Laura Asbury flips through a stack of photographs. Her long, manicured nails graze dozens of smiley faces, inspiring deep dimples in her own.
Each shows the 32-year-old juvenile detention officer embracing a different girl. In one, Asbury wraps her slender arms around the broad shoulders of a girl who looks like any other happy 17-year-old — aside from the prison-issued uniform. In another, Asbury gently cups the belly of Grace Stokes, who at the time was 17 years old, eight months pregnant, and incarcerated. "I love my girls," Asbury says.
For more than seven years, she didn't simply work at the Summit County Juvenile Detention Center, better known as Dan Street. She lived and breathed her job, and was dedicated to helping any girl who would accept it.
There was no such thing as 9-to-5 or sick days. Asbury was the girls' guardian 24/7, often answering their calls in the middle of the night and carting them to the hospital to deliver babies. She was the one who handed them GED applications, the one who threw them pizza parties when they collectively read 100 books. She ensured that many never returned to Dan Street and that the ones who did weren't forgotten when sent off to prison.
Their gratitude is expressed in a stack of letters. "Thank you for all the outings and appointments you took me to," writes one former inmate. "You have been someone I look up to . . . I look at you and think, 'Damn! That's how I want to be — strong, independent.' You will always be in my heart."
"[You] mean the world to me," writes another. "[You] gave me a reason not to give up."
They refer to her as "Miss A" — as in "Miss A would give you the world, if she could." But even as Asbury sifts through her mementos, her smile fades.
While the inmates appreciated Asbury's dedication, her bosses did not. Last year, Asbury was fired. Don Ursetti, spokesman for the Summit County Juvenile Court, claims she was let go because of her "noncompliance with court policy," though he refuses to translate this from bureaucrat-speak.
But her firing may have been motivated by another reason. Asbury had a habit of calling out anyone who didn't act in the kids' best interest.
A single mother who prefers shopping at Gabriel Brothers to Dillard's, Asbury has a girlish physique and straightened mane that make her appear much younger than her 32 years. But when she opens her mouth, she speaks with the cadence of a woman who knows exactly where to score weed among the empty row houses of East Akron. It's not so much what she says; it's how she says it — with a nonchalant, streetwise twang that leaves no room for flourish.
Asbury first entered Dan Street not as a twentysomething detention officer, but as a 13-year-old inmate.
She rattles off the things that led her to this place — the self-hate that comes from teenage fat, the relatives more dedicated to addiction than family. She often ran away, preferring to spend her time getting high at metal shows. "I was all about the Monsters of Rock and experimenting with drugs," she says. "I used to use my family's dysfunction as an excuse to act out. I'd highlight it when it was convenient."
The first time Asbury ended up at Dan Street, she was arrested for running away. It was a quick overnighter before Mom picked her up.
The second time wasn't so easy. Asbury was caught bringing a joint to school. In exchange for having the charges dropped, police wanted her to rat out the dealer. She found a better option in running away again.
When she was finally caught, she spent a week in detention. "I continued downhill from there," she says. "I stopped going to school in my sophomore year. I went the first two days, then just started skipping."
The woman next door gave her pot in exchange for baby-sitting. They'd spend afternoons getting drunk on Black Velvet.
She finally ran away to Virginia at 16, before returning to Summit County to serve her last stretch in detention. She was tired of getting in trouble — tired of causing her family so much trouble. She got a job as a waitress, enrolled at the University of Akron, and gave birth to her only son. Her lone goal was to land a job working at Dan Street. "I just knew exactly where those girls were coming from," she says. "And I knew I could help. I just knew it."
In 2000, she took a part-time job as a group counselor. One of her first girls was Grace Stokes, 14 at the time. The startlingly curvaceous beauty fought with her mother incessantly. She first ended up at Dan Street for threatening to kill her mother's dog.
