didn't even know her.

• • •

The Spring takes every precaution to guard against dangers outside its walls. But like many domestic violence shelters across the country, it does not perform background checks on the victims who come seeking shelter.

Florida's 42 accredited domestic violence shelters are barred from doing so by the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which certifies and distributes public funds to each facility.

"To require such screening could deter survivors of domestic violence from seeking shelter when they are in danger and need to leave the abuser to protect themselves and their children," said coalition spokeswoman Leisa Wiseman. "Survivors need to be encouraged to seek shelter services, and should not face additional barriers when fleeing the abuse."

That's different from some homeless shelters that take in children. Tampa's Metropolitan Ministries checks clients' backgrounds. The Salvation Army and the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida run them through a sex offender database.

"A very big concern here is making sure kids are safe," said Muffet Robinson, spokeswoman for the Orlando homeless coalition.

When Nikki Daniels ran the Family Justice Center in Tampa — which helped connect domestic violence victims and others to services — officials there conducted background checks on people who came into the building. A criminal history alone didn't exclude someone from getting help, and Daniels said it didn't deter victims from seeking it.

"It made them feel safer," Daniels said.

Police reports show a handful of instances in which women at the Spring have fought over shared bathrooms or missing belongings or what was on the communal TV. In one case in 2014, a woman on felony probation was accused of hitting a 9-year-old girl in the face.

The Spring's chief executive officer Mindy Murphy would not sit down with the Times for an interview nor would she allow reporters to visit the shelter. She answered questions in a brief email that did not address how the shelter handled the molestation allegations or whether the Spring made any policy changes after the incident. She also refused to answer general questions about the shelter's safety protocols.

"While victims of domestic violence live in our shelter, they are responsible for the supervision of their children," she wrote.

• • •

The evening of Dec. 1, 2014, Rodman didn't think much about what kind of history Wimbley might have. She just wanted her thrown in jail.

But it wasn't that simple.

Two Tampa police officers arrived at the Spring. The child told them Wimbley molested her. But Wimbley denied knowing the girl and said she arrived at the shelter the previous day.

The officers had paperwork, including the babysitting agreement, refuting both of those claims. When pressed by police, Wimbley backtracked.

"Wimbley could not give a valid reason," Officer Jason Brown wrote, "only to say that she never said she didn't know them."

Potier, the shelter worker, told police that two of Wimbley's roommates saw her take the girl into the locked bathroom where they remained for "a long time." Officers asked for these women's names, but Potier refused.

"I was advised by Potier that she would give them our number to contact us," Brown wrote.

With nothing else to go on, the officers decided they couldn't make an arrest. The Spring kicked Wimbley out.

Unsatisfied, Rodman showed up at the police district headquarters that night, demanding answers.

"I spent almost 45 minutes with her," Sgt. Gary Neal wrote in a report. "She was emotional at times, tearing up despite all assurances that the abuse investigation was being thoroughly investigated."

Rodman cried herself to sleep that night.

The next day, she called 911, hoping a different officer would show up at the Spring.

But it was the same sergeant, Neal.

Neal wrote that Rodman "lost control, flailing her arm and screaming, this is the devil, the devil is present."

Neal told her to calm down and called for backup. Potier, the shelter advocate, told him she felt threatened earlier when Rodman had pounded on her door. The officer decided to take Rodman into custody under the Baker Act.

As they loaded her into the patrol car, for transport to a local psychiatric ward, Rodman watched her disabled 14-year-old son cry out, "I want my momma."

At Gracepoint, a mental health facility, a counselor assessed her within two hours of her arrival, according to her medical record.

Rodman seemed down and anxious, but acted appropriately.

A doctor concluded she didn't need to be there.

• • •

The way the shelter handled this case isn't unusual.

Staff at domestic violence shelters are trained to protect the identities of everyone inside.

Under Florida law, there are supposed to be exceptions to the secrecy. Shelter officials must turn over names in a medical emergency or if police have an arrest or search warrant.

The secrecy law also allows shelters to give police information that is directly related to a crime that happened inside.

And yet, Tampa police reports from the past five years show that Spring officials refused to provide information in more than a dozen cases involving crime at the shelter.

