UPDATED PER A READER TIP: Prosecutors will not pursue molestation accusation against Dunedin lawyer
Nine months after prominent Dunedin lawyer Robert Tankel was arrested and accused of lewd and lascivious molestation of a child, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office has decided not to pursue the allegation.
Tankel, 58, thanked God, his family and his defense at a news conference Thursday in Tampa.
“Lesser people would have seen what was in the paper and drawn conclusions that were inappropriate,” he told reporters. “I’m just thankful that, unlike a lot of people falsely accused by law enforcement, I had the ability to defend myself.”
Todd Foster, his lead counsel, went a step further, calling the accusations “obviously and painfully wrong.” He said the Clearwater Police Department botched the investigation by rushing to judgment and sending a patrol officer, instead of a more qualified professional, to interview the child.
“Now, when somebody Googles his name,” Foster said, “they read a headline — ‘Prominent lawyer charged with molestation’ — that’s the first thing they see.”
Responding to the comments, Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter refused to apologize for the investigation.
“Before the media or the public pass judgment on the case and Mr. Tankel’s claims, we encourage them to review the entire case file,” Slaughter said in an email.
The department also released a phone conversation between Tankel and an official from Big Brothers Big Sisters of Pinellas County. In the call, Tankel said, “I understand that what I did could possibly be interpreted as inappropriate.”
Police and prosecutors said a 9-year-old boy had reported that Tankel, a lawyer of nearly 35 years, touched him inappropriately on two separate outings.
Tankel was in Big Brothers Big Sisters. Police said the incidents occurred at baseball games in June: one at a Clearwater Threshers game at Bright House Field, the other at a Tampa Bay Rays game in St. Petersburg about two weeks earlier, police said in a court hearing last year.
In both cases, Tankel attended the games with another adult and two boys who were assigned as their “little brothers.” But the boy whom police identified as the victim was the “little brother” assigned to the other adult, lawyers said in court. Tankel was accused of rubbing the boy in his genital area, over his clothes.
He was initially held in the Pinellas County Jail, but was released on $100,000 bail after a hearing in which several friends and community members vouched for him. Tankel was never formally charged.
After hearing that Tankel was cleared Thursday, Clearwater police spokesman Rob Shaw addressed some of Foster’s criticisms.
Shaw said the department followed standard procedure: A patrol officer interviewed the child first, followed by a child services investigator from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.
In the phone call, Tankel admits to horseplay, saying he gave a “purple nurple” to one of the boys from Big Brothers Big Sisters. It refers to when somebody squeezes someone’s nipple so hard, it bruises.
“What they’re talking about isn’t sexual conduct,” Foster said. “Whoever suggested that’s lewd and lascivious conduct needs to go back and read the statute.”
At the news conference, Tankel’s wife, Terri Tankel, characterized the last nine months as “a living hell” for her and her husband.
Robert Tankel agreed. “I feel like my reputation has been destroyed,” he said.
Executive Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson said there were valid reasons to investigate the case as a crime.
“We had testimony to support the allegations from the victim,” Davidson said, adding “the victim did testify consistently with the allegations and the charges.”
Davidson said the other child at the baseball games did not corroborate the accusations. He said it became clear there was not enough evidence to prove a case against Tankel.
“With our burden being as high as it is, once we developed the entire investigation, it didn’t appear we would prove the case,” he said.