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"Bully with a badge' ruined her life, woman claims

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Debra Sharp wasn't involved in the family argument last year over the poodle that jumped onto the dinner table.

But as unfortunate events unfolded, Sharp spent a mortifying night in jail, suffered serious gum and teeth problems and lost a chance at a great job.

The cause?

An overzealous Treasure Island police officer who didn't want his authority questioned, according to a lawsuit Sharp filed Monday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

Sharp was arrested in April 1995 for battery on a police officer after Charles B. Donaldson came to her home to investigate an argument between Sharp's husband and her 15-year-old daughter.

Sharp said she gently touched Donaldson on the shoulder and asked him to talk inside the house, so neighbors wouldn't see the commotion.

"It wasn't even my problem," she said in an interview. "I went nicely outside to ask someone inside, and I end up with a felony charge."

Donaldson could not be reached for comment. Police Chief Joe Pelkington declined to comment while litigation is pending.

But Donaldson's personnel file is rife with citizens' complaints and warnings from superiors. Four years ago, a psychologist recommended that Donaldson be taken off the street and given counseling. One memo says other officers didn't want Donaldson backing them up because he mistreated citizens.

Two years ago, Pelkington cited 20 complaints in six years and wrote that Donaldson's good qualities "are overshadowed by his inability to remain emotionally stable and objective when dealing with uncooperative or rebellious people."

Marion Hale, Sharp's attorney, once represented a woman who sued Madeira Beach after police arrested her for skinny-dipping and brought her naked into the station house. Now, "we have another bully with a badge out on the beach," Hale said Monday.

Donaldson, 37, joined the force in 1987. In his second year, he used the Heimlich maneuver to save a 54-year-old man who was choking on food. His superiors praise his report writing and other police skills.

But Sharp said Donaldson ruined her life. Her suit alleges that his history of overreaction was so severe that Treasure Island should pay damages for keeping him on the force.

Sharp and her husband, Robert, gave this account:

For several months, the Sharps had struggled to handle her 15-year-old daughter, the middle of three children. The daughter had run away, used drugs and skipped school, they said. (The girl is now living out of town with her biological father.)

On April 23, 1995, Robert Sharp came inside the house to find the family's poodle on the dinner table, eating leftover spaghetti. When he struck the dog in punishment, the daughter jumped on him, scratched him with her fingernails, then threw small home furnishings at him. He tried to spank her and put her into her room, he said, but the tussle escalated.

"She was so out of control, I didn't know what was going to happen next, so I called 911 and asked for help," Robert Sharp said.

When Donaldson arrived, the 15-year-old met him outside and said her father had beaten her. Debra Sharp came out, touched Donaldson gently on the shoulder and asked him to come into the house.

"I just touched him with four fingers," she recalled. "And he said, "If you touch me again, I'll arrest you.' I said, "Don't be ridiculous,' threw up my arms, and he arrested me."

In his report, Donaldson said, she came out yelling at him and "smacked me with her right arm." When he warned her not to touch him again, he said, she became sarcastic and said, "Oh, I'm so scared."

Sharp was taken to the Pinellas County Jail in her bathing suit. She was put into a holding cell with drug addicts and prostitutes. She spent the night, without sleeping or eating, and most of the next day until her husband raised the $10,000 bail.

"I was anally searched. I thought I was going to die," Sharp said. "I've never been so humiliated in my entire life."

At the time, Sharp was an independent insurance agent, but had begun working on a program with Allstate Insurance Co. The day after her release, she was scheduled for a mass interview with the heads of 23 regional Allstate offices who would evaluate her ability to handle referrals, she said. She made a terrible impression.

"I had been crying for most of 36 hours. I couldn't open my eyes, they were so puffed up. I looked like an alcoholic."

Within days, she developed abscesses in her teeth and needed painkillers and root canal work, she said. She couldn't sleep and lost her appetite. Referrals dried up from Allstate offices until she quit.

Prosecutors offered to settle her case with no fine, no probation and no formal adjudication of guilt if she would just plead no contest, the Sharps said. When she refused, prosecutors dropped the charge on the day her trial was scheduled.

"I lost my job; I lost my opportunity of the lifetime," she said. "This guy is a lunatic, and he still has his job."