While Stokes fancied herself a hardass, able to hold her own in the Brunswick High cafeteria, she was terrified of the girls at Dan Street. They were a different breed of tough — girls who weren't locked up for threatening dogs, but for attempted murder, felonious assault, and hard-core drug use. Stokes was especially scared of Asbury.
After her first night in detention, Stokes awoke to find Asbury screaming for her to get out of bed. "To be honest, at first I thought she was a total bitch," Stokes says.
She remembers Asbury dressing her down, reminding her that she was just "a cupcake from the suburbs."
"They'll eat you alive in here," the counselor told her.
Asbury always gave first-timers the worst of her "professionally paid bitch" routine, hoping they wouldn't come back. Most didn't. But Stokes would become a Dan Street fixture. "That first week was rough," she says. "I had to earn my frequent-flyer miles before she warmed up to me."
The girl would spend more of her teenage years at Dan Street than in her own bed. The more she messed up, the more time she spent with Asbury. "She was just real open and honest," Stokes says. "She didn't sugarcoat anything, didn't give you any bullshit. She just told you like it is."
Even after she was released, she would call Asbury for advice. The counselor would prod her into accepting responsibility for her fate.
But it would take the ultimate error for Stokes to understand. She had run away again, squatting and partying with friends in Toledo. That's when she was raped.
She turned herself in. Asbury picked her up at a corner in Kent and delivered her to Dan Street for her last stint in detention.
Soon after, Stokes gave birth to a baby girl, conceived with a boy she was no longer dating. Asbury got her into a Job Corps program, where she earned her GED and learned to become a building manager, responsible for everything from drywall to carpet installation. She hasn't had a legal run-in since.
"If it wasn't for Miss A, I just — I don't know how I would have done it," Stokes says. "She'd go out of her way to help, to give you anything you needed."
It's a sentiment shared by numerous former inmates, who speak glowingly of the amazing Miss A. But the same traits that drew girls to Asbury also drew the ire of her bosses.
The real trouble started in 2003. That fall, Linda Teodosio was elected to replace Judy Hunter as Summit County Juvenile Court's lone judge, responsible for overseeing Dan Street.
In Akron, the Teodosio name is akin to Russo in Cleveland. Her father-in-law, Al Teodosio, was the longtime chairman of the Summit County Democratic Party.
Linda Teodosio served five years as a municipal court judge before running for the juvenile court. She promised to reduce detention overcrowding by diverting inmates to programs with names like "Crossroads" and "Project: Greenhouse Effect."
But if her words were sunshine and lollipops, her behavior was old-school patronage pol. Before Teodosio even set foot in the office, she fired a whopping 39 court and detention center employees, replacing them with the Democratic faithful. The detention center sank into chaos.
She seemed a judge better suited for press releases than management, issuing a blizzard of new policies that confused staff.
In 2004, Teodosio fired three people, including Carl Cannon, who'd worked at Dan Street for more than a decade. Cannon often worked as a "floater," responsible for everything from shuttling kids to the courthouse to grabbing toilet paper from the janitor's closet. For years, floaters would sit in the probation offices during slow weekend shifts, reading or watching TV until they were dispatched.
But Teodosio had issued a rule that made the probation offices off-limits to "unauthorized" personnel. One problem: She neglected to say exactly who was "authorized" — or to even let staffers know the rule existed.
So when Cannon sat down to play guitar and read his Bible on a Super Bowl Sunday, he didn't realize he was endangering his job. "It was all on camera," Cannon says. "We knew we were being recorded every time we were in that office. There was never a problem."
Yet now there was. Cannon was fired — as were Martin Owens and Tommie Gusman, though none were even aware of the rule.
While veteran workers lived under the fear of first-strike termination, Teodosio's handpicked employees seemed to have diplomatic immunity.
In the fall of 2003, dispatch received a call from the mother of an inmate. The woman had apparently caught the eye of detention officer Willie Hawkins, a Teodosio hire, during a visit to her son.
Hawkins dug up the woman's phone number from her son's file and called. She complained to his supervisors that she felt violated and harassed, but instead of a reprimand, he received a promotion. (Hawkins no longer works at Dan Street and could not be located.)
