Nearly a dozen cops, including high-ranking officers, have been named in an explosive investigation detailing cases of sex and sex assault involving a single female employee. In one instance, the alleged sex occurred in a car outside the funeral for a slain police officer.
Updated: Wednesday, June 26, 2013, 2:29 PM
The Police Department headquarters.
At least 10 cops there had sex —some of it forced — or sexual encounters with a female employee at the department, according to a new report.
It’s a glimpse inside Florida’s Perv PD.
Nearly a dozen cops and high-ranking officers at the Lakeland Police Department had sex or engaged in sexual behavior — some of it forced — with a female employee over the past seven years, an investigation found.
The explosive 59-page report by State Attorney Jerry Hill found that officers at the central Florida department engaged in a jaw-dropping list of horndog offenses including: having sex with the woman while on duty; arranging trysts at police headquarters, in squad cars and city buildings and, in one case, inside a church; trading X-rated texts with the woman and fondling her while at work.
A fireman named in the report even admitted to having sex with the woman in car outside the funeral reception for a cop killed on duty in 2011.
The allegations were first reported in Lakeland newspaper The Ledger. Lakeland is about 40 miles east of Tampa.
Captain John H. Thomason allegedly talked to the woman about sex and sent her a cell phone picture of his penis.
Some of the alleged sex acts were forced on the woman and amounted to sexual harassment, according to statements she gave to investigators.
But the state attorney’s office said there wasn’t enough evidence to file criminal charges, so none of the cases would be headed to court.
The allegations were the latest blow to a force that’s come under fire recently for sloppy and abusive policing.
Last week, several state officials slammed the department after a woman said a cop ordered her to lift her shirt and shake her bra to prove she wasn’t hiding any drugs during a routine traffic stop.
The incident was recorded by the police officer’s dashboard camera and made news across the country.
In a scathing letter to the LPD Tuesday, Hill said, “Perhaps this investigation sheds some light on the serious shortcomings of your department in the areas of traffic stops, search and seizure, thoroughness of investigations, preparedness for trial and complying with Florida Public Records law,” according to The Ledger.
City Manager Doug Thomas and Police Chief Lisa Womack addressed the report at a press conference Wednesday.
“The conduct alleged is an embarrassment to all the professional, hard-working members of the Lakeland Police Department and the city of Lakeland as a whole,” Womack told reporters.
“I demand professional, ethical and accountable behavior from all of my employees. I am extremely disappointed.”
In all, ten officers and one Lakeland fireman were named in the report.
Bivens told investigators he had sex with the woman several times while in uniform, including once in her car while it was parked outside the funeral reception for slain cop Arnulfo Crispin, 25, who was shot to death on duty in 2011.
Sherman, who resigned from the department earlier this year, admitted to having sex with the woman inside the Without Walls Church, a megachurch in Lakeland, as well as at a cemetery, The Ledger reported.
The woman told investigators that Woolverton sexually assaulted her in her office in 2008 and 2009.
Woolverton denied the charges, but admitted to having sex with the woman in his police car a few years earlier.
Thomason was the highest-ranking officer named in the report.
He admitted to sending a photo of his penis to the woman, but said they never had sex.
Modified: Thursday, June 27, 2013 at 5:05 a.m.
By Matthew Pleasant & Jeremy Maready
LAKELAND | Sexual misconduct allegations that already reach into the Lakeland Police Department’s highest ranks go beyond what was revealed this week and encompasses the entire 13-year career of the female employee at the center of the scandal, city officials said Wednesday.
Read the State Attorney’s Office investigative report on the Lakeland Police Department.
Police Chief Lisa Womack and City Manager Doug Thomas, speaking at a news conference, divulged few details about an ongoing internal investigation but described it as broader in scope than a three-month investigation concluded Tuesday by the State Attorney’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
A report on that investigation detailed allegations of dozens of consensual and multiple forced sexual encounters between at least 10 officers and LPD crime analyst Sue Eberle.
“The broader scope means that it crosses (city) departmental lines, and there may be other employees that are being included in our investigation that weren’t included in the state attorney’s,” Womack said.
Womack and Thomas denounced the misconduct, saying they had no indication it was happening, even as officers and other workers had sex in city buildings, in parks and in police cars, among other places.
“I assure you that I, too, am shocked that acts of this nature could have gone on for that long,” Thomas said.
State Attorney Jerry Hill also held a news conference Wednesday and, for a second time, urged city leaders to re-evaluate LPD’s leadership, especially in light of a multitude of issues with officers and high-ranking officials engaging in sexual trysts and other well-publicized problems at the department.
