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."

Caceres subsequently burst into tears. She informed her supervisor, who reported the December 1989 incident to Starks's superior, Lt. Michael Alexander. But Caceres refused to file a formal complaint after the 1989 incident, fearing that she might get into trouble for striking a superior officer. Instead she was assigned a different field training officer. There is no indication in his personnel file that Starks was ever disciplined.

* In 1993, a month after receiving his promotion from detective to sergeant and a month before his encounter with Ables, Starks allegedly sexually harassed another colleague. Ofcr. Hawanda Gilbert told Cox that Starks fondled her buttocks while they were entering the Team Police building.

Cox upheld each and every allegation, and a trio of high-ranking officers was assigned to evaluate her exhaustive inquiry. In a memo dated August 15, 1994, the panel rebuked Starks for his "hostile and offensive behavior."

They wrote: "Collectively, these incidents indisputably support the finding that [Starks's] actions were at times criminal, as supported by the State Attorney's Office findings, and always irreproachable [sic] as a member of the department. The liability in Sergeant Starks's behavior is too great to assume, for himself, the department, and those female employees with whom he may interact in the future."

The matter was turned over to Lt. William Brink, Starks's supervisor. Last September Brink sent a memo to department director Fred Taylor, recommending that Starks be demoted to officer. After the demotion, Starks was reassigned to a unit that patrols the Miami International Airport.

But this was not the only memo Brink authored, according to two sources familiar with the proceedings. They say Brink originally recommended that Starks be evaluated by the department's psychological services and that termination be considered, pending the outcome of the evaluation. Brink, they say, modified the recommendation at the behest of Maj. Aaron Campbell, the commander of the Northside district whom Ables had identified as Starks's friend.

According to Sgt. Ralph Fernandez of Metro-Dade's media relations department, Brink refuses to discuss the matter. Fernandez said Campbell was out of town last week and unavailable for comment.

If Brink's original memo ever existed, it is nowhere to be found in police records. But other documents from Starks's personnel file do indicate that Brink and Campbell clashed over his fate.

This past September Brink wrote Starks's annual evaluation. While praising Starks for his leadership, the lieutenant rated him "unsatisfactory" overall. "He has made advances towards a female officer that would be considered an assault. He has made statements that could be interpreted as offers of favor for a sexual return from the officer. These actions have placed him in a position that make any contact with female officers a potential problem for him as well as the Department," Brink noted.

"Out of a sense of fairness, as the Northside District Commander, I felt compelled to express my opinion," Campbell responded in an addendum to Brink's evaluation. "After conferring with the Department Director [Fred Taylor], we both agreed that the rating should be changed. However, the rater refused to do so."

Campbell insisted that a "satisfactory" rating -- which ostensibly would have allowed Starks to remain a sergeant -- was deserved.

"Although not frequent, raters sometimes commit what I would call an error of overweighting," his addendum went on. "This occurs when there is a tendency of the rater and reviewer to be unduly influenced by a negative event involving the rater near the end of the rating period. The error can also occur when an employee is rated low solely due to a single, yet sensational, negative act that subjectively overshadows the otherwise satisfactory or above satisfactory overall performance of an employee.

"Based on the narrative portion of the evaluation," Campbell concluded, "there are tremendous grounds for an appeal. With the exception of the single issue, it is commonly known that Sgt. Dante Starks's performance as a supervisor bordered around being Outstanding."

Starks's history of disciplinary problems, however, is not limited to a single issue. Though his personnel file brims with more than 30 commendations A including designation as Officer of the Month in November 1989 and March 1990 A he also has been the subject of twelve internal affairs probes in the past five years. Most involve allegations that he was physically or verbally abusive to members of the public. Internal affairs cleared him of wrongdoing in each instance, with a few notable exceptions.

In 1992, for example, an arrestee named Sheila Jones accused Starks of slapping her and calling her a "bitch" and a "whore." The latter allegation was sustained, after an eyewitness testified he had heard Starks verbally abuse Jones. Starks received a written reprimand.

That same year he was reprimanded again, after IA sustained a complaint stemming from an altercation with several Florida Highway Patrol officers. According to numerous state troopers, Starks called Sgt. John Fruchey a "fucking redneck asshole with a redneck attitude that he should take back to North Florida." When other troopers attempted to calm Starks, he called them "assholes." A fight nearly ensued.

Last July, as the sexual harassment investigation was winding down, another inquiry was beginning. Theophilus Martin accused Starks of snatching his cellular phone during the course of Martin's arrest, and of using the phone to make calls. In a sworn statement, Starks denied using the phone, but Martin provided IA with a copy of his phone bill, which indicated that two calls were placed to Starks's mother, and one to a friend of the officer, at the very time he was arresting Martin. The State Attorney's Office sought to file perjury charges, but Martin refused to cooperate. Rather, the matter was referred back to Metro-Dade. According to police records specialist Alma Espinosa, the complaint is still pending.

Starks concedes that the pressures of police work, especially in an area such as Liberty City, may cause an occasional "lapse in judgment. But my job is to arrest the bad guys," he stresses. "I've made hundreds of arrests. I'll stack those against the few complaints I've received. As a rookie sergeant I produced stats that no other sergeant could. I shut down the drug dealers. That's why Major Campbell stood up for me."

As to his ultimate fate, Starks says, "That battle is not mine A it's the Lord's."

While Metro-Dade appears content with the extent of its disciplinary action, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) two weeks ago filed an administrative complaint against Starks, based on his alleged pattern of sexual harassment. The officer now has three options: He can voluntarily surrender his certification, he can admit to the allegations at an informal hearing, or he can demand a formal hearing on the charges. Possible punishments range from a letter of guidance to loss of certification.

In the meantime, Starks remains in uniform. Several weeks ago, in fact, he took part in a training session with many of his former colleagues from the Northside station. Among those gathered in the roll-call room were four of the women who alleged he had harassed them. According to a source who was on hand, Robin Ables was so distraught at the sight of Starks that she was allowed to leave for the day.

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