Case Closed

Were the allegations against Sgt. Walter Clark simply too outrageous to believe?

When Sgt. Walter Clark strutted the stone-cold halls of the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, the keys clinked a little louder on his chain. In that big house, Clark was a big man, bigger than his rank of sergeant implied. Within the county's sprawling 2000-employee jail system, Clark had become a powerful force by carving an advocate's niche for himself. He founded the Organization of Minority Corrections Officers, OMCO for short, whose twenty years of firebrand activism helped shape the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation into what it is today, for better and worse. In the process, many complained he became untouchable.

Clark retired last year, just before he turned 60. But he didn't give up the fight. He formed an outfit called Special Consultant for African American Government Employees, where he continues the same work he did at OMCO, essentially pushing a race-based agenda down an often-cowed administration's throat. Retirement, it seems, hasn't come easy to him.

In fact when Clark submitted his resignation letter on April 18, 2002 (complete with an inspirational quote from Martin Luther King: "Remember! We all can be great, by helping others."), many were surprised at his sudden departure. Probably none were more shocked than the department's internal-affairs officers, who are charged with investigating corrections employees accused of crimes and violating department policy. They had scheduled a meeting with Clark that very day.

Illustration by Gregory Nemec
Walter Clark, back in 1996, when he still led his union and fought  with nearly every director of the corrections department
Steve Satterwhite
Walter Clark, back in 1996, when he still led his union and fought with nearly every director of the corrections department

The investigators wanted to ask him about a former inmate named Monique Chester, specifically whether he had had a three-year relationship with her. But the questions about their relationship went beyond the impropriety of a jailer hitting on his charge, which is a firing offense. Chester claimed that Clark forced her to have sex with him, threatening to have her parole revoked if she resisted. And he wanted a lot of sex -- with her, with her and other women, with her in handcuffs. He had done this to other women in jail, Chester told investigators.

If her allegations were true, they would stand in shocking contrast to the man who preached solidarity and respect, especially among African Americans. Clark made a career out of quoting Dr. King and demanding justice. He'd even written letters to the Miami Herald complaining it was disrespectful to publish photos accompanying a Martin Luther King Day story that portrayed women dancing in the street.

Clark had already spoken once with investigators, answering their questions under oath, at the outset of their inquiry. Sure he knew Chester, he had told them. He was friendly with her family and he tried to help her when she landed in jail. But he had no contact with her outside jail, and he certainly did not have a sexual relationship with her.

After a painstaking probe that lasted a full year, investigators believed they had gathered enough evidence to prove he'd lied to them. That's perjury, a serious crime. In addition, they recognized that there could be charges related to Chester's claims of sexual assault or even forced prostitution.

But before he could be fired, Clark quit. It was a gamble. He may have believed that if he were no longer a corrections employee, there would no longer be a need to investigate him.

Turns out he knows his old department pretty well. The criminal case went nowhere. Clark's $55,404 annual pension remains intact. And Monique Chester has been forgotten, faded back into the streets.

Walter Clark agreed to meet at Denny's on NE 36th Street and Biscayne Boulevard. "I'll be the good-looking black guy," he chuckled over the phone. Clark's call was a coincidence. He had read a New Times article about problems in the corrections department's internal-affairs bureau and wanted to talk about it.

He arrived early, dressed in a pressed plaid shirt tucked neatly into chinos so sharply creased they could pass inspection. Thirty-two years of wearing a uniform will do that to a person. The only nonregulation items were the pirate-size gold studs he wore in each ear. Between bites of his eggs and grits he raised the same battle cries that have been his trademark for decades -- the need for blacks to fight racism and favoritism in the corrections department, in county government, in the community generally. "I'll never quit getting some justice," he said with a preacher's practiced flourish.

A tall man with an athletic build and a broad, deeply lined face, Clark is the grandson of a Georgia sharecropper ("Fancy word for slavery," he offered) who raised him. When the farm failed, a teenage Clark migrated to Miami in 1962 to live with his father. It was the dawning of the civil rights movement, which forever changed his country boy's worldview. In 1970 he joined the corrections department with an outsize Afro and an attitude to match.

It was the department's efforts to tame that Afro which ultimately led to the creation of OMCO. In 1979 jail administrators reprimanded Clark by handing him a three-day suspension for not trimming his hair, as regulations required. But Clark claimed they were harassing him for his outspoken advocacy, his burst of hair being a mere symbol of that. "If you wore an Afro, that was a sign of defiance," he recounted. So Clark fought them, claiming the real reason for the suspension was his vocal complaining that the department discriminated against blacks during the hiring process. And he won. A court reversed the department's reprimand. "From that point on I said, Okay, we got all these problems here, so I organized some folks and the rest is history."

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