He stopped short, however, of saying Womack should be removed.
“I’m hoping that instead of just circling the wagons, they will address the issues,” Hill said. “I think that’s critical if Lakeland is going to maintain credibility with the folks that live there.”
Eberle, who has worked eight years as an LPD crime analyst, revealed the misconduct during a related internal investigation in March. She started with the city in 2000 as a risk management clerk and was promoted twice in her first year. In 2005, she moved to LPD as an analyst and, since March, has been on paid leave.
Eberle’s tenure extends beyond the 2½ years Womack has been chief. Before that, Roger Boatner had been chief since 2003.
Womack stressed in her comments Wednesday that the misconduct began before she arrived. The State Attorney’s Office report showed it continued after she was hired, including multiple incidents last year.
“As chief of police of the Lakeland Police Department, I was — at the time I learned about the behavior, and continue to be now — outraged,” she said during the news conference at Lakeland City Hall.
Boatner, who now works at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, did not respond to requests for comment Tuesday and Wednesday.
The agency has placed many of those facing allegations on paid leave or modified duty, meaning they’re restricted to office work.
Capt. John Thomason, the highest-ranking employee implicated, and Lakeland Fire Department Inspector David Bivens were put on paid leave Wednesday.
Lt. Al Wilson and Sgt. Bryan McNabb were put on modified duty. Sgts. Rusty Longaberger and David Woolverton, were put on paid leave March 21 when the allegations first arose.
The FDLE/State Attorney’s Office investigation detailed allegations of sexual misconduct by those employees and many others.
Womack said the city investigation also will look into why employees who weren’t directly involved in the misconduct, but who had first-hand knowledge of it, did not come forward.
Thomas said there were a “variety of other employees that apparently had first-hand knowledge of this type of behavior who certainly are in position to know that they can bring those issues of concern to the appropriate personnel.
“Even if they didn’t want to do it with LPD, they can come to other divisions of the city or all the way to the city manager’s office.”
The report released Tuesday referenced at least two LPD workers, victim advocate Jackie Suggs and Officer Loretta Jackson, who it said knew about the misconduct.
According to the report, the only explanation Suggs offered for not coming forward was that Eberle was a “grown woman” and should have reported it herself.
Jackson had detailed knowledge of Eberle’s relationships, which included one with Lt. Wilson, the report said. But she seemed conflicted on whether to come forward.
“In her mind,” the State Attorney’s Office report says, “she questioned whether it had really happened and then whether to deal with it as a friend who was a trusted confidant or a police officer.”
The investigative report also said Jackson “was very reluctant to hear or get involved in Lt. Wilson’s affairs” because he had taken disciplinary action against her in the past.
Hill urged city leaders to examine the issues at LPD in their totality, including a variety of other problems, such as a grand jury investigation into the department, an LPD search that Hill’s office has called improper and documentation problems in a DUI case.
“You know you’ve got to quit compartmentalizing at some point and say this is the big picture of what we’re dealing with in Lakeland,” he said. “And if the Lakeland city commissioners and the city manager are happy with it, so be it.”
Some officers might have been prosecuted in the investigation had investigators been able to pinpoint specific dates when they occurred. But Hill stressed that shouldn’t undercut the investigation’s credibility or Eberle’s sworn statements.
Everything Eberle told investigators has so far proved true, Hill said, because she shared details with confidants in the department, including emails and photos as events unfolded.
The most critical information came from those who were accused by Eberle of misconduct, he said. In most cases, their interviews corroborated her statements.
When asked whether Womack should resign or be fired from her office, Hill stopped short of giving a definitive answer. He said it appears Thomas, who hired Womack, is “locked in” to the mentality that “we are going to defend what we’ve got.”
Asked whether she thought the issue shows officers don’t trust her enough to come forward with allegations, Womack said, “No.”
“I think it’s actually the opposite — that I was the one it was brought to, finally,” she said.
How the allegations arose is actually more complicated and indirect.
Earlier this year, LPD opened an internal investigation into actions by Eberle and a former officer, Steve Sherman, who were seen together coming out of a closed building at the Without Walls Central church in North Lakeland.
Amid that investigation, Eberle asked for a meeting with Womack, who declined and referred Eberle to internal investigators, according to the State Attorney’s Office report.
Jackson met off-duty with an internal affairs detective she knew and showed her a long list of people Eberle had sexual encounters with, the report says, and that resulted in the city’s current internal investigation. During that investigation, Womack made a decision to call in FDLE.
Sherman and Eberle ultimately admitted to having sex in the church multiple times, as well as to other liaisons.