Kent County killing: a question of race

Victim is black woman

suspects are white men

motive is mystery

January 23, 2000|By Todd Richissin and Chris Guy | Todd Richissin and Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

MILLINGTON -- The sun was setting when the three black women in the old Plymouth Horizon rolled past the few dozen houses and family-owned stores that make up Millington, a little Kent County town that has suddenly found itself in the spotlight.

Soon after leaving Millington, one of the women would end up dead. Charged with her killing would be two men who only minutes before her death had called police to look for her car.

The day began pleasantly enough for the women. After a day of shopping across the border in Delaware, they passed through Millington about the same time as David and Daniel Starkey, brothers who had enjoyed their own successful-enough day hunting deer.

Residents here think they know what happened next. What they can't figure out is why. The complicating factor: The Starkey brothers are white, and they are accused of killing one of the black women.

"The fact is," says the mayor and town pharmacist, R. Dennis Hager, "we may never know what really happened."

After passing through Millington, the women continued toward Georgetown, their home just west of Chestertown. They drove west along Maryland Route 291, a narrow, two-lane stretch of road with little on either side except flat farms and isolated homes -- one every couple of miles or more -- that glow like nightlights far from the road.

It's the type of darkened stretch that three black women in a Plymouth worth less than $500 might have avoided years ago, back when times were more dangerous for black people, when being black and breaking down on such a lonely road in such a rural county could have meant real trouble.

But this was close to home, which has almost always seemed safe, and on this day, Dec. 4 of last year, the women drove on.

According to prosecutors, though, being black was enough to end the life of Germaine Porcea Clarkston, 73 years old, mother, grandmother, housekeeper, nanny, and very, very loved.

Clarkston, also a piano player for her church's Sunday services, was killed in much the same way as the deer that lay in the back of the Starkeys' pickup: She was hunted down, then shot.

According to charges against the Starkeys, she was shot because she was black.

"I'm absolutely confident this was a hate crime," says Robert H. Strong Jr., the Kent County state's attorney. "The motive for the shooting was race. We're not explaining it any other way."

Clarkston, a passenger in the Horizon, took a deer slug from a 12-gauge shotgun in her thigh. David W. Starkey, 24, and Daniel Starkey, 20, were arrested six days after she was shot -- three days after she died.

Improbable racists

That such a crime could happen in Kent County has drawn sadness, anger and denials from many in Millington -- population 404 -- that the brothers are racists.

The "Starkey boys," as they are known around here, are former altar boys, former volunteer firefighters, former saviors for a black family nearly swept away by Hurricane Floyd. David Starkey is a former Marine who used to dig ditches for the mayor.

Racists? Hate crime? Many in Millington aren't buying it.

"I think evil won out over good, but I don't think race and hate had anything to do with it," says the Rev. Donald Harris, who is 54 and black and has known the Starkeys' parents for 25 years. "I know those boys. I've talked with them. I don't think they hate black people."

Part of the incident seems clear enough: According to police, the brothers have admitted tailing the Horizon in their black pickup truck and firing two shots toward the car. The events began near Millington, the brothers' home, and continued 21 miles, to Georgetown Road in Chestertown, the road where Clarkston lived and raised a family.

Meriam G. Spriggs, 67, was in the Plymouth with Clarkston and Clarkston's daughter, Michelle Wilson, 38. The driver of the truck, identified by police as David Starkey, flashed his lights and repeatedly honked his horn, first tailgating the women's car, then attempting to pass it, the women say.

Signs of frustration

The women assumed the driver was frustrated because they were driving too slowly and eastbound traffic on Route 291 prevented him from maneuvering around them.

Several times during the pursuit, particularly as they traveled through busy shopping areas in Chestertown, the women thought the truck driver had given up pursuing them, Spriggs says. That's why they didn't seek help before the shooting, the women say.

Investigators decline to comment on one aspect of the case: About two miles before the Starkeys and the women entered Chestertown, David Starkey called police to report that the driver appeared to be drunk.

"I'm behind a drunk -- or he acts like he's drunk -- he's all over the road," Starkey told the dispatcher. According to a tape of the 911 call, he gave the dispatcher a description of the car and its license plate number.

"You want to give your name?" the dispatcher asked.

"David Starkey," he replied.

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