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Suit accuses counselor of abuse

(ran SS edition of METRO & STATE)

Two Tampa families allege Robert Darrell Taylor contributed to a 10-year-old boy's suicide, and urged a girl to quit school.

In a wide-ranging lawsuit filed Thursday, two Tampa families accuse an unlicensed substance abuse counselor of abusing them and their troubled children, and of contributing to the suicide of a 10-year-old boy he was counseling.

Many of the suit's allegations against Robert Darrell Taylor, 45, and his business, Recovery Concepts Inc., trace pending criminal fraud charges against Taylor.

The civil suit goes further, though, in painting a picture of a charlatan counselor out of control, who allegedly made boasts of his influence with judges and law enforcement.

The families' attorney is Bob Merkle, who sometimes failed to convince juries of high-profile accusations while U.S. attorney in Tampa.

Merkle's lawsuit charges Taylor with violating federal criminal racketeering laws. It claims Taylor has knowledge of a Hillsborough circuit judge's sexual affair with a 13-year-old girl. And it claims Taylor boasted of having influence with a Hillsborough circuit judge.

No judge is named, though. Merkle could not be reached for comment Thursday.

The lawsuit repeats an allegation Merkle made in Taylor's criminal cases this week: that Taylor was acting as an informant for the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office by passing on information gathered from his teenage patients.

Taylor has been in the Hillsborough County Jail for nearly a year, since his arrest last August on criminal fraud charges. His attorney could not be reached for comment.

Taylor has never held a Florida license as a mental health counselor, state health officials say. He briefly held a license to counsel adults for substance abuse. That license was granted after the Florida Department of Children and Families failed to properly investigate Taylor's record of multiple fraud arrests, the families allege.

In court papers, Merkle has indicated he intends to sue the Hillsborough sheriff and the state Department of Children and Families.

Citing that possible lawsuit, a Sheriff's Office spokesman declined to comment.

Although the lawsuit mentions a number of people whom Taylor is accused of defrauding for money, it focuses on the allegations two families are making.

One couple, Barbara and Mark Chapman, accuse Taylor of the wrongful death of their 10-year-old son, Gregory, last year. The boy was suffering from depression and attention deficit disorder when an associate of Taylor referred the boy to him in February 1998, the lawsuit says.

Gregory's parents claim his problems caused him to break things and steal coins. Taylor responded to these acts by threatening to have Gregory jailed or sent to a juvenile boot camp, the lawsuit states.

Taylor canceled two appointments to see Gregory in May 1998, the lawsuit states. Gregory hanged himself May 31, 1998, after breaking a figurine with a ball in his house. The lawsuit claims Gregory's death was a "direct and proximate result" of Taylor's conduct, including his threats of jailing or boot camp if Gregory did wrong.

The lawsuit also accuses Taylor of soliciting burial funds for Gregory and keeping the money for himself, and soliciting $750 to hire a medical expert to possibly revise the suicide ruling in Gregory's death, when the expert did not exist.

Mark Chapman declined to comment Thursday.

The other family suing, Kathy and William Ruff, took Kathy's daughter, 19-year-old Melissa Ann Lagotte, to Taylor. According to the lawsuit, the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office provided Taylor's name as a qualified juvenile substance abuse counselor in December 1997.

The lawsuit accuses Taylor of urging Melissa to drop out of school, and then recommending a home schooling program that she wasn't qualified for.

The lawsuit claims racketeering, wrongful death, fraud, breach of privacy and infliction of distress, and seeks a jury trial and unspecified damages.

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