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Town worker accused of sex abuse still on job

Jeffrey Starzee, an 18-year employee of the highway

Jeffrey Starzee, an 18-year employee of the highway department, has pleaded not guilty to third-degree sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child.(March 15, 2013) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

          An Editor’s Note published July 12, 2017, about Kevin Deutsch’s reporting appears at the end of this story. 

A longtime Shelter Island highway employee accused last month of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl remains on the job, a decision angering the girl's mother and other residents.

Jeffrey Starzee, 47, continues to work full time in the department and draw his $61,000-a-year salary following his Feb. 22 arrest stemming from accusations he fondled the Shelter Island girl over her clothing in two separate incidents on Dec. 3, according to officials and records filed in Shelter Island Town Court.

Starzee, an 18-year employee of the highway department, has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanors -- third-degree sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of a child.

Starzee remains free on $1,250 bail. He would be required under state law to register as a sex offender if convicted of the sexual abuse charge.

Approached outside his home, Starzee said his lawyer advised him not to speak with a reporter.

"I wish I could talk to you," he said. "The truth will come out."

The girl's mother, Deborah Ross of Shelter Island, said she's speaking about the situation because she feels going public could lead to discipline for Starzee. "I'm outraged that he's still working on the town's dime, getting paid with our taxpayer money after what happened to my daughter," she said. "The fact that he's still on the job is ridiculous."

"I'm very upset that he remains around other children and can drive around in a town truck even though he may end up a convicted sex offender," Ross said.

She said her daughter is "destroyed" and hopes to transfer schools. "What she's had to go through is unbelievable," Ross said.

Shelter Island officials defended their decision to keep Starzee on the job.

"He's not facing any disciplinary action at this point," said Town Supervisor James Dougherty. "We feel these are allegations. Under our system of justice, he's innocent until proven guilty."

Highway Department Superintendent Jay Card said: "We're watching the case to see how it's going to unfold."

Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union, a Manhattan-based good-government watchdog group, said the town's decision not to suspend Starzee is improper. "That's [a suspension's] ordinarily what you would expect," Dadey said. "It's the proper action."

Dadey criticized the town's response. "He should have been placed on administrative leave without pay until such time as the court decides the allegation," Dadey said.

Residents voiced similar concerns.

"Especially because this involves sexual abuse of a teenager, a town worker shouldn't be driving around getting paid," said Dorothy Healy, a part-time resident of Shelter Island. "He shouldn't be conducting business as usual, like the arrest never happened."

A sampling of actions taken against public employees in other communities on Long Island show workers often are removed from duty after criminal charges.

In the Town of Brookhaven, for example, highway worker Thomas Forkin, 30, was suspended without pay in December after Suffolk County prosecutors charged him that month with conspiring to sell cocaine and oxycodone to co-workers. Forkin pleaded not guilty.

Officials in several other Long Island areas who didn't want their names used said any public employee charged with child-sex abuse in their communities would probably be suspended without pay.

Starzee has come under scrutiny before. An audit of the highway department in 2011 found he received nearly $9,000 in unapproved compensation from the town while filling in as the department's deputy superintendent. He continues to work full time as a truck driver and equipment operator, officials said.

Ross said her daughter has refused to attend Shelter Island High School -- where she is a standout athlete in several sports -- because Starzee's wife is an employee there. Records show Helene Starzee has been employed by the school since 2003. Two of the Starzees' children also attend the school.

School officials did not return calls seeking comment. Starzee is next due in court Monday.

"I think the trial here wouldn't be fair [because everyone on the island knows Starzee]," Ross said. "They should move it. My daughter deserves fairness."

Editor’s note: Newsday undertook an extensive, four-month review of reporting by Kevin Deutsch, who covered law enforcement from April 2012 to September 2016.

The review of the former Newsday reporter’s work began after The Baltimore Sun this year reported that law enforcement and other officials questioned the veracity of Deutsch’s nonfiction book “Pill City” about Baltimore’s drug trade. In addition, questions arose about individuals named in Newsday stories by Deutsch. Book publisher St. Martin’s Press and Deutsch have said they stand behind the book.