Employees say the inconsistencies came daily. While some staffers were written up for arriving 10 minutes late, others got a pass when they didn't show up at all.
In 2007, Asbury was sure that detention supervisor Donald Guthrie had shown up to work drunk. "It was no secret that he was a drinker," she says. "And I really didn't care, as long as he didn't show up drunk in front of the kids." (Don Ursetti declined to comment on Guthrie's behalf.)
But when Asbury complained to Guthrie's superiors, she was written up for disrespecting the chain of command. Teodosio never investigated her claims.
The randomness of the rules made it difficult to focus on the real task at hand — saving kids. "You were constantly worried that whenever you were helping a kid out, you might be doing something that could get you written up, because you just didn't know what the policies were," Asbury says.
So she would learn her lessons the hard way.
In 2005, 17-year-old Tyresa Gissendaner walked through the doors of Dan Street. Though she came from the blighted Manchester-Thornton area of Akron, Gissendaner managed to stay out of trouble for most of her life. "People always said I was the nicest bad kid they ever met," she says.
Gissendaner, who delivers her sass through a big, bright smile, ran track, loved school, and worked at the Boys & Girls Club. But she was attracted to troublemakers.
For years she'd been dating Richard, a guy from the neighborhood who ran with the V-Not gang. "We looked good together," Gissendaner says. "People wanted to be us. We was like the popular couple."
They were also a violent couple. Richard repeatedly hit Gissendaner, beating her unconscious, fracturing her nose, and knocking her teeth out. Gissendaner refused to press charges. "That's just not how we do things where I'm from," she says. "My mom told me to handle it."
So Gissendaner did. After a long night of partying, the two got into a spat. Richard choked her until she was unconscious. When she came to, she grabbed a knife and stabbed him. "His eyes just got real wide," she says. "And he said he couldn't breathe. It killed me when I realized what I did."
As they waited for an ambulance, Gissendaner applied pressure to the wound. Each time Richard tried to hug her, more blood would gush out. "I love you," he told her.
Richard refused to say who stabbed him. When he got to the hospital, he slipped into a coma for two months. By the time he awoke, he was blind and paralyzed, due to a lack of oxygen.
Detectives knew that Gissendaner and Richard had been fighting. When they questioned her, she spilled everything.
Gissendaner knew a lot of the girls in detention — familiar faces from the broken homes that littered her neighborhood. Everyone warned her to stay away from Asbury. "They kept saying how tough she was," Gissendaner says.
But she took an immediate liking to the detention officer. Once, when Gissendaner was rushed to the hospital for medical complications she'd rather not reveal, Miss A was the one who sat beside her during her recovery. "She was always there for me after that," Gissendaner says. "She was always at my side, and she didn't even know me."
Gissendaner says that Asbury always told it to her straight. "She wasn't like the other [officers] who just didn't care."
It was Asbury who told her that the stabbing charges had been bumped up to attempted murder. At first, Gissendaner was in denial, convinced that she'd be walking out of Dan Street in a matter of days. "It was Miss A who set me straight. She was the one who got me the lawyer, tried to help me get the proper representation."
Gissendaner's mother couldn't afford an attorney, so the case was left to a public defender, whose main priority was juggling a monstrous caseload. Asbury wasn't pleased by the minimal face time the lawyer was providing her young client, so she encouraged Gissendaner to lodge numerous complaints with the public defender's office.
It was no use. The lawyer told Gissendaner to take a five-year plea.
A year later, Asbury was written up for giving another inmate similar legal advice. "Again, there is no policy that says we can't give the girls advice," Asbury says. "But that's the way it is."
The best she could do was to mentally prepare Gissendaner for the world of prison. "She told me what it was all about," the girl says. "She reminded me that no matter how bad I had it, someone always had it worse."
