Chester City Council ignored ex-cop’s history of sexual assault, federal lawsuit claims
Five women have accused Albert Dion Ross of sexually assaulting them during his time as an officer.
Carla Kirksey doesn’t trust elevators anymore. Any confined space, really. Not since August 2015, when she says she was assaulted by a man who was sworn to protect her, inside what arguably should be the safest place in Chester.
“I felt like the city needed to know that we hired this cop that was doing things against the code,” Kirksey said in a recent interview outside her home in Delaware County’s lone city. “I was scared, but I dug deep. This needed to be told.”
Four years ago, Kirksey said, she encountered Chester Police Officer Albert Dion Ross inside the building that houses Chester’s district courts and police station. On her way back from paying a traffic fine, she rode an elevator down with Ross, who was wearing a polo shirt that identified him as “Officer Ross."
When everyone else exited, and as she was making her way out, she said, Ross grabbed her by her shorts and pulled her back inside. He pushed aside her clothing, groped her, and kissed her, all against her will, she said, and then walked away as if nothing happened.
“In my head I was freaking out, but I couldn’t act out because of my priors,” said Kirksey, 50. “And knowing that I had a record, he could’ve used that against me. He could’ve done anything he wanted to do in that elevator, killed me, if I retaliated.”
Kirksey is one of five women who have brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against Ross, 48, who they say assaulted them in their homes or on city property while on-duty as a police officer. The women fault Chester for hiring Ross, a man who came to the city’s employ trailing accusations of sexual assault from two other law enforcement agencies.
And as the suit winds its way through the courts — it’s scheduled for trial early next year — former city leaders are speaking out. They support the suit’s contention that their colleagues and successors ignored multiple warnings about Ross’ behavior. They say he was kept on the force, supported by members of Chester’s City Council, despite attempts to remove him and efforts to keep him off the streets, assigned to desk duty.
Had those warnings been heeded, the women say in their lawsuit, the harm that befell them could have been avoided.
Ross was eventually stripped of his badge in 2017 and convicted a year later of indecent assault and harassment in connection with his actions toward three of the women, including Kirksey. A county judge ordered him to register as a sex offender for 15 years.
City officials, for their part, vehemently deny any wrongdoing, saying in court filings that the council members who voted to hire Ross in 2013 were largely unaware of his employment history, and took action once he was criminally charged.
Ross did not respond to requests for comment. His attorney, Joseph J. Santarone Jr., declined to comment, citing the pending lawsuit. But in his response to the civil complaint, Santarone wrote that Ross denies all of the assaults, including the ones he pleaded guilty to, and disputes assertions that he had been fired from his previous positions for sexual harassment.
Representatives for the city similarly declined to be interviewed, including Aigner Cleveland, a spokesperson for Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, and Kenneth Schuster, the city solicitor.
Former city officials were more forthcoming. Joseph Bail, who served as Chester’s police commissioner when Ross applied for job with the department, said he recommended against his hiring.
“I just to this day cannot rationalize how in the Lord’s name they determined this was a good hire,” Bail said of Ross. “You had a lot of smoke. You have to know there’s fire somewhere."
Ross began the interview process in early 2013, according to Bail. During initial meetings with him and members of City Council, Ross disclosed that he had previously served as a correctional officer at George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the county jail, and as a part-time police officer for the Chester Housing Authority.
In both positions, Bail said, Ross admitted he had come under investigation for sexual harassment. Years later, Ross repeated that to a county detective investigating the sexual assaults, according to the affidavit of probable cause for his arrest.
“A red flag came up in my head. Now we had a pattern,” Bail said. “I told the council I didn’t want to hire him, but they wanted to, so we put him through the process.”
Bail recalled that at the time, City Councilwoman Portia West vouched for Ross, saying she knew his mother and believed he “deserved a second chance." West did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but court documents the city filed in the civil case indicate that she knew Ross and his mother from growing up in Chester.
During the next round of the selection process, members of the Police Department investigated Ross’ background more thoroughly, Bail said.
A report compiled by then-Deputy Commissioner Otis Blair, reviewed by The Inquirer, showed that, when contacted, none of Ross’ former employers said they would consider him for rehiring.
“This wasn’t a flash in the pan, this was a series of smoking guns,” Bail said. “The decision wasn’t personal; it had absolutely nothing to do with race or anything else.”
Blair based his conclusion in part on an incident report from the Chester Housing Authority, where, in 2011, a resident reported that Ross had kissed her against her will while responding to a fire-alarm activation in her unit, according to documents reviewed by The Inquirer.
A spokesperson for the housing authority declined to comment, saying only that Ross resigned in April 2013, a month before he was hired by the city.
And a decade before the incident with the housing authority, the lawsuit alleges, Ross was the subject of an internal investigation by staff at George W. Hill. A lieutenant at the prison wrote that Ross had sexually harassed his subordinates, and used his position “to present a nonverbal illusion of fear" to prevent women from filing reports against him, the suit said.
Law enforcement sources in the county confirmed that the lieutenant’s report was compiled and that its reproduction in the civil case is accurate.
Despite that, Chester’s City Council voted to hire Ross, according to John Linder, the mayor at the time.
“It was very, very frustrating and scary,” said Linder, who was unseated by Kirkland in 2016. “In this position you have to be objective. You can’t let your personal feelings get involved, especially when it’s giving someone a gun and badge.”
The city’s attorney, Suzanne McDonough, wrote in her response to the lawsuit that the Chester Council was only aware of Ross’ firing from the jail for policy violations, and said that the background investigation “did not reveal what is alleged ... and did not disqualify the officer from being hired.”
McDonough declined to comment for this article.
Linder said the problems didn’t end there. Ross was the subject of several reports of insubordination in the first few months on the job, he said, including ignoring an order not to return to the home of a woman with whom he’d been involved in a domestic dispute. Ross, in court filings, denied that.
The former mayor said he tried to fire Ross but faced opposition from Council and the local police union. So, Ross remained, but Bail kept him off the street, refusing to sign the required state accreditation paperwork for active patrolmen.
“The Council had multiple opportunities to intervene,” Linder said. “Even if you made a bad decision and you did hire him, you had a chance to say, ‘Bad decision, but we gave him a chance.' But no, they fought with me about keeping him.”
While on desk duty, Ross encountered Kirksey, as well as another woman who reported a similar assault in the same elevator, according to the civil suit.
The remaining allegations came in 2016 and 2017, after Linder and Bail had left their positions and Ross was again patrolling the city. In one case, a woman said, Ross responded to a call about a domestic dispute and stuck a flashlight down her shirt, exposing her breasts while she protested. In another, he chatted up a woman he had known for six years, and groped her after asking for a hug, according to the affidavit of probable cause for his eventual arrest on indecent-assault and harassment charges.
Ross pleaded guilty in September and was sentenced to four years’ probation. That news only increased Linder’s frustration.
“Council needs to reflect on its behavior," he said. "It wasn’t just bad for the public, but it was bad for him. What do you tell the women who say they were victimized by him?”