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Ex-deputy is cleared of abuse charges

A Hernando County sheriff's deputy who resigned after learning he was suspected of abusing his stepson says the Sheriff's Office investigation was a witch hunt.

The state attorney's office has decided not to pursue charges against William Steele, and Steele has scheduled a news conference today to tell his side of the story.

He said he thinks the investigation was opened in part because of a February incident in which two of his superiors were reprimanded and he was cleared, but he said he would not elaborate until today's news conference.

Assistant State Attorney Don Scaglione said in a memo that a lack of evidence in the case was the reason his office declined to pursue child abuse allegations made against Steele on Sept. 28 by his wife.

"The facts and circumstances do not warrant prosecution, due to the fact that there appears to be insufficient evidence," Scaglione wrote.

In the allegations, Judith Steele, 37, said William Steele battered her 10-year-old son. Four days later, however, she told a detective she had made the allegations for self-serving purposes, a sheriff's report said.

"I want to bring up the reasons why (the Sheriff's Office) is going after me in a witch hunt," Steele said Monday. He disputed that the complaint was filed by his wife.

"She has never made a complaint _ that has been a fallacy by the department," he said.

Steele, 37, quit his patrol job in late September after the investigation began. The Desert Storm war veteran, who has a master's degree in criminology, had worked for the department since June 1991.

In his resignation letter, Steele said he resigned because the complaint was "enough to bring question upon" the department's integrity.

Monday, Steele said he resigned also because of personal integrity, even though he disputed the investigation from the start.

"They didn't have (a case)," Steele said. "But it was necessary for me to resign. That's just my integrity for the profession."

Sheriff Thomas Mylander said Steele's comments came as a surprise. Mylander denied that the department pursued the child abuse investigation wrongly.

"We, by law, have to investigate information that comes to our attention," Mylander said. "Anybody who has been in law enforcement for as long as he should understand that. He can't possibly think we should overlook something because he's a deputy sheriff.

"It's unfortunate he's taking this position. It irritates me a bit."

Steele said the allegations against him were tied to his stopping a Pasco County sheriff's sergeant whom he suspected of drunken driving in February.

In that case, Steele's supervisors, Sgt. Lanny Corlew and Lt. Robert Henning, pressured Steele into "unarresting" veteran officer Kurt A. Gell, sheriff's officials said. Steele, who intended to arrest Gell, authorized Gell's release from jail.

An internal investigation resulted in Corlew and Henning being reprimanded. Steele was excused because investigators thought he may have been pressured.

Mylander denied any connection between the investigation of Steele and the reprimands.

"We backed him," Mylander said. "What does he have to prove that everybody's after him? Why did he resign? We didn't force him to resign."

This most recent ordeal began with Judith Steele's child abuse complaint, Deputy Steve Kelly said. Although Steele refutes the report, which was approved by Corlew, this is what the report says happened:

Judith Steele told Kelly, who responded to a verbal disturbance in the Steeles' Spring Hill home, that her husband would kick her son. She said she was concerned for her son's safety.

The boy told the deputy that he feared Steele but that he was never kicked. The boy, however, related an incident that he says occurred Aug. 28, when he said Steele threw him on the ground twice for taking food from the kitchen without permission.

After hearing the complaint, Kelly called the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services child abuse hot line to report the allegations.

In a follow-up interview conducted Oct. 2 by Detective Rick Kramer, the boy told the same story. The boy added that he was normally punished for taking food and that sometimes he was spanked.

The boy told Kramer that Steele never kicked, pushed or slapped him, though, and that the family was working out its problems. The boy said he and Steele talked about the incident and were going to church together.

The only complaint the boy had was that his stepfather had not apologized for the August incident, he told the detective.

When Kramer again questioned Judith Steele, she denied making the first complaint. She said her first statements were made "to manipulate the needs she had at the time," Kramer's report said. The report was unclear about what those needs were.