In one case, a woman suspected her roommate had poured bleach all over her clothes after making threats. She didn't know the woman's last name. The shelter wouldn't give it to police.

The same happened when a woman alleged a new roommate fondled her against her will.

The Spring withheld identities or access in 11 theft cases, including one in which a woman had money stolen from her locker. In that instance, Officer William Fair asked to see the locker.

"The staff member advised me that I could not come into the secure portion of the building due to the privacy of the residents staying there," he wrote.

Officer Matthew Drumsta heard the same in February 2015, when he wrote: "The staff member stated that offenses like this happen all the time and per policy, they tell the victims to make a report."

In one case, a detective following up on a report of a stolen watch called the only phone number he had for a victim, which belonged to the shelter.

"(They) refused to cooperate with me," wrote Detective Gary Filippone. "They would not let me speak to anyone. I asked if I could respond with my proper credentials, and she stated they would not . . . cooperate with the investigation."

Pressed for time and facing resistance to getting basic information, officers sometimes drop investigations.

Murphy said that in the three years she has led the Spring, her staff has followed the law and not impeded any investigation. "If a resident reports a crime is occurring or has occurred at the shelter, we call law enforcement to investigate," she said.

After the Times began asking questions about how the Spring was handling criminal investigations, Tampa police said they approached shelter officials about the issue.

Spring officials agreed to provide pertinent information when police investigate crimes on shelter property, including the names of suspects and witnesses, a police spokeswoman said.

• • •

Back when Spring officials refused to help police investigate Rodman's daughter's abuse case, Tampa detectives moved slowly during their investigation.

It took them 18 days to get the girl in front of a special "forensic" interviewer trained to make children feel comfortable and elicit testimony that would stand up in court. Experts say these interviews should happen as quickly as possible to make sure a child's memories aren't muddled by time and outside influence.

Meanwhile, records show that detectives never spoke to the two witnesses who saw Wimbley take the girl into a bathroom. One died in her bunk with cocaine in her system nine days after the incident. They never reached out to the second witness, who told the Times she heard Wimbley curse and make gang references.

The woman told the Times she is still willing to speak with detectives. But police said they needed to speak to someone who saw what happened inside the bathroom.

"Child abuse cases are hard to corroborate," said Lt. Ruth Cate, who supervised the detective on the case. "We want a conviction. That's a bottom line. If the child can't tell us enough, we're done."

The state's Department of Children and Families conducted its own investigation in January 2015 and "verified" that Wimbley molested the girl. These documents are not public record, but Rodman obtained them and showed them to Times reporters. A DCF investigator wrote that there is "concern" Wimbley could have abused other children at the shelter.

In the last efforts of the police investigation, Detective Miguel Caballero spent months in a game of phone tag with Wimbley. He never managed to reach her for a follow-up interview.

In February, the Times left a letter for Wimbley at the address on file with the police. Two days later she called.

In two separate phone interviews, Wimbley said she was blamed because of "racism," even though she, Rodman and the child are black. She repeated what she told police, that she didn't know the girl or her family.

She said she would not speak again unless the Times could get President Barack Obama and the first lady on the phone at the same time — "Michelle and Barack."

• • •

Justice is a strange thing.

On the morning of May 12, 2015, Rodman was unemployed as she trained to become a medical assistant. She was short on cash and short on food, and she didn't want her children to be hungry at school.

So she stepped into a Seminole Heights Circle K with her kids, who helped her slip food into her purse — a couple of soda cans, chips, peanuts, beef jerky and gum.

"I understand it's a crime," she said. "I panicked."

This time, Tampa police detectives didn't give up so easily.

The case stretched on for seven months.

Police reviewed surveillance footage to pick out her license plate and then tracked down her husband — the reason she went to the Spring.

He wasn't home, but two of his relatives identified her as the shoplifter in the video.

Three days before Christmas, prosecutors filed charges of theft and contributing to the delinquency of minors, her children.

On Monday, Rodman will turn herself in at the Orient Road Jail.

She pleaded no contest in exchange for a reduced sentence, and will spend 30 days behind bars.

Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected], Anthony Cormier at [email protected] and Alexandra Zayas at [email protected]

 
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