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The night her life began to unravel, Linda Ashby was a confident female law-enforcement officer only five months into a career as a uniformed deputy with the Broward Sheriff's Office. Her confidence had merit: Ashby had been commended for bravery on the job after excelling at the police academy. She had a supervisor who praised her police work. She could speak French, so the BSO had quickly taken advantage of her bilingual skill, assigning her to help communicate with French-Canadian winter visitors.
Ashby's apparent merits weren't enough, however, because she was a lesbian. Although her sexual orientation proved of no concern to her department superiors at the time of her hire, that changed when her orientation went public. Ashby was about to discover that an airing of her personal life could derail her dreams.
On a fateful evening for Ashby, her partner, Deputy Jerry Vosburgh, suggested at the end of a shift that they visit a strip club. Vosburgh picked a spot called Goldfingers, where his girlfriend, Lisa Sears, was a bartender. "I told him I was a little uncomfortable, but he said she would get us free drinks," Ashby recalls. To give herself a sense of ease, Ashby decided to ask her supervisor, Lt. Anthony Cucchiaro, to accompany them.
Married with three children, Cucchiaro had served with the Broward Sheriff's Office for more than two decades. As a lieutenant in District I, Cucchiaro had also become Ashby's mentor, so he agreed to join the partners.
As soon as the group ordered drinks, Vosburgh's girlfriend began flirting with Ashby. "Right in front of the lieutenant, Lisa told Jerry, 'I want her for Christmas,'" Ashby says. "I said, 'Did she really say that about me?' And Jerry said yes. Then [Sears] kissed me on the mouth."
Professionally that was the kiss of death for Deputy Linda Ashby. She and Lisa Sears began a four-month affair when Sears moved out of Vosburgh's place and into another woman's apartment. During the affair Sears maintained contact with Vosburgh. That wasn't good enough for Ashby, who began to pressure her to drop Vosburgh, Sears later told investigators. Fed up, Sears called the BSO department of internal affairs, where a complaint about a deputy, especially a young cop serving in his or her first year, requires an investigation.
News of the affair then "swept through the department like wildfire," says Cucchiaro, who sat discussing events with Ashby over pancakes and eggs in a diner last week.
"He told me I should have dropped her and gotten out of that triangle; he warned me," Ashby acknowledges of her lieutenant.
Cucchiaro did warn his protégé that it could hurt her career. "But they still shouldn't have fired you," he told her.
Cucchiaro believes his own subsequent firing 14 months later by Sheriff Ken Jenne was tied to her dismissal. He had insisted that Ashby's firing was wrong because she had met the performance standards of the department.
A Sheriff's Office spokesman says Ashby's lesbian relationship had nothing to do with her firing, and Cucchiaro's dismissal is unrelated. But according to internal-affairs investigator Andrew Smalling, her affair with Sears created job-performance problems, which were the cause of her firing.
Ashby wanted Smalling and his supervisors investigated by state prosecutor Aleash Guttman, who refused. According to Ashby, Smalling lied in his IA report by leaving out evidence that exonerated her. That omission, if true, is a felony. Guttman rejected that notion, but he didn't dismiss Ashby entirely. "I think you have a civil case against them," he replied in a taped statement. "But not criminal."
Ashby remains convinced that her sexuality and her torrid personal life embarrassed her superiors but shouldn't have cost her a career. She wants the job back, not a lawsuit, she says.
In her view Sears' complaint to IA was motivated by anger when Ashby ended the affair. (Neither Sears nor Vosburgh could be reached for comment.) Sears' claim of stalking was never proved, even after Ashby's home and cell phone records from Bell South were subpoenaed by investigators. Although Sears' complaints were dismissed for lack of evidence by Assistant State Attorney John Countryman, Ashby was fired in June 1998. After almost 12 months of duty, she was two weeks shy of ending her probationary status as a first-year deputy.
BSO records cite her for conduct unbecoming a deputy, for insubordination, and for parking her county vehicle near Goldfingers on one occasion. Sheriff's deputies "using assigned vehicles are banned from patronizing package stores or any establishment which may result in public criticism," according to regulations.
Unable to find work in other police departments, Ashby now serves as director of operations for a company that provides security to gated communities and office buildings.
Her mentor Lieutenant Cucchiaro, fired only two years before his 25-year retirement mark, says he will continue to fight for his job. His termination letter, signed only by Sheriff Ken Jenne, cites a lack of "truthfulness in office matters." Cucchiaro dismisses that explanation bitterly.
Cucchiaro's supervisors ended his career, they said, because he took a holiday without permission and then claimed untruthfully that he'd submitted the holiday request form. Cucchiaro says he passed an independent lie detector test to show he told the truth, which is part of a case he's building to force Jenne to rehire him. But the Hispanic lieutenant, a cancer survivor who was eagerly counting on his retirement in 2002, can't recommend supervisors in the Sheriff's Office who will talk about his case. "They'd lose their jobs," he says.
Ashby does him one better in that regard: She sets up a meeting with a friend still serving in the Sheriff's Office, Deputy James Harrison. A former internal-affairs investigator who regularly checked into complaints about officers, Harrison now works out of Port Everglades. He and Ashby met at Cathode Ray, a gay club on East Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale.
Harrison agrees that Ashby did good police work in general. And he says that, by embarrassing the department with details of her personal life, she could easily have lost her job. But discrimination against her -- or a slipshod investigation of her lesbian affair -- is not enough to say that antigay treatment is departmentwide, Harrison tells Ashby. "I just don't see it," he says. "I haven't noticed that, and I know a number of gay officers. It might have happened to you because this is a touchy subject for them when it goes public."
The embarrassment of a romantic triangle exposed throughout the 3300-person Sheriff's Office probably seemed unimaginable to the deputies involved in the months before it happened.
At 35 years of age, Ashby was finally doing what she had long desired -- working the streets, going after criminals, even helping the suspects she arrested by showing them a steady, firm compassion, she says.
"She was always aggressive, forward, sort of like that," Cucchiaro explains. "But she treated people fairly." Ashby also proved tough and dependable in dangerous situations, the make-or-break duty that often reveals whether young officers are temperamentally fit to serve as cops.
On one particular night, she and Vosburgh came upon an armed robbery taking place in the back of an ice cream truck, according to the citation she later received. Ashby disarmed the gunman and forced him to surrender, handcuffing him, while Vosburgh took the weapon. "In all, two armed robbery cases were solved with the astute, heroic and professional demeanor demonstrated by these two fairly new employees," reads the November 1997 citation, which led to their nominations as Deputies of the Month.
Although she received another commendation the following April, it did nothing to alter her fate.
"If you're part of the boys' club and you have a divorce with a domestic abuse complaint, no one I know of gets fired," Cucchiaro says. But Ashby is a lesbian. He defines what happened to her as a case of sexual discrimination -- and the power of a single telephone call. "You'd think your personal life is your domain, that if you're doing your job honestly, that's what counts," he says. "But in reality all it takes is a phone call [to Internal Affairs]. Instead of worrying that she might be the victim, they took the easier route: She was fired."