Records show Fort Myers officer failed domestic violence survivor

Reporter: Peter Fleischer
Published: Updated:

On January 2, 2022, a woman called 911. She connected with the Fort Myers Police Department. The woman claimed she’d been strangled and held captive for 10 hours by a boyfriend who’d been violent in the past. A man who she also knew to have a firearm.

The victim, who spoke with WINK News on the condition of anonymity, described the horrible night.

“He ended up strangling me. Like he, everything was face blows, every hit to my face,” the victim recounted. “He strangled me to the point where I was losing consciousness.”

She also explained how she was able to escape, “I literally ran for my life. Like, I opened the door… My keys were right there and I just booked it.”

CEO of the Shelter for Abused Women and Children, Linda Oberhaus, read a report summarizing the event.

“My initial reaction was that the victim was not alive. So, that was really the scariest part,” Oberhaus admitted. “This victim was absolutely put in harm’s way.”

Fort Myers Police Officer Kendall Schaefer.

Fort Myers Police Officer Kendall Schaefer responded to the 911 call, meeting the victim at a safe location.

A transcript of Schaefer’s body camera footage shows Schaefer’s mistakes began almost immediately. After the victim details her abuse, Schaefer incorrectly tells the victim numerous times, “it’s up to you if you want to press charges.”

“I was surprised to see that the law enforcement officer did not go to the home,” Oberhaus lamented. “She said the abuse occurred there, she was strangled there, she was held against her will for 10 hours, there was a firearm in the house, and still the officer did not go to the scene.”

After talking for over an hour, Schaefer left the victim in her pajamas after taking pictures of her hands and neck. She suggested the victim take pictures of her home when she went back, but did nothing to make sure the victim would be *safe* at that home.

“There was nothing. She just had a stiff, callous, cold look to her,” the victim said. “The police made me feel like this was futile. It’s not going to go anywhere and I need to handle it all by myself.”

“She’d reached out to law enforcement. She didn’t get the help she needed,” Oberhaus explained. “He wasn’t held accountable. He was out there on the streets and she’s lucky to be alive.”

The victim told WINK News her nightmare didn’t stop there. One month later, in early February, she returned to her apartment after walking her dogs. What happened next is out of a horror movie.

“I hit something. He was hiding behind my bathroom door,” the victim remembered. “He’s like, you’re scared, aren’t you? He was very aggressive. He threw me down on the bed.”

She says she bought herself time and eventually got away from her abuser again.

“I went straight to the police department,” she said.

She ended up getting a restraining order against him, but that still didn’t stop the problem. Court records show, later that month, he broke into her car while she was out with friends, stealing shoes she once bought for him. Finally, after a third terrifying incident, law enforcement acted.

“He ended up getting arrested for that, he got taken to jail,” the victim said.

Court documents show the suspect was arrested for burglary and petty theft for which he got six months of probation. But it caused a state attorney to review the body camera footage from the victim’s initial incident with Officer Schaefer. That case is still making its way through court.

“She (the state attorney) was appalled,” the victim admits. “She told me to contact Officer Schaefer and have her amend the statement.”

Exactly two months after the first time she called 911, the victim filed a complaint with the Fort Myers Police Department against Officer Schaefer. She says the department eventually connected her to Schaefer for a phone call, but she was shocked at the officer’s demeanor.

“She was so arrogant,” the victim described. “She was so smug… If (the state attorney’s office) have a problem with my report, they can adjust it themselves and hung up on me,” the victim remembered Schaefer saying. “I was like, wow.”

That quote from Schaefer is confirmed in the Fort Myers Police Department’s review of the incident.

The complaint sparked an investigation from FMPD’s internal affairs commander Lesa Breneman.

“I’m not sure in this incident that we did a good job,” Brenneman admitted. “I went right to the body camera video. And upon watching the video, I believed that the complaint that came to my desk, there was some validity to it. There were some policy violations.”

The Fort Myers Police Department acted quickly. Court records show the suspect in this case was arrested just two days later, charged with battery and false imprisonment for the night the victim had endured two months prior. It’s still a night she’ll never forget.

“I just kept thinking, my son’s never going to see me again. He’s never going to hear from me again,” the victim recalled, thinking of her worst fears. “This is how I die.”

Oberhaus laments the situation the victim was put into.

“It’s a little scary knowing that there might be officers on the street that are doing a disservice to victims,” Oberhaus said. “Actually putting (victims) in harm’s way.”

Breneman investigated Schaefer’s actions. Fort Myers Police top brass reviewed the facts and came down with discipline. Schaefer was given a 24-hour unpaid suspension, counseling and retraining. That discipline was reviewed and approved by the Fort Myers Police Citizen’s Review board less than three months ago.

But Officer Schaefer was allowed to keep her job.

“It’s upsetting. It’s upsetting because you know, negligence obviously carries a lot of consequences in every field,” the victim in this case discussed. “If I was negligent at my job, I would get prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

WINK News pressed Breneman about how an officer could keep their job after endangering the life of a citizen.

