Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Amid 'unprecedented' police sex scandal, Lakeland tries to move forward

Lakeland residents call it the scandal. State investigators allege "serious shortcomings" and "moral bankruptcy." A New York newspaper headline proclaimed: They're Florida's horniest!

The city 35 miles east of Tampa was cast under a lurid national spotlight recently after a state report revealed up to 10 police officers had sex with a female crime analyst over the past seven years.

The on-and-off duty philandering happened in patrol cars, public offices, a church building and a cemetery.

One sex act occurred in a parking lot after a slain officer's funeral, according to the June 25 report by State Attorney Jerry Hill.

On social media, people nationwide are mocking what the New York Daily News dubbed "Perv PD."

But the tone is less jovial in Lakeland. Hill wrote in his report that some of the sex acts might not have been consensual, while the crime analyst at the center of the scandal has gone public with a dark story of abuse.

"Had these members of your department been more focused on the important responsibilities of law enforcement, rather than pursuing sexual encounters with a civilian analyst, the LPD might not be in the condition it is today," Hill wrote to police Chief Lisa Womack

Thus far, as the Lakeland Police Department conducts an internal investigation, one officer has resigned, one has retired and others have been placed on administrative leave or taken off law enforcement duties, Sgt. Gary Gross said.

The analyst, 37-year-old Sue Eberle, now on paid leave, hired a Palm Harbor labor lawyer who claims she was repeatedly victimized in a toxic workplace.

That's on top of surveillance video released in June showing a Lakeland officer telling a woman to lift her shirt and shake out her bra during a traffic stop.

Lakeland — home of Publix, the Detroit Tigers spring training and perhaps the world's largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in one place — hasn't faced such infamy in memory, Mayor Gow Fields said.

Some residents now struggle to trust the department, which has about 225 sworn officers. Others have requested that Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd be brought in to fix a broken culture.

"In the short term, it's extremely embarrassing," Fields said. "In the long term, the real test is: What did we do about it? We can't unring this bell, but we can demonstrate some organizational maturity and do the right thing."

Fields said Womack took appropriate action by summoning the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

At a recent City Commission meeting, Womack — who became chief two years ago — said the police force is committed to restoring the community's trust.

"I am appalled by those who chose to engage in this behavior, and I am equally appalled by those who knew about it and didn't come forward," Womack said. "This particular event, this particular scandal — whatever you want to call it — is not reflective of the entire Lakeland Police Department. But we all feel embarrassed by it.

"Those who have dishonored the Lakeland Police Department badge and uniform will no longer be Lakeland police officers."

Some community leaders say the internal investigation — as well as a complete standards and cultural overhaul — should be passed to outside help.

"We're in uncharted waters here," said City Commissioner Howard Wiggs. "This is an unprecedented crisis. Folks are saddened. They are frustrated. Angry. The credibility of the department has been repeatedly damaged."

Pastor Jay Dennis of Lakeland's First Baptist Church at the Mall said he has prayed for the police with church members.

"There is a gamut of emotions, but sadness prevails," Dennis said. "One thing scripture teaches is: Expose things to the light. Let there be no secrets. As painful as that is, I believe the light needs to be shown in this situation."

Eberle, a married mother of two teen boys, told investigators she had been sexually abused as a child and had previously attempted suicide. She feared saying "no" to men, the report stated, and felt she could not ward off sexual advances, especially from ranking officers.

Eberle's statements have "time and time again" been corroborated by the state's investigation, Hill wrote. She told investigators two officers raped her. (That can't be proven now, he wrote, and no criminal charges have been filed.) Some initiated sex with her on-duty. Some, she said, asked for naked pictures. One sent her photos of himself in women's underwear.

Lakeland police victim advocate Jackie Suggs told investigators that, four or five years ago, Eberle told her she'd been raped by an officer. Suggs said she did not report it because Eberle is a "grown woman."

