Hendry Sheriff’s Workplace employed a deputy who was fired for interfering in custody case

An officer fired from a previous agency and hired by Hendry County’s Sheriff Steve Whidden was reprimanded by her former employer for attempting to influence a custody case involving the daughter of Assistant Chief Kevin Nelson , the second highest alternate, personnel and judicial files for the agency Show.

The Sheriff’s Office hired Allison Bennett, a former Child and Family Investigator and family friend of Nelson, in 2014 after DCF investigated her for intervening in the custody case.

DCF’s personnel files indicate that the agency fired Bennett after discovering they had called a child protection team and contacted an assistant prosecutor in November 2013 over allegations of abuse against Nelson’s former son-in-law, who she worked for, in Lee County Sheriff’s Office.

According to personnel records, DCF knew that Bennett, who was on vacation at the time and had just graduated from police college, was targeting a position in the Hendry County Sheriff’s office because she had previously conducted an employment check.

“You have negligently engaged in an open investigation and interviewed the children of personal friends,” wrote Michael Carroll, DCF’s regional managing director, in Bennett’s resignation letter, received at the request of public records. “You acted in a way that aroused your personal interest in a position with the Hendry County Sheriff.”

MPs also noted that the Sheriff’s Office bypassed the normal hiring process for Bennett by allowing her to forego a polygraph and psychological assessment, as evidenced by the lack of records on her personnel file.

“I (Nelson) spoke to her about it,” said the former Lt. Leonard Richardson in an interview. “He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Everyone takes a poly and psyche.’ I knew she didn’t because I was running the program (Field Training Officer) and she confessed that she hadn’t either. “

Capt. Susan Harrelle is named in a recent lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office accusing her of unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution.Hendry County Sheriff’s Office

In her final years at DCF, performance issues have haunted Bennett with her ratings never higher than 3.1 on a scale of 5, and managers found she needed to improve several times, as her DCF personnel file showed. The Sheriff’s Office fired Bennett months after she was hired after failing on-site training.

Meddling in the custody case didn’t end with Bennett. Hendry County Judge James Sloan found in a 2016 court order that Capt. Susan Harrelle, another Whidden employee, was caught in court giving notes to Nelson’s daughter and Nelson mailing letters to then-Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott to get his former son-in-law fired. Other MPs tried to work on the case even though it was outside of their jurisdiction. The sheriff’s legal advisor also represented Nelson’s daughter in court.

Before Whidden hired her, Harrelle was the president of a freight company she and her husband owned, which court and company records said had illegally obtained resources from the town of Belle Glade. Her husband, Lomax Harrelle, was the city administrator at the time. Although Susan Harrelle was not charged, her husband pleaded guilty to official misconduct for using the city’s resources for personal ends, court records show.

Sloan set up the custody exchange point outside of Hendry County, citing Nelson’s “well-founded and legitimate fear of venturing into Hendry County because the woman’s father is the chief MP for the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office.”

“This kind of interference does nothing to advance the interests of their children’s parties and needs to stop,” wrote Sloan, who cautioned the sheriff’s office.

After Nelson’s son-in-law filed a complaint against Nelson, the Sheriff’s Office conducted an internal investigation, but exonerated him.

Questions to Nelson and Harrelle at the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office were not returned. Calls to Bennett and questions to an email address provided for her were not returned.

Connect with reporter Devan Patel: @DevanJPatel (Twitter) or [email protected]

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