Breneman stated, “We can see the big picture in what could have happened. Her discipline goes to show that this is not acceptable when we have a domestic violence victim. It has to be taken seriously.”

WINK News Investigative Reporter Peter Fleischer: “It’s challenging for me when you say something’s not acceptable and yet she’s still allowed to keep her job.”

Breneman replied, “The discipline decision rests solely with the chief of police… That was the decision that he made.”

FMPD paperwork shows interim Chief Randal Pepitone signed off on Officer Schaefer’s punishment late last August, nearly 8 months after the initial 911 call took place.

Outside of WINK News interviewing Breneman, the last time the Fort Myers Police Department discussed this case publicly was at the Police Citizen’s Review Board meeting in December. That’s when Schaefer’s discipline came up on the agenda, before it was ultimately approved by the board.

“This could have ended tragically,” Breneman told the review board, explaining Schaefer’s mistakes. “There’s a lot of would’ve, should’ve, would’ve, could’ve.”

The victim remembers how she felt after her first interaction with the Fort Myers Police.

“I felt hopeless and I was scared. I didn’t know where to go,” she said. “You tend to feel like there’s no resources. There’s no hope for you.”

The review board is a group of community leaders nominated by city council members. Their role is to oversee police work, and if an officer violates policy, the board can push for a harsher penalty.

Steven Brown is a member of the review board who approved Schaefer’s punishment.

“We’re the voice of the people here. But police officers are people too,” said Brown. “We have to look at it from their perspectives.”

Brown says empathy is crucial, also noting the review board heavily weighs the final recommended action that Fort Myers Police Department brass provides.

“The decision has to be what we think is best for the community and the police force,” Brown explained. “I would guess 99 times out of 100, we’re following internal affairs. The chain of command, basically.”

The victim in the case reacted to the board approving Schaefer’s punishment by saying, “It’s so disturbing. It’s so frustrating. It’s upsetting but it’s more disturbing that Fort Myers Police would keep a person like this employed.”

“The whole point is to keep victim’s safe and to hold abusers accountable for their crimes,” Oberhaus pointed out. “The abuser should have been arrested (immediately)! This was a felony domestic violence case. He should have been arrested.”

According to Breneman, FMPD does use progressive discipline, meaning past record affects any punishment officers receive now.

“Their prior disciplinary history is included in the case file when it is forwarded to the chief of police,” said Breneman.

WINK News uncovered Schaefer’s disciplinary file and found a long list of issues since she joined the department in 2015.

In July 2018, Schaefer “failed to respond appropriately during a critical situation in an officer-involved shooting.”

In October 2021, she called out sick and then posted a picture of herself at a wedding.

In October 2017, she “failed to locate a handgun on an arrestee before placing him in a patrol vehicle.”

Those are just a few of the issues she has had. Officer Schaefer has about a dozen disciplinary actions in total, some of which created major safety issues.

The Fort Myers Police Department still defends its decisions.

“I’m not going to make excuses. Officers make mistakes,” said Breneman. “You talk about, why does this officer have her job? She’s human. She made a mistake.”

Retraining is a large part of FMPD’s disciplinary process. WINK News compiled data from records provided by the department and found retraining has been mandated 38 times in the last five years. The idea is that officers can still improve even after crucial mistakes.

“Discipline, retraining, counseling, reprimand was all given to Officer Schaefer in the hopes that we can correct her future behavior,” explained Breneman.

“Some of these officers are making instantaneous decisions. Those decisions might not be perfect to policy,” Brown added. “So, what we love is that the Fort Myers Police Department continues to re-train.”

Schaefer has already been mandated retraining at least twice before: Once for the loaded handgun she failed to discover and another for using profane language in the field.

“Yes, she has had retraining in the past, but they’ve been for different issues,” Breneman pointed out. “She’s had to be retrained, but it hasn’t been on the same issue.”

But in a life-or-death situation, like this type of domestic violence case, officers might not get a second chance.

“She had so many complaints against her and there’s no like, when is enough enough,” the victim in this case vented. “When is it enough to say this person is just not enough to their job?”

The victim left Florida shortly after her nightmare experience, but hopes to shine a light that will help others in the future.

“It’s a complaint that gets put in a folder and forgotten about,” she said. “And you’re allowed to have 12 of them? To me, it’s disturbing.”

The Fort Myers Police Department tells WINK News, its policies are still consistent with best practices nationwide. The department is also hiring a detective specifically for domestic violence cases.

If you or a loved one is in need of domestic violence resources, there are organizations offering aid throughout Southwest Florida.  

Lee County domestic violence resources via ACT (Abuse Counseling and Treatment, Inc.).

Collier County domestic violence resources via The Shelter For Abused Women and Children.

Charlotte County domestic violence resources via CARE (The Center for Abuse and Rape Emergencies).

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