Attorney Hans Kennon of Morgan and Morgan is working on the case of Deputy Mariano "Rocky" Lemus, who died May 6, 2005, after coming into contact with hepatitis C several times during his 14-year career with the Sheriff's Office.

Attorney Hans Kennon of Morgan and Morgan is working on the case of Deputy Mariano “Rocky” Lemus, who died May 6, 2005, after coming into contact with hepatitis C several times during his 14-year career with the Sheriff’s Office.

Family fights DOJ over Orange deputy’s death

Orange County Deputy Sheriff Mariano “Rocky” Lemus… (Courtesy of the family )

October 13, 2013| By Jerriann Sullivan, Orlando Sentinel

During his 14-year career as an Orange County Sheriff’s deputy, Mariano “Rocky” Lemus knew there was a chance he’d die in the line of duty.

And when he did, his relatives and their attorneys say, the U.S. Department of Justice forced his family into an eight-year legal battle over benefits generally provided to all fallen officers.

The family wants to sue, but they can’t even do that, attorneys say, until a “final” denial from the DOJ comes through.

“He left this world thinking his family was going to be taken care of — his kids, his grandkids,” said his wife, Robyn. “This is an ongoing nightmare that we can’t wake up from.”

Lemus died May 6, 2005, of complications associated with hepatitis C — which his family, the Sheriff’s Office and his doctor says he got from coming in contact with the disease on the job.

Lemus was diagnosed with late stages of the disease in 2004 but a review of county records showed he had been exposed several times, making the exact date of infection unclear.

That uncertainty is what the DOJ is using to deny his family the benefit under the Public Safety Officer’s Benefit Act — a federal program that provides death and education benefits to survivors of fallen law-enforcement officers, firefighters and first responders. It typically awards $250,000 to the families of those killed in the line of duty.

The DOJ said it denied the claim because it believed Lemus could have contracted the disease in a number of ways:Through a venereal disease he contracted more than 20 years before beginning his law-enforcement career; from his two tattoos; or through one of his two marriages.

Several medical professionals — including Orange-Osceola Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jan Garavaglia — sent letters to the DOJ saying its reasons for denying the claim would never be accepted as legitimate cause in the medical world.

The sheriff’s office and the Lemus family believe he most likely contracted hepatitis C when a suspect who had it bit him during a domestic-violence call years before his 2004 diagnosis.

The legal fight started in 2007 when the sheriff’s office received a letter from the DOJ saying it would not recognize the death of Lemus as eligible for PSOBA benefits and prompting the agency to file an appeal on behalf of Robyn Lemus.

When it was clear the DOJ was going to elongate a normally standard process, Hans Kennon, an Orlando lawyer with the Morgan & Morgan firm took over Robyn’s appeal case from the sheriff’s office.

Despite overwhelming support from the law-enforcement community and medical professionals, various DOJ administrators have denied Lemus benefits under the PSOBA but have withheld a ruling in the final appeal, which Robyn Lemus filed in March 2009. That final ruling must come through before Lemus’ family can file a denial-of-benefits lawsuit against the DOJ.

“This is a benefit for someone’s life that will never be again,” Robyn Lemus said. “They have no right to pick and choose who receives it.”

The most recent response from the DOJ was a March 2012 letter from Administrative Support Specialist Liane Fowler, stating, in part: “The Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance has begun a final review of the record in the Lemus case and will render her determination as expeditiously as possible.”

Fowler has not responded to requests for updates from Robyn Lemus’ attorneys and did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

“The PSOBA is set up for the officers and their families in case of a tragedy like this one,” said Kennon. “These deputies are the front line soldiers for the community — serving and protecting every day of their life.”

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