Mother of alleged abuse victim: ‘It’s like a nightmare’

 

JULIE LANE PHOTO | Deborah Ross spoke Thursday about her daughter and the charges of sexual abuse against Highway Department employee Jeffrey Starzee.

Her daughter was not yet 16 when Deborah Ross said she awakened to “a nightmare.”

On the night of January 4, Ms. Ross came home from work with flu-like symptoms and went to bed. She was awakened by her granddaughter sometime around 9 p.m. The child said police were at the door. A police officer told Ms. Ross there was reason to believe her teenager had been the victim of a crime.

Ms. Ross’s daughter is the girl at the center of criminal charges against Highway Department worker Jeffrey Starzee of sexual abuse in the 3rd degree and endangering the welfare of a child. If convicted, he could be subject to up to a year in jail on the sexual abuse charge and up to a year in jail plus whatever the judge finds appropriate on the child endangerment charge.

An 18-year veteran of the department, Mr. Starzee, 47, was arrested February 22, indicted, and pleaded not guilty. Brian DeSesa, a Sag Harbor attorney representing Mr. Starzee, said his client would be fully exonerated on all charges.

The same day Mr. starzee was indicted, Ms. Ross was granted a court order of protection for her daughter against Mr. Starzee, calling on him to refrain from, among other activities, stalking the girl, which Ms. Ross said Mr. Starzee had been engaged in.

At Shelter Island Justice Court Monday morning, a preliminary appearance to begin the discovery process and the filing of motions was postponed until May 6. Regardless of what happens on the two criminal misdemeanor charges — and Ms. Ross believes the case needs a change of venue for a fair trial — she intends to file a civil suit against Mr. Starzee.

But Ms. Ross’s immediate concern is her daughter being “terrified” about returning to Shelter Island High School while Mr. Starzee is allowed to continue working for the town. Ms. Ross believes he should have been suspended pending the outcome of the charges against him.

Highway Superintendent Jay Card Jr., asked whether Mr. Starzee could be suspended from his job with or without pay prior to a possible conviction, said, “You’ll have to ask the Town Board.”

Supervisor Jim Dougherty is quoted as telling Newsday, “We feel these are allegations. Under our system of justice, he’s innocent until proven guilty.”

Asked whether Mr. Starzee should be suspended from the Highway Department, Town Attorney Laury Dowd said, “Since the court, as I understand it, hasn’t decided it’s appropriate for [Mr. Starzee] to be placed in jail pending trial, I think that’s another indication of the severity of the charges.”

Ms. Ross’s daughter has spent the last month out of school while her mother struggles to win an agreement from the district to educate her off-Island. Rumors had swirled for weeks throughout the Island prior to Mr. Starzee’s arrest.

But once he was charged and indicted, the girl was too frightened to return to school, her mother said.
Superintendent of Schools Michael Hynes said he could not comment on the situation.

In an extensive interview, Ms. Ross spoke about the case, admitting she still doesn’t have all the details.

Ms. Ross said she’d been warned by someone who works with Mr. Starzee to watch her daughter because “Jeff was obsessed with her.” Ms. Ross said she had trusted her daughter when she said there was no relationship with Mr. Starzee. “She’s a beautiful girl, but that doesn’t give anybody the right to take advantage of her,” she added.

Apparently the girl had broken down with friends and told them she had been involved with Mr. Starzee. The girl’s friends recorded her admission and took the recording to police, Ms. Ross said. She believes the girls acted in what they thought was best for their friend. Police asked for Ms. Ross’s daughter’s cellphone and found a number of text messages between the girl and Mr. Starzee, she said.

Still, since that night, her daughter has kept “changing her story” and Ms. Ross said she doesn’t fully know what to believe. But she does believe something went on between her daughter and Mr. Starzee.

When Ms. Ross tries to get her daughter to talk about what happened, the teenager’s response is, “I have to move on.” Despite her mother’s attempts to get the girl to speak to a therapist, the teenager has refused.

Ms. Ross said her daughter told Mr. Starzee the day after Christmas that they couldn’t continue seeing one another. But on New Year’s Eve, he texted her to wish her a happy New Year, Ms. Ross said. And during the time she said her daughter was seeing Mr. Starzee, he kept warning her not to tell anyone because it would hurt his wife and children, Ms. Ross said.

Since the case became public, the school has provided only one set of homework assignments and no home schooling, Ms. Ross said. Originally she told Superintendent Michael Hynes she would accept any neighboring school district assignment for her daughter, but now said she wants her daughter to go to Pierson High School in Sag Harbor or the Ross School in East Hampton.

“Why would I send her back?” she said about the girl returning to Shelter Island High School, referring to bullying her daughter had received.

“They’re doing nothing,” she said about the school administration’s response to the situation. She maintains school officials are guilty of “educational neglect.”

She’s concerned for her daughter, Ms. Ross said. “I have to worry about her emotional state,” she said. “He basically ruined a girl’s life without remorse,” Ms. Ross said about Mr. Starzee.

While many people have been supportive, Ms. Ross said she’s aware some people blame her and wonder if her attention to her children is what it should be.

For 25 years, the single mother raised five children while holding a job as a home care worker so she could care for her family, she said. Five years ago, she took a job as a bank teller and several times was offered promotions she refused because of her responsibilities at home. But when she was offered the latest promotion that required her to work off-Island, she believed it would be her last chance to earn more money. She thought her family was stable enough and had enough child care at home for her to accept the new job.

Besides, she has a 29-year-old daughter living on the Island who agreed to respond to any immediate needs of the other children while she was at work, Ms. Ross said.

“This isn’t a case of where was the mother,” Ms. Ross said. “This was someone who saw an opportunity because he knew the mother was off-Island.”

Remembering the evening police arrived at her door, she said, “It’s surreal. It’s like a nightmare that I live over and over again.”

“I have to worry about her emotional state,” Ms. Ross said. “He basically ruined a girl’s life without remorse, without concern,” Ms. Ross said about Mr. Starzee.

While many people have been very supportive, Ms. Ross said she’s aware some people blame her and wonder if her attention to her children is what it should be.

For 25 years, the single mother raised five children while holding a job as a home care worker so she could care for her family, she said. Five years ago, she took a job as a bank teller and several times  was offered promotions she refused because of her responsibilities at home. But when she was offered the latest promotion that required her to work off-Island, she believed it would be her last chance to earn more money. She thought her family was stable enough and had enough child care at home for her to accept the new job.

Besides, she has a 29-year-old daughter living on the Island who agreed to respond to any immediate needs of the other children while she  was at work, Ms. Ross said.

“This isn’t a case of where was the mother,” Ms. Ross said. “This was someone who saw an opportunity because he knew the mother was off-Island.”

Remembering the evening police arrived at her door, she said, “It’s surreal. It’s like a nightmare that I live over and over again.”

 

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