The officers named in Hill's report are Capt. John Thomason (who retired Tuesday), Lt. Al Wilson, Sgt. Russell Longaberger, Sgt. Bryan McNabb, Sgt. David Woolverton, Officer Rick Gries, former officer Rawn Haynes, Officer Scott Hutton, former officer Steve Sherman (who resigned in January) and Officer George Vidal. Officer Loretta Jackson also knew about inappropriate work behavior and Eberle's allegations of rape, Hill wrote, but failed to tell anyone.

Fire inspector and reserve Lakeland police officer David Bivens admitted to having sex with Eberle in her car in a parking lot after the funeral of Officer Arnulfo Crispin, who was shot and killed on duty in 2011.

At a news conference last week, labor lawyer David Linesch, hired by Eberle, read a letter he wrote to the Lakeland mayor and city attorney:

"Our investigation reveals an exceptional, if not historic case, of sexual harassment, coercion and assault, resulting in a work environment that was sexually toxic and resulted in extreme harm to my clients."

They have filed sexual harassment claims against the department at the state and federal levels, Linesch said. Eberle and her husband, Ed, sat quietly as he spoke, holding hands.

"It has brought them together," Linesch said. "They are trying to salvage their marriage and family."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story. Danielle Paquette can be reached at dpaquette@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4224.



Sep. 8: Sgt. Jeff Gary sees Sue Eberle, left, and on-duty Officer Steve Sherman exiting a vacated church building. Gary reports suspicious activity, which launches an investigation.

Jan. 16: Sherman resigns.

March 15: Eberle is placed on paid administrative leave.

May 21: Surveillance cameras catch Officer Dustin Fetz telling a woman to shake out her bra during a traffic stop. Fetz said he was simply checking for drugs.

May 21: Sgt. Rusty Longaberger, left, and Sgt. David Woolverton, center, both under investigation, are placed on administrative leave. Lt. Al Wilson, right, and Officer Scott Hutton, also under investigation, are placed on modified duty, which allows them to work only in administrative positions.

June 25: State Attorney Jerry Hill releases a report detailing sexual harassment.

July 3: Eberle's lawyer, Palm Harbor labor attorney David Linesch, announces his client has filed sexual harassment claims against the Lakeland Police Department on the state and federal levels.

July 9: Police Capt. John Thomason, right, named in Hill's report, retires.

Amid 'unprecedented' police sex scandal, Lakeland tries to move forward 07/10/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 11:00am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Somehow, Rays' Chris Archer remains just shy of being an ace

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — Chris Archer had another bad game Sunday.

    Chris Archer is sputtering to the finish line, his rough start on Sunday his fourth in his past five in which he hasn’t gotten past four innings.
  2. In Mexico City, hopes of finding quake survivors dwindle

    World

    MEXICO CITY — Five days after the deadly magnitude 7.1 earthquake, the hulking wreckage of what used to be a seven-story office building is one of the last hopes: one of just two sites left where searchers believe they may still find someone trapped alive in Mexico City.

    Rescue workers search for survivors inside a felled office building in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City on Saturday.
  3. GOP health bill in major peril as resistance hardens among key senators

    National

    WASHINGTON — The floundering Republican attempt to undo the Affordable Care Act met hardening resistance from key GOP senators Sunday that left it on the verge of collapse even as advocates vowed to keep pushing for a vote this week.

    Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate, said Sunday that it was “very difficult” to envision voting for this health-care bill.
  4. Baghdad orders Kurdistan region to hand over borders, ports

    World

    BAGHDAD — Iraq's central government in Baghdad ordered the country's Kurdish region to hand over all border crossings and airports to federal government control late Sunday night, hours before the region is set to carry out a controversial referendum on support for independence.

    Iraqi Kurds climb the fence into a soccer stadium during a rally in Irbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, on Friday. Kurds will vote in a referendum today on the creation of their own country.
  5. Official: Hurricane Maria set Puerto Rico back decades

    Hurricanes

    SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rico's nonvoting representative in the U.S. Congress said Sunday that Hurricane Maria's destruction has set the island back decades, even as authorities worked to assess the extent of the damage.

    National Guardsmen arrive Sunday at Barrio Obrero in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to distribute water and food to people in need after the damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria. The death toll on the island from Maria is 10, but that number is expected to climb.