Just a week after Gissendaner was sent to Marysville, Asbury was sending letters and care packages. She visited at least once a month, often dragging Gissendaner's mother along. "She just made me feel so good," says Gissendaner, who is completing her diploma and hopes to someday have a job like Asbury's. "She reminded me that I could be an inspiration. I love her so much."
But the bonds Asbury was forming with her girls would only get her into more trouble.
Shortly after Gissendaner left for prison, another beloved detention officer earned a glowing profile in the Akron Beacon Journal. Sherri Hankton was also the kind of employee the girls showered with thankful letters and needy late-night phone calls.
But Teodosio didn't seem to appreciate publicity when she wasn't front and center. A month later, she issued a memo warning employees that "it has come to my attention that some employees are having contact with children involved with the Court outside the scope of their assigned duties. While I certainly have no difficulty with words of encouragement and support during the course of chance meetings in public places, it is contrary to long-standing Court policy for any of you to engage in meetings with youth outside your assigned duties."
To Asbury, the memo was vague at best. She knew there was a downside to entanglements with inmates. After all, she once ratted out an officer after discovering that he was dating a 14-year-old inmate. She also complained about an officer who bragged of her pot use on her MySpace page, which Asbury was worried the kids could find.
But letters? Encouraging words?
So Asbury went to Robert Scalise, the court's policy writer. "He couldn't find a thing amongst the policies that said the girls couldn't contact us from outside the court," she says.
Moreover, Teodosio had her own relationships with inmates. Among her favorites was Jaclyn Billings. Teodosio attended Billings' soccer games and allowed her to do homework in the judge's chambers. She was also aware that Billings corresponded with Asbury and Hankton, sending them e-mails and updates about her life outside Dan Street. "I've been so busy with school, soccer, homework, Crossroads, AA meetings, and my life," Billings wrote Asbury. "Everything's been going real good . . . I'm so proud of myself for once."
But things weren't really as good as advertised. In 2006, Billings hanged herself in her mother's basement, just two months after Teodosio gave her an early release from detention. "She wasn't ready," Asbury says. "She couldn't take the outside world yet. When she died, I actually cried with the judge. She consoled me. Everyone in detention was allowed to go to the calling hours."
But Teodosio's condolences seemed to end with Billings.
In February 2007, a former inmate found Asbury through MySpace. When the girl began sending messages, Asbury was careful to notify the girl's probation officer. In four e-mails, Asbury simply asked her to stay out of trouble and keep her grades up. But her superiors were unimpressed.
Two weeks later, Asbury received a "last-chance letter."
"The court is concerned that you are unable to exercise appropriate boundaries with the youth you supervise," reads the reprimand. "If you continue to engage in any behavior inappropriate to your conduct as a Detention Officer, your employment will be terminated."
Asbury wasn't pleased. She highlighted the hypocrisy by pointing out all the letters and calls that other officers, teachers, judges, and magistrates received from former inmates. She also complained that after receiving the notice, her bosses continued to place letters from other girls in her mailbox. She said she was willing to make the changes they wanted, but was confused about the boundaries.
"I didn't feel that [the girl] contacting me through MySpace was out of the realm of the public space, where I was offering words of encouragement," Asbury says. "I was up front with these people about it. And I think that's why I got fired."
For the next several months, Asbury believed her superiors were looking for any way to fire her. In March 2007, Assistant Court Administrator Steven Stahl, a Teodosio appointee who was also her neighbor and the former police chief of Munroe Falls, thought he'd found a reason.
A Dan Street frequent flyer named Jasmine Hooks had recently returned. She and Asbury had never gotten along. "She was always saying how she was gonna work on getting Miss A fired," says Whitney Yates, a former inmate who served time with Hooks. "She was just angry. Always saying racial things to us. She called me a blue-eyed devil. And seriously, I think that's why she had trouble with Miss A."
On March 13, Hooks had a hearing in front of Teodosio. Asbury sat with her as she waited to go to court. "She started running her mouth, informing me that she was going to get me fired when she went to talk to the judge," Asbury says. "I just ignored her."
