Second sexual assault claim surfaces in Bridges case
CEO suspended as family files suit
ROCKLEDGE, Fla. – The lawyer for a woman police said was impregnated by her caregiver told reporters Friday that a second woman with disabilities from the same group home has claimed she was sexually assaulted and been interviewed by police, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
According to attorney Kevin C. Smith, of the law firm Lytal, Reiter, Smith, Ivey and Fronrath, the 33-year-old woman told police she was sexually assaulted by Willie Shorter, the same man accused of fathering a child with a woman under his care at a group home in Rockledge.
Shorter, 58, was arrested Feb. 6 after police said he fathered a child with Dawn Blanchard, now 43, a woman with developmental disabilities who lives at the home where Shorter worked as a caregiver. Shorter was charged with lewd and lascivious battery in that case.
As of Friday, court and jail records showed he has not been charged with any additional crimes.
Spokespeople for the Rockledge Police Department did not immediately return calls Friday evening.
The family of the second woman alerted police after learning of the other allegations against Shorter earlier this week, Smith said. The latest alleged abuse happened in the same group home, Smith said.
"It happened within the last couple of years," said Smith, adding that he was preparing a second civil lawsuit against Bridges and Shorter on behalf of the second woman sometime next week.
Bridges CEO suspended
The news of a second victim comes as Bridges announced Friday the immediate suspension of president and CEO David Cooke, citing "grave concerns about lapses in leadership" in the handling of the incident.
The nonprofit said in a news release its board of directors had unanimously voted to suspend Cooke, who led the organization for more than 10 years.
Chairwoman Susan Stokes Elmore blamed Cooke for keeping Shorter on staff despite his possible involvement in the woman's pregnancy, and said he and Bridges' administration had intentionally withheld information from the board.
Shorter was one of three men investigated by police in 2015, although there was not enough evidence to file charges at the time.
Cooke did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
“Our overarching priority, each and every day, is the safety and well-being of all of the wonderful individuals in our care. We were shocked to learn that something so terrible could occur involving one of our residents," Elmore said in a prepared statement.
The board has retained a legal team to conduct a thorough review of the case, she said. A panel of outside experts will review Bridge's policies and procedures and develop "additional safeguards to ensure that an incident like this could never happen again," she said.
“The Board of Directors embraces its solemn responsibility and duty ... to act promptly to address the alarming events that led to the arrest of a former staff member," Elmore added. "We wish to assure the public that ... we are acting decisively to respond to the situation and to correct any gaps that may have allowed it to happen."
Vice President Lynn Hudson will serve as interim director. Day-to-day operations will not be affected, said spokesman Jon Peck, with the Sachs Media Group in Tallahassee.
According to the group's website, Bridges provides residential services for over 50 clients across three group homes and serves over 350 other individuals through its various programs around Brevard County.
Family plans to sue
On Thursday, Blanchard's family filed a lawsuit against Bridges and Shorter in Brevard County circuit court.
Among charges of negligence, the lawsuit also alleges Shorter had physically assaulted Blanchard. At a news conference Monday, Smith said Blanchard had suffered several physical injuries at the home, including a black eye on at least one occasion.
The allegations against Bridges, noted in the Blanchards' lawsuit, include:
Negligent hiring, supervision and and retention of Shorter;
Failing to care for and protect Blanchard;
Failed to protect Blanchard's rights as a person with developmental disabilities.
Against Shorter, the allegations include:
Engaging in sexual activity and sexual misconduct with Blanchard;
Sexually assaulting Blanchard;
Physically assaulting Blanchard;
Intentionally inflicting emotional distress.
The Blanchards are suing for at least $15,000 in damages.
Cooke said Shorter had been allowed to continue working with Blanchard and 12 others in the home for three years after police began investigating Blanchard's pregnancy in January 2015. Blanchard complained in April 2018 that Shorter had been inappropriately touching her.
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