Manatee child protection services investigator Gwendolena Fernandez was supposed to be working on a Wednesday morning last December when detectives serving a search warrant found her at her boyfriend’s North Port home, just after arresting him on murder and other charges, according to an internal affairs report.
Fernandez was allowed to have a seat outside as detectives searched the home. Her cell phones, including one issued her by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office, were seized and searched during that time.
Fernandez didn’t call to report any of this to a supervisor until nearly 12 hours later after the sheriff’s office had already been informed by North Port police of her involvement in their investigation, according to an internal affairs investigation.
Fernandez’s boyfriend, convicted felon Juan Jose Salazar Diaz, 21, was charged with shooting a 21-year-old transgender Port Charlotte woman dead on Sept. 8. — about the same time Fernandez and Salazar Diaz met and started dating.
Fernandez’s job made theirs an illicit relationship. According to the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office’s general orders, employees are barred from associating with a convicted felon unless they are an immediate family member.
Fernandez resigned her job on Jan. 8, amid the internal affairs investigation of whether she knew she was dating a convicted felon; whether she failed to promptly notify her supervisors of her involvement in the murder investigation; whether she lied to detectives handling the murder probe; and whether she lied to her supervisor in Manatee County about her connection to the case.
Her resignation, which came less than three weeks after she was placed on administrative leave with pay, and her subsequent refusal to cooperate with internal affairs investigators, left the sheriff’s office unable to answer all those questions.
Fernandez was with the sheriff’s office for less than 10 months before her resignation. During that time, she struggled with her workload, according to her supervisors. Her quarterly evaluations showed her performance scores declining to a rating that was below the sheriff’s office standards on her third and final review, dated Dec. 14.
While she was never disciplined during her brief tenure, her final evaluation details how supervisors tried counseling her repeatedly about her poor performance as she struggled with her time management, organization, communication, completing required tasks on her cases and closing cases in the required time-frame.
Fernandez did have some experience as a child protection investigator, working for the Florida Department of Children and Families from 2015 to 2017. During her tenure at DCF, Fernandez and her entire unit were disciplined by DCF for carrying a large number of open cases, according to her job application.
The Manatee sheriff’s internal affairs investigation found no evidence that Fernandez knew her boyfriend was a suspect in a murder case or that he was a convicted felon.
Investigators did conclude Fernandez, who police consider to be neither a suspect nor a witness in the murder case, lied to detectives with the North Port Police Department and Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office when they arrived at her boyfriend’s home on the morning of Dec. 19, according to the report.
When questioned if she was Salazar Diaz’s girlfriend after waking her up, she replied, “No, just a friend.” But in her initial statement to internal affairs, Fernandez referred to Salazar Diaz as her “boyfriend,” as she did when she spoke to a fellow investigator on Dec. 19.
Internal affairs also found Fernandez failed to notify her supervisors as soon as possible about the murder investigation and instead took almost 12 hours to call. By that point, North Port police had already notified her supervisors.
Had she not resigned, Fernandez could have been fired for this offense.
The internal affairs investigators could not conclude whether Fernandez had lied to her supervisor when she called out sick that day, claiming she had “hurt her ankle when she fell off of a ladder while hanging Christmas lights two days before.
“There is substantial doubt that CPI Fernandez was being truthful,” the investigator noted in the report but added that she had also called out sick the day before.
While investigating Salazar Diaz as part of the murder case, detectives realized that Fernandez’s sheriff’s office-issued vehicle had been seen at a known drug house in Port Charlotte in early October. According to the internal affairs report, detectives did not see who had driven the car to the home and the internal affairs investigation didn’t pursue the matter because of the “sensitive nature” of the on-going narcotics investigation.
Fernandez had been reminded by supervisors that she was not permitted to take her agency-issued vehicle home without permission, yet continued to do so, according to her quarterly review dated Oct. 6.
Meanwhile, Salazar Diaz is charged with second-degree murder, possession of a weapon by a convicted felon and grand theft auto in connection to the fatal shooting of Londonn Moore, also known as Tyren Anthony Kinard.
The victim’s body was found on the morning of Sept. 8 lying in a roadway near the intersection of Red Oak Road and Sawyer Circle in North Port, according to police reports. A pack of cigarettes found nearby had blood from the victim and fingerprints that have been identified as belonging to Salazar Diaz.
The victim’s car was found less than a quarter of a mile from Salazar Diaz’s home, with a latex glove inside that also had the suspect’s fingerprints and victim’s blood, detectives said.
Calls between Salazar Diaz and the victim just before the murder and the previous July also linked the two, according to detectives.
Police did not release a motive for the killing.