But as Asbury got ready to leave work that day, she was called into a meeting with Stahl.
During her hearing, Hooks told the judge that Asbury had been telling the other girls that she had genital warts and that they shouldn't sit next to her. Asbury, busy in detention, wasn't there to defend herself.
At best, the story seemed the imaginative concoction of a vindictive teen. "We all knew it wasn't true," says a Dan Street employee, who asked that her name not be used. "[Asbury] always tried her best and, I would say, went over what the normal people did to try and help them. She would never do a thing like that. It was ridiculous."
When Stahl questioned Asbury, she relayed Hooks' earlier threats about trying to get her fired. But rather than address Hooks' claims, Stahl angrily confronted Asbury about another matter.
Just days earlier, Asbury had lodged her complaint against Guthrie, alleging he had shown up drunk for work. Stahl was upset that Asbury had violated the chain of command. "I told him that, honestly, I didn't feel comfortable coming to him about the situation because of their personal relationship with [Guthrie]," says Asbury.
The next day, Asbury was removed from the girls' unit while supervisors investigated Hooks' claims.
Asbury wasn't worried about getting fired. "I knew they'd question my girls, and they'd tell the truth and it'd all be over," she says.
After two weeks, Asbury was allowed back on the girls' floor. She figured the whole drama was over.
But on April 23, 2007, she was fired. Teodosio believed Hooks' story. (Neither Teodosio nor Stahl responded to interview requests for this story.)
Asbury wasn't going to go without a fight. She filed a claim with the Unemployment Compensation Review Commission, hoping to prove she'd been fired without cause.
Last November, hearing officer Shane Griest agreed. "It has not been shown that [Asbury] engaged in sufficient fault or misconduct to suspend her unemployment compensation benefits," Griest wrote. "She has provided credible, first-hand testimony to establish that the incident which led to her final warning . . . and to her discharge did not constitute fault or misconduct on her part."
Though the ruling allowed her to collect unemployment and a bit of redemption, Asbury did not get her job back.
Sitting in the Tower City food court on a sunny March day, Asbury and Stokes pick at fries slathered in neon cheese, as they laugh at children who scoop up free samples at the Charley's Subs stand.
It's been almost a year since she was fired, but Asbury is happy to be out of Teodosio's shop. "It's nice not waking up each morning worrying about who's gonna stab you in the back."
Now, she can at least visit her girls without the disapproving eye of her bosses. Just the week before, she took two former inmates to a Barack Obama rally. Then she registered them to vote. The following week, she visited Gissendaner and took in a prison art show.
But she hasn't completely left her old job behind. In her spare time, she works on her website, www.impeachjudgeteodosio.com, where she lists grievances against the court. The week before, she proudly notes, she got over 2,000 hits. She's also become a vociferous supporter of Katarina Cook, a Republican magistrate running against Teodosio in this year's election. "All I care about is those kids," Asbury says. "And that's what I gotta fight for."
Teodosio dismisses Asbury's attacks as little more than the ravings of a wacko. Scene's calls to Teodosio were not returned; instead, she asked Wayne Jones, finance chairman of the Summit County Democratic Party, to call Scene on her behalf. Jones couldn't answer questions. "I just don't know enough about the story," he says.
Meanwhile, proof of Asbury's dedication sits next to her at Tower City. Stokes, now a mother of two, does maintenance and construction at a shiny new 100-unit apartment complex in the Flats.
"I can't believe they'd just fire someone like Miss A," she says. "There are a lot of kids in there that don't have parents, that are neglected. I didn't have a proper role model until Miss A. I think they should praise her for what she does. I was so upset when I heard."
The two continue talking over the fries and the random noise of the food court. Asbury talks about how Stokes plans to take night classes and finish her degree. "I'd like to give back the way you do," Stokes replies. "If I hadn't dropped out, maybe I could have gone to college."
Asbury interrupts her. "No! You could. When your kids get older, you'll see. You can do it. Look at me!"