82ºF

Florida woman arrested for not paying rent won't spend 94th birthday in jail

Juanita Fitzgerald receiving outpouring of support, offers of help

LAKE COUNTY, Fla. – There are still more questions than answers about where 94-year-old Juanita Fitzgerald will end up. But on her 94th birthday Friday she woke up inside a motel room, instead of a jail cell.

Fitzgerald was arrested Tuesday on charges of trespassing after the management at the Eustis independent living facility where she lived said that she refused to pay rent for the past three months.

The nonagenarian said she is overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support she has received from people all over the world who heard about her arrest.

"There's millions of people out there, honey, millions," Fitzgerald told News 6. "People have been reaching out. Even my daughter in Tennessee has seen it on the news on her phone."

Fitzgerald was in good spirits on her birthday Friday in a Tavares motel room. News 6 is not releasing the name of the motel in order to protect her.

Bruises still covered her arms and legs and the only clothes she has right now are the ones she's wearing. But she said she feels safe, for now.

Police body camera video released Friday shows how Fitzgerald may have received some of the bruises on her paper thin skin during her arrest. The then 93-year-old resisted police officers as they tried to escort her out of the Franklin House. She cried and screamed and sat down on the ground, the video shows.

The day before her arrest, staff at the Franklin House notified Fitzgerald she would be evicted; she was asked several times to leave the property and told she could no longer stay there.

Due to her age, officers transported Fitzgerald without handcuffs to reduce the risk of injury.

Nicole Lett picked Fitzgerald up from the Lake County Detention Center on Thursday evening and brought her to the hotel after seeing the News 6 jailhouse interview on TV. Fitzgerald was released on her own recognizance, a Lake County Sheriff's Office spokesman said.

"I just couldn't let her stay in jail any longer," Lett said, who is a caretaker who worked with some of Fitzgerald's neighbors at Franklin House.

"She's 94 and she's still fiesty as ever," Lett said. "She doesn't want peoples' help she wants to be on her own. But unfortunately she needs the help right now because she doesn't have anything anymore."

Thousands of people across the nation have seen and shared Fitzgerald's story of being evicted from her home and being arrested when she refused to leave. Many wonder why it had to come to this and have offered help financially and otherwise.

But Fitzgerald said she doesn't want it and would probably give anything she received away to help others. She said all she needs is a small room somewhere and to get her belongs back, including her Bibles.

"I could probably get some more clothes, I'm not doing this for me. I'm doing this for God," Fitzgerald said.

News 6 spoke with Karen Twinem, who is a spokesperson for the National Church Residences which operates the Franklin Center where Fitzgerald was evicted. Twinem said they did not feel it was a safe place for her to live and had been trying to work with her to get her a higher level of care. But she refused every attempt.

"We did everything we could," Twinem said.