We are dedicated to accurate, factual reporting, to the highest journalistic standards and to maintaining our credibility with Newsday readers. We also are committed to being accountable to our readers. Newsday undertook the detailed review in that spirit and because of the concerns that were raised.

In late February, as our review was under way, The New York Times reported in an editor’s note that The Times “had been unable to locate or confirm the existence of two people who were named and quoted” in a Dec. 29, 2016, freelance article written by Deutsch. Deutsch “maintains that the interviews and the descriptions are accurate,” The Times wrote.

Newsday reviewed 600 stories with reporting by Deutsch. We contacted officials in the police departments regularly involved in Deutsch’s coverage. They said they had not had problems with his work. We then focused our research and reporting on individuals who, as described in the stories, would not be considered officials, or well-known, public figures.

The review found 77 stories with 109 individuals from Deutsch’s reporting whom Newsday could not locate. The main points of the stories were not affected. While two stories about the Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen were based on sources Newsday could not locate, other media reported the main points of those stories but with attribution from different sources.  In this story, Newsday could not locate: Dorothy Healy. Newsday is attaching an editor’s note to each story online that contains individuals we cannot locate.

Here’s how Newsday conducted the review:

Researchers and reporters searched local and national public records, sites providing nationwide people searches, databases of business, real estate and conviction records, social media sites including Facebook, LinkedIn and and nationwide news archives. They searched potential alternate spellings and other name variations. Their reporting followed potential leads they found through research, within stories and in information shared by Deutsch during the review.

Finding people after publication, in some cases years later, can be difficult because of changes in residence, circumstance and contact information. Some may not have given their real names.

On the law enforcement beat, reporters may encounter people who lead lives that are not reflected in public records or other sources of information that would help locate them. It is possible that some on our list were difficult to find or reluctant to respond to our review because they are undocumented immigrants, those battling or recovering from addiction or people involved in or around illegal activity.

Some on our list were described discussing crimes in their neighborhoods, and others as relatives, friends or neighbors of victims or as individuals living near or knowing those accused of crimes.

Others we have not been able to locate, though, are described as bystanders, neighbors, spectators, relatives of drug victims, witnesses to news events or related in some way to people in the news. Still others are described in stories as people actively engaged in public issues, such as activists, protesters and marchers. Many individuals on the list are described as local.

Deutsch said in email exchanges with Newsday that “I have no doubt about the veracity of the claims of the sources I quoted.” He also said, “Not a single public official, source, or other interviewee has raised any issues with even one of these stories.”

“It's impossible for any reporter to know whether the name given to him by interviewees on the street--or those reached briefly by phone or email-- is that person's full and legal name, rather than an alias or variation of their real name (maiden names and certain common nicknames/abbreviations for first names are often published by newspapers, including Newsday.). But every one of the names on Newsday’s list was the name given to me by that interview subject, verbatim.”

During the four months of our review, Newsday shared questions and updates with Deutsch as we progressed in the search for individuals we could not locate. We requested notes and contact information. Deutsch sent us notes he said represented all individuals we were unable to locate and responded over the course of the review by email, sharing information he said was from his recollection and notes.

Reporters followed up on all information shared by Deutsch. He did not provide contact information for those on our list. Newsday reporters and editors sought unsuccessfully several times to meet with Deutsch to discuss his reporting and to review his notes together to ensure we were not missing contact information or other details that might help locate individuals. Deutsch maintained that the notes he shared “serve as evidence of interviews” with each source.

Deutsch said he kept contact information in a Rolodex he left behind at Newsday’s main office and in a company-issued cellphone he returned within a week after resigning on Sept. 6, 2016. Editorial staff did not find a Rolodex or other notes at our office, but found notes left at Newsday’s desk at a courthouse pressroom where he worked. We shared them with Deutsch and he confirmed they were his. As per company policy, the contents of the cellphone had been deleted immediately after Deutsch returned it to Newsday.

Maintaining the trust of our readers is essential to our mission.  If we are able subsequently to locate any individuals, we will update our stories.

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