Paramedic Christopher Wimmer seemed awfully proud of the “selfie war” videos and photographs he took of people he was supposed to be caring for during ambulance rides to local hospitals.
“I’m getting closer to the holy grail selfie,” he boasted in one text.
“This was my best one in awhile,” he claimed in another.
Nor was Wimmer shy in the year he was employed by Okaloosa County about sharing the images he obtained, usually without his patients’ knowledge. A review of a list of texts he sent between late 2015 and May 2016 indicates a minimum of 22 people received selfie war photos or videos at one time or another.
“Many are friends of Wimmer from South Florida and some are EMS people,” Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Alan Vafides said in an email that accompanied the list when it was sent to Tracey Vause, the director of Okaloosa County EMS in May 2016 when the “selfie war” was uncovered.
Wimmer and Kayla DuBois, his lead partner in the selfie war saga, have paid a price for their fun at other peoples’ expense. Wimmer spent four months in the Okaloosa County Jail and is serving a three-year probation. Dubois was placed on probation for two years. Neither of them can work as an EMT or paramedic while on probation.
Their antics could yet prove costly to county taxpayers. At least six of the 41 patients identified as selfie war victims are represented by legal counsel. Attorney J. Alistair McKenzie, who represents five or more of them – he would not confirm how many – has sent letters to the county requesting $200,000 for each person.
The demands have been made “because of the negligence and inexcusable conduct of Okaloosa County EMS who work on behalf of the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners,” McKenzie said in a letter sent on behalf of one of his clients, a 36-year-old Crestview woman.
“As you are aware, this was part of the juvenile, sick, and inappropriate game known as the ‘selfie war’ competition which was going on for months at Okaloosa County EMS,” McKenzie’s letter said. “She has been injured.”
Levin Law firm attorneys Rebecca Sitton and Justin Lusko are representing at least one selfie war victim. They did not immediately respond to email requests for information.
Taxpayers could also be forced to cover McKenzie’s costs for suing the county to get public records. The legal action was filed May 2 after county officials failed to respond within two months to a request for hundreds of documents produced during the investigation and prosecution of the criminal case that resulted from the selfie war.
Kerry Parsons, an attorney for the county, has disputed McKenzie’s claim the county violated the Sunshine Law by taking too long to turn over records.
McKenzie’s law firm “was not denied its public records request. Moreover, the county is not liable for attorney’s fees or cost ... because any delay in producing the records resulted in whole or in part out of the breadth of public records requested and issues of confidentiality related to the production and other legitimate basis,” Parsons wrote in a rebuttal filed Wednesday.
“Any delay was reasonable and appropriate under the particular circumstances of the requested nature of the documents,” Parson’s response said.
A hearing on the public records matter will be held June 18.
The Northwest Florida Daily News has obtained the same batch of public records requested, and now received, by McKenzie. The records provide many details about the behavior of Wimmer, Dubois and others.
One element is the amount of encouragement Wimmer and Dubois received from some of the recipients of their videos and photos. Marysa Kirby, an EMS relief employee, even boarded an ambulance Wimmer was riding in on its way to the hospital so she could be included in a photo.
Kirby was one of three EMS employees terminated, but not charged, as a result of the selfie war.
An out-of-state victim inquired with the Sheriff’s Office about the person who got into the ambulance as he was being taken to the hospital because his wife, traveling to the hospital behind the ambulance, saw it stop and pick up a plain-clothed person at the side of the road.
His questions about who got into the ambulance and what purpose the person had being in the vehicle were forwarded to Vause but never answered, according to the victim, who responded to an email sent to him this week.
Vause did respond to Valfides, the Sheriff’s Office investigator, to tell him: “I think this is the case with Kirby bending over to get in the photo. If so, she is probably who they stopped to pick up.”
Vause confirmed his theory in a later email to Valfides.
In other cases, Wimmer received encouragement for his work. Notes like “you’re the bomb.” And “you get all the awesome (expletive)” are found frequently in the back-and-forth texts between him and his numerous contacts.
There is no evidence among the public records provided that anyone who received videos or selfies from Wimmer and Dubois ever admonished them or told them to stop.
The public records provided also indicate that the Sheriff’s Office and State Attorney’s Office struggled to bring charges against Wimmer and Dubois. Charges of video voyeurism and elder abuse did not apply to the case.
In a PowerPoint presentation he prepared to illustrate the case, Valfides suggested “this case could be the impetus for Florida Legislature to modify language in existing statute or create new statute.”
State Rep. Mel Ponder said no one has contacted him about introducing such legislation.
“There may be something that ought to be considered,” said Ponder, R-Destin, who was elected to the Florida House in 2016.
Ultimately, authorities were forced to settle for charges against Wimmer and Dubois of “interception and disclosure of wire, oral or electronic communications,” and in one case battery against Wimmer, who raised an unconscious patient’s eyelid to snap a selfie.
During the investigation the Sheriff’s Office found that Wimmer and David Grieff, another EMS employee who was fired, had contact with a marijuana dealer. Investigators also learned that Wimmers kept “clean urine” at his home that he used and shared with friends needing it to pass drug tests.
A request to interview Valfides about some of the reported findings in the selfie war case was denied. The Sheriff’s Office citing “pending litigation.”
Vause, the former Emergency Medical Services Director, and Alvin Henderson, the county’s former Public Safety Director, no longer work for the county.
Vause received a $13,000 raise to take the EMS director’s job in Walton County while Henderson was let go for a reason unrelated to the selfie war, according to County Commissioner Nathan Boyles.
“The selfie war was a couple of people doing stupid things,” Boyles said. “To me that (the selfie war scandal) was not so much a chain of command issue.”
The county did act quickly to change policies following the selfie war by implementing a prohibition on personal electronic devices in ambulances' patient compartments.
“The policies continue to be strictly enforced,” Okaloosa County spokesman Christopher Saul said Friday. “Anyone who is caught using a non-county cellphone in the back of an ambulance faces immediate termination.”
The county provides a cellphone, with disabled camera and recording, for ambulances, Saul said. It is only to be used to contact hospitals which do not have established contact with Okaloosa EMS or in the event of a radio communications breakdown.
“No EMS employees have been found in violation of the policy since it was initiated,” he said.