Dante's Inferno

When Metro cop Dante Starks was found to have groped several female colleagues, his bosses knew just what to do: Transfer him.

It started innocently enough. On the evening of November 29, 1993, Robin Ables, a Metro-Dade police officer, reported to the Team Police Station off NW 22nd Avenue in Liberty City, at the request of her commanding officer, Dante Starks. Starks, who had been promoted to sergeant two months earlier, initially told Ables he was going to discipline her for missing a court appearance. But he quickly withdrew that threat, and informed Ables she was free to leave work early. He then began making small talk with his subordinate about her role as a cheerleader for Metro-Dade's football team.

As Ables was about to leave, Starks summoned her into his office. It was at this point, Ables later recalled, that his purpose became apparent. In a sworn statement given to Metro-Dade internal affairs (IA) investigators, she alleged that Starks stepped from behind his desk and grabbed her in a bear hug. "I said, 'Please don't do this! I know your wife. I'm happily married. Please don't do this,' He had this blank look on his face, like, you're going to give me what I want, and I was afraid," Ables stated.

She struggled to free herself, Ables told the IA investigators, but Starks, who outweighs her by about 50 pounds, released his hold only after a visitor entered the station. No sooner had the visitor departed when Starks approached her again. "He was grabbing my behind and trying to kiss me. He was sticking his tongue in my ear," Ables recounted. "It was clear he wasn't responding to what I was saying. I never thought of my firearm.... All I thought was that this man had a gun. If I fight with him and it doesn't faze him, what's going to happen to me? If he kills me, it's going to be his word against me, a dead person on the floor."

Ables said she again broke away from Starks after a car pulled into the station's parking lot, whereupon she immediately ran to her own car and drove home. Though shaken, she made no mention of the incident to her husband. "The first thing that came to mind was to call the major [Aaron Campbell]. But I thought about it, and I said, 'Man, Sergeant Starks knows the major.' That's my word against his. We were the only two."

The 27-year-old policewoman was so traumatized by the encounter, however, that she burst into tears upon reporting for duty the next morning. At the urging of several colleagues, and later her husband, she filed a formal complaint against Starks.

In the next eight months, seven more women came forward to accuse Starks of sexual harassment that dated back to 1989 and ranged from lewd comments to violent groping. All the women worked for the Metro-Dade police, and most had been Starks's subordinates when the alleged harassment took place. Prosecutors from the Dade State Attorney's Office were referred the case early last year and appeared ready to charge Starks with battery. But Ables refused to file charges, fearing it would adversely affect her police career. She told IA investigators she believed that Starks "knew people in high places" and was "good friends with the major [Aaron Campbell]."

Starks's conduct has been brought to the attention of his higher-ups before. The seven-year veteran's record includes a dozen IA complaints and another recent investigation by state prosecutors. Two sources familiar with his case say Starks's own supervisor urged his superiors to consider firing the sergeant, but was overruled. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is (FDLE) now poised to consider the step Metro-Dade seems reluctant to take: stripping Starks of his badge.

Starks steadfastly denies he verbally or physically harassed anyone. He insists Ables's complaint was the product of an unrequited crush, and that the other allegations amount to a "feeding frenzy" sparked by jealousy of his promotion to sergeant and resentment of his tough supervisory style. "Sexual harassment is a serious problem," he says. "But it's gotten to the point where it can be lodged against anyone at any time and you have no defense. The people that truly know me know I am not capable of this type of behavior. It's not in my character."

The other accusations, which were treated as a single complaint, included four additional instances of alleged battery:

* Cpl. Peggie Collins told IA investigator Sgt. Ruth Cox that in September 1989 Starks had "placed his hands between her legs" repeatedly while they were seated together in a police vehicle, and "often made vulgar comments to her such as he would like to 'lick her,' referring to her vagina."

* Ofcr. Sherrill Robinson recounted how Starks had made unwanted sexual advances while he was serving as her field training officer that same year, going so far as to fondle her buttocks while they were alone in an elevator in the Northside station.

* Ofcr. Marlenes Caceres described behavior that was even more aggressive. Finding himself alone in an elevator with the rookie officer, "Starks suddenly grabbed Caceres's buttocks and placed her in a face-to-face position," Cox's report notes. "He then squeezed his body against hers while pinning her back against the wall. Caceres was forced to administer a hard blow to Starks's chest to push him away."

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