HOLY. AUGUSTINE, Fla. – Julia “Jenny” Perez says her life was ruined by a sheriff’s deputy who crashed his cruiser into her motorcycle and was found to be at fault. Her lawsuit has dragged on in the courts for years.
Now a desperate Perez — unable to work, homeless and in need of round-the-clock medical care — is trying a new approach to seeking the accountability and compensation she says she deserves.
“My body is broken and I don’t have money to take care of my body,” Perez said in an interview from her apartment just before she was evicted.
Perez, 54, sued the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office. Johns in a case that has dragged on since March 2020, but is now seeking relief outside the courts. In Florida’s upcoming 2023 legislative session in Tallahassee, Republican Sen. Jennifer Bradley of Orange Park is sponsoring a bill that could give Perez up to $15 million if it passes.
Perez rode her Harley Davidson Heritage Classic in April 2019 with her then-fiance Thomas Eiland, who was riding his own bike, in St. Augustine, when a St. Augustine County sheriff’s deputy. Johns Brandon Hetzler struck out Perez and Eiland. Both were wearing helmets.
Hetzler was responding to the call but did not have his lights or sirens on, and Perez and Eiland had the right-of-way, according to a Florida Highway Patrol accident report. Hetzler was hired in June 2018 and had been on the job less than a year at the time of the crash.
Her case is one of 14 so-called relief bills proposed in the upcoming legislative session. Two other bills also involve holding police officers liable for injuries and deaths in other Florida cities.
The odds are against Perez. Lawmakers rarely pass such relief proposals each year, which also must be signed by the governor. Only 15 of at least 123 such bills have passed in the past five years.
The $15 million claim is the amount Perez and her attorneys have identified in hopes of persuading the sheriff’s office to settle her lawsuit, said Lance Block, one of her attorneys. Even if the lawsuit is settled, the law still needs to pass the Legislature because of statutory limits on the size of court judgments against government agencies in Florida.
$15 million would come from St. Louis County public funds. Johns. The county budget is $1.55 billion.
The civil trial was tentatively set for December 2023.
St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office Johns declined to comment.
Unable to work because of her injuries, relying only on Social Security, evicted from her apartment and living on the streets, she needs money to fund her care and recovery, Block said. Homeless, Perez lives in her car with her mother and hopes to get a loan to afford a new home.
Under the proposed bill, Perez has spent over $3.8 million in medical expenses so far and is looking at up to $4 million in additional costs over the next 30 years.
The deputy’s injuries were not life-threatening. Perez began losing blood rapidly — nearly dying on the street, according to a summary of the claims provided by Block. She arrived at the hospital with crushed bones and organs and spent three months in a coma on a ventilator.
She said she experiences constant pain and suffers from limited range of motion in her limbs. She is on and off dialysis while waiting for a kidney donor.
Perez relearned routine daily tasks — such as brushing her teeth, doing her hair, getting dressed — to explain the new constant pain in her life.
She said she wonders every day when she will ever be able to do anything normal again. Her once vibrant life of dancing, rock climbing and zip-lining has been replaced by doctor visits and dozens of surgeries.
“My life was completely different. I don’t even remember what it was like before,” Perez said. “I see old videos and I’m like, ‘Wow, I used to make love.’
After the accident, the sheriff’s office conducted an internal review and found Hetzler at fault. According to the audit committee’s report, he lost his driving license and completed remedial driving training. He is still an active duty officer.
In the accident, the Highway Patrol cited Hetzler for failing to yield the right of way to motorcyclists while making a left turn. He was convicted in August 2020 by a judge who withheld points against Hetzler’s license and fined him $666.
Hetzler was not authorized by the sheriff’s office to discuss the crash, the spokesman said.
Block said the sheriff’s office has stepped in and accepted responsibility.
“It was just games,” Block said. “They have no respect for someone who has been really catastrophically injured.
Perez said she has considered suicide, but is leaning on a support system of friends, family and lawyers to help her through. But her greatest support of all was Eiland, her boyfriend.
“He fought to keep me alive,” Perez said, holding back tears. “He was there for everything.
When she was in a coma, his voice was the only one she heard. She said she remembers him talking about a trip they had planned and wishing her to wake up.
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“Don’t give up,” Eiland told Perez. “We have to get married.
He took Perez to doctors and cared for her until his last day. In January 2021, Eiland died of COVID-19.
“We loved each other very much,” she said. “We always did whatever it took to make the other person feel as good as possible.”
The years-long saga has left Perez with surgical and emotional scars and a cane as a permanent fixture.
“When will I be able to do anything normal again?” she wondered.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, the news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected]. You can donate to support our students here.