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For more than a year after a Long Island police chief slugged a handcuffed man who stole sex toys and other items from his department SUV, federal investigators found themselves up against a blue wall of silence - unable to get anyone beside the victim to say what happened.
Then, a detective who was in the room with the chief broke ranks, accepted an immunity offer and started talking, Assistant U.S. Attorney Justina Geraci said Thursday in an opening statement. The detective led investigators not only to the truth about the 2012 assault, but a cover up involving a powerful longtime prosecutor who had been the chief’s mentor, she said.
Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and a former top deputy in the DA’s office are now on trial, accused of conspiring with then-Chief James Burke to stifle a federal probe into whether Burke violated Christopher Loeb’s civil rights.
“They thought they were above the law,” Geraci told jurors. “But they were wrong. And we are here today because no one is above the law.”
Spota, 78, and co-defendant Christopher McPartland, 53, who ran Spota’s anti-corruption bureau, face charges including obstruction of justice and witness tampering. They pleaded not guilty and have denied the allegations. If convicted, they each face up to 20 years in prison.
The trial, at the federal courthouse in Central Islip, Long Island, is expected to take about four weeks.
“Tom Spota is innocent,” his lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, said in an opening statement. McPartland’s lawyer, Larry Krantz, said his client is a victim of “guilt by association.”
The criminal charges hastened Spota's exit from office after 16 years as the top prosecutor in Suffolk, the bigger of Long Island's two suburban counties with about 1.5 million residents. Already a lame duck, Spota announced his retirement days after he was charged.
Burke, now 55, pleaded guilty in February 2016 to violating Loeb's civil rights and obstructing justice for leading the conspiracy to conceal his involvement in the assault. He finished his prison sentence in April.
Burke attacked Loeb in a police station interrogation room after Loeb was arrested for breaking into the ex-chief's unlocked, department-issued GMC Yukon and stealing what Geraci called his “weekend party bag” — a duffel containing his gun belt, ammunition, a box of cigars, sex toys, pornography and a bottle of Viagra with his name on it.
Geraci, in her opening statement, said Burke trampled through an active crime scene at Loeb’s house and took back the stolen items before going to the police station. There, he and three detectives from a trusted group he called the “Palace Guards,” slapped, punched and kicked Loeb while he was handcuffed and shackled to the floor, Geraci said.
He bragged it was “just like the good old days,” she said.
Almost immediately after the beating, Burke started working with Spota, McPartland and other police officials to protect himself from scrutiny, Geraci said. At one point Burke had a fishing boat he was on turn around so he could get back to Long Island and deal with the investigation, she said.
Together, they concocted a story that Burke was an innocent bystander who never entered the interrogation room where Loeb was being held, pressured witnesses not to cooperate and asked some to give false information, Geraci said. One detective was charged with perjury for lying under oath.
“The investigation was basically shut down,” Geraci told jurors. “For a year and half, nothing happened - Burke and the defendants seemed to have gotten away with it.”
But in 2015, one of the detectives in the room when Burke punched Loeb accepted an immunity offer and “kick-started the new phase of the federal investigation,” Geraci said.
As the cover up unraveled, federal prosecutors said, Spota deemed anyone cooperating with the investigation a "rat," demanded that a police officer find out who was cooperating and threatened that informants "would never work in Suffolk County again."
Police officers who received subpoenas from the FBI were interrogated afterward by Burke's allies about whether they had talked, prosecutors said. Some were warned that if they admitted wrongdoing, their union would not pay their legal fees, prosecutors said.
After Burke’s 2015 arrest, he sent a longtime friend to deliver $25,000 in cash to McPartland to help pay for legal expenses arising from the investigation, Geraci said.
Spota and Burke had a kinship that dated to the ex-chief's teenage years in the late 1970s, when he was a star witness in a murder case that Spota was prosecuting.
Spota later hired Burke to work in his office as an investigator and vouched for him when he was appointed chief of police, one of the largest suburban forces in the country with 2,500 officers.
Heading the district attorney’s office and the police department, they “believed that they were untouchable,” Geraci said. “That they could do whatever they wanted and get away with it.”
Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak