How cop's addiction exposed turmoil at top of Southampton Town Police Department
Lt. James Kiernan, one of the Southampton Town Police Department's top officials, faced internal affairs investigators in March 2012 with an audio recorder capturing his answers and his credibility on the line.
At issue was when Kiernan knew that police Officer Eric Sickles was abusing prescription pills and what he did to address it.
The officer's addiction would erupt into an embarrassing public scandal when the Suffolk County district attorney's office asked judges to vacate the drug convictions of at least seven people, including five who filed false-arrest lawsuits against the town.
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Police Chief William Wilson Jr. had made Kiernan, Sickles' direct supervisor and a man with influence in local politics, the focus of the investigation into what went wrong. Kiernan ultimately claimed vindication and blamed Wilson for unfairly targeting him after Southampton's town board ended Kiernan's unpaid suspension and sent him back to work commanding the patrol division at Long Island's fifth-largest law enforcement agency.
But confidential documents and taped interviews from the internal affairs investigation show that Kiernan quietly made an unauthorized personnel move -- without creating any paper trail -- that let Sickles continue police work while in the grip of a destructive addiction. Kiernan also failed to act decisively to ensure that Sickles was not a danger to himself and others, despite a direct plea from Sickles' distressed wife that her husband needed help, the records and interviews show.
After fellow officers contradicted Kiernan's version of events on numerous occasions, Wilson charged Kiernan with lying to the internal affairs investigators about his actions, according to the records.
Southampton's town board did not publicly reveal the results of the investigation when it reinstated Kiernan, and law enforcement agencies use New York's 50-a law to keep officer misconduct investigations hidden from the public. A source provided the materials to Newsday on the condition of anonymity, offering the public a rare look at a Long Island law enforcement agency's investigation into one of its officers.
The records provided to Newsday detail 32 departmental charges that Wilson filed against Kiernan, including 12 stating that he lied to investigators. It was the kind of rebuke that could forever stain or even end a career in law enforcement, where cases can be won or lost on the credibility of an officer. However, in a confidential deal that was also obtained by Newsday, town board members allowed Kiernan to sign an agreement admitting to procedural mistakes instead of having lied.
Jeffrey Noble, a former deputy police chief in Irvine, Calif., who is an author, expert witness and adviser to law-enforcement agencies on misconduct issues, reviewed portions of the records and audio from the Kiernan investigation at Newsday's request. He said there was evidence that Kiernan misled investigators, which Noble called a "termination offense."
A firm response is critical when an agency leader has been untruthful, Noble said.
"He's supposed to be setting the standards for the entire organization," Noble said. "When you have a manager who gets away with lying, that just sends a terrible message."
Kiernan did not return calls seeking comment. His attorney, Ray Perini, said Kiernan would answer questions only if Perini could dictate which reporters were at the interview. Newsday declined Perini's terms.
In a May letter to the town board, Kiernan said Wilson targeted him for harassment after he declined the new chief's request to exert influence on the board "to get things he [Wilson] wanted." Perini told Newsday Wilson had a personal vendetta against Kiernan because of a power struggle within the roughly 160-member department.
"This is like the Hatfields and the McCoys," Perini said.
Shortly after board members returned Kiernan to the force, Wilson retired as chief in November 2012, after only 18 months on the job. In an interview with Newsday, Wilson said he left after the town board "arbitrarily decided they would attempt to whitewash Kiernan's charges."
Wilson acknowledged that as chief, the turmoil caused by Sickles' drug problem was ultimately his responsibility. He said he tried to reform the troubled department but realized soon after arriving that the board would not back him.
"I couldn't clean it up, so I retired," Wilson said. "I wasn't going to waste the police department's time, or my time, making changes that a majority of the town board didn't support."
Eric Sickles was one of Southampton's best cops.
Sickles joined the department in 2000 and was soon assigned to the prestigious Street Crime Unit, where he handled sensitive undercover work, running nearly all of the department's drug informants and securing search warrants.
The Southampton Kiwanis Club named Sickles Officer of the Year, for all of the East End of Long Island, in January 2012.
But his wife, Erica, knew by late 2011 that her husband had a problem.
Sometime in 2009, Sickles injured his back practicing mixed martial arts. He dealt with the pain with a prescription for hydrocodone.
By the fall of 2011, Sickles would later tell the internal affairs investigators, he was consuming a cocktail of pills: oxycodone, Xanax, antidepressants and, briefly, Adderall, which he called "a little hit of speed."
Erica, a former Southampton police dispatcher, saw how the drugs affected her husband at home. She did not respond to Newsday's request for an interview, but she gave the department a written, sworn statement in June 2012 that provided details about her efforts to help her husband.
Erica wrote that she sometimes found Eric passed out on the floor of their Manorville home. She once watched him fall asleep on his feet as he was pouring a drink.
She recorded footage of her husband in stupors for him to see but said he just deleted the videos. She begged her husband's doctor to limit his painkiller supply but said she was ignored.
Then a disturbing incident pushed her to get help from Kiernan, her husband's boss in the Street Crime Unit. Eric usually left his firearm at police headquarters so their young children wouldn't find it. But one night he brought it home and passed out with the gun on the kitchen table.
"I didn't want the kids to get hurt and I couldn't get him up," Erica wrote. "I was really worried and didn't know what to do."
Eric told her that Kiernan had already approached him, saying he "didn't look right at work."
"It wouldn't be me reaching out and getting Eric in trouble because Jimmy already knew something was wrong," Erica wrote.
She called Kiernan the night of Oct. 25, 2011, and said she told him that Eric was taking anti-anxiety medication and pain pills.
Erica wrote in her sworn statement that she told Kiernan about the incident with the gun at the kitchen table and that she no longer allowed Eric to drive with their kids in the car.
Kiernan was receptive to her concerns, she wrote.
"Jimmy told me that he noticed it too and admitted Eric was not himself," Erica wrote in the statement. "He said he saw the change in Eric and that he was tired all the time."
"I felt better," she continued, "and Jimmy told me he would talk to Eric."
When Kiernan described his conversation with Erica Sickles for investigators five months later, he said Erica had told him only that she had seen her husband fall asleep with his gun in his hand and that she wanted him to have a talk with Eric.
Kiernan told investigators he confronted Sickles on Oct. 26, 2011, the day after speaking with Erica. Kiernan said Sickles admitted to being on an array of pills and that he was being treated for a sleeping disorder.
Kiernan told Sickles to lock up his gun at headquarters and not to drive his department vehicle until a doctor had cleared him to work.
Records from the internal affairs investigation show that Kiernan's instructions went undocumented and came with no official safeguards. Instead of invoicing the weapon, which would have been standard in a formal suspension, it was put in a Street Crime Unit locker Sickles could access. He also had access to a smaller .38-caliber handgun the unit used in undercover drug buys.
Within the week, records show Sickles was back doing police work, making a drug arrest on Halloween. Sickles had produced a note, written on a prescription pad by a physician's assistant who had been prescribing him medication, that said Sickles was under the man's care and could "return to full duty."
When investigators asked Kiernan who else he alerted about Erica Sickles' call, he said he told Chief Wilson in the first few days of November. Kiernan said he confirmed for Wilson that pain pills were involved and that Wilson responded by stating, "That could happen to anybody."
Wilson said in an interview with Newsday that the conversation Kiernan described never happened. He said it would be another month before he finally learned that Sickles was carrying a gun and making arrests in Southampton while addicted to narcotics.
Southampton's town board had tapped Wilson in May 2011 to replace James Overton, who retired after 22 years as police chief.
Less than 10 miles separate the Southampton Town Police Department's headquarters from Southampton Village, where Wilson had served as chief for the previous five years. But from the start of his tenure with the town, Wilson was considered an outsider.
The town board typically filled the department's leadership ranks from within. In picking Wilson, the board bypassed four internal candidates, including then-Lt. Robert Pearce and Capt. Anthony Tenaglia, the interim chief and the candidate considered most likely to succeed Overton.
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said at the time that Wilson "stood out as a catalyst for change," noting that she was impressed with his desire to work more closely with other law enforcement agencies and task forces.
The comment underscored one of the board's frustrations with Overton, who had resisted a partnership with the East End Drug Task Force, a unit run by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota that joined manpower and resources from multiple law enforcement agencies. Instead of assigning his officers to the East End Drug Task Force, Overton chose to have his own Street Crime Unit handle undercover narcotics work.
The two groups mounted undercover operations in the same geographic area, and the tension between them was an open secret in law enforcement. It was a "turf war," Southampton patrol supervisor Sgt. Sue Ralph told internal affairs investigators.
Wilson, a former member of Spota's task force while he was at Southampton Village, announced shortly after taking over as chief that he was dissolving Southampton's Street Crime Unit and joining the East End Drug Task Force.
Kiernan had spent nine years in the Street Crime Unit working narcotics cases, including six as the commanding officer. Wilson transferred most of Kiernan's street crime officers to other units but also promoted Kiernan to lieutenant.
Wilson believed that Sickles was the only officer temporarily left behind to close out cases and wind down the unit. That did not happen.
Records and interviews show that in October 2011, patrol Officer Jane Harrigan joined the Street Crime Unit as Sickles' partner. The duo started making arrests and opening new cases, with Harrigan often driving Sickles to and from work.
Asked later by internal affairs investigators who had authorized Harrigan's transfer, Kiernan said it was Wilson, in a verbal order, who teamed her with Sickles. Pearce, Kiernan's supervisor, told investigators he didn't know where the order came from but assumed Wilson was responsible.
That was not the case, Wilson said in an interview with Newsday. Kiernan and Pearce acted alone and in secret, he said.
Wilson said he planned to have internal affairs investigate Pearce's alleged involvement, along with Kiernan. But town board members, who also serve as police commissioners, wouldn't allow it, he said.
"They moved [Harrigan]," Wilson said of Pearce and Kiernan. "They didn't tell anybody and they lied to about it."
The town board named Pearce the new chief after Wilson retired. Pearce did not respond to calls for comment.
Harrigan and Sickles both said it was Kiernan who paired them up, according to their interviews with investigators.
Harrigan said Kiernan first spoke with her about a chance to do undercover work in late August or early September 2011, after Wilson ordered the Street Crime Unit disbanded. Kiernan made it clear that Harrigan's move to the unit was about making cases, not closing them, she said.
"Kiernan said he wanted somebody aggressive to work with Sickles," she told investigators.
Long Island's law enforcement agencies were intently focused on prescription drug abuse at the same time Sickles waged his own private battle. In June 2011, David Laffer murdered four people in a Medford pharmacy so he could stuff a backpack full of pills.
Some of Sickles' colleagues told investigators they recognized signs that he was in trouble.
Det. Kevin Gwinn, vice president of the department's Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, told investigators he saw Sickles clearly impaired twice in November 2011.
Once, when Sickles was about to go out on a detail with Harrigan, Gwinn said, Sickles looked "stoned," he could not focus, his speech was slurred and he looked "white as a ghost." Another time, he recalled a spaced-out Sickles staring at some power tools lying on the ground, oblivious to the people around him.
Sgt. Ralph said that in late November 2011, Kiernan told her that Sickles was going to be joining her patrol unit. Kiernan also let her know Sickles had a pill problem and that he had fallen asleep at work, she recalled.
Ralph would later tell investigators she was uncomfortable about adding an impaired officer to her unit but kept quiet because she was uneasy about challenging Kiernan.
She told investigators that around the same time, she saw Sickles filling up a department Chevy Impala at gas pumps near the police station.
"He was sweating, he was ashen, and he was talking extremely fast," Ralph recalled. "He was high."
An investigator asked: If she saw Sickles on the street, without knowing he was a police officer, would she think he was fit to drive?
"No," Ralph replied. "I would think that he was a crackhead."
Kiernan, one of the department's most experienced narcotics officers, was asked by an investigator whether he noticed any change in Sickles' demeanor. The investigator noted that Kiernan and Sickles shared an office.
"No," Kiernan answered.
"Any change in his behavior at all?" the investigator asked.
"No," Kiernan said.
In early December 2011, Gwinn told Kiernan that a source at a pharmacy had tipped him off that Sickles was filling an extraordinary number of oxycodone prescriptions, according to the account that Kiernan gave investigators.
Kiernan asked Gwinn and Sickles to come to his Hampton Bays home on Sunday, Dec. 4.
Gwinn arrived first. He said Kiernan told him about the October phone call from Sickles' wife and that Sickles was on modified duty. Gwinn said he asked whether Wilson had been told, and Kiernan replied that he was taking his direction from Pearce.
Gwinn told investigators that when Sickles arrived at Kiernan's house, he was on guard and nervous. Gwinn asked Sickles: If you had to stop using the pills today, could you?
"No, I can't," Sickles admitted, according to the account Kiernan gave investigators. "I need help."
Kiernan told investigators it "was the first time I ever thought that one of my guys was a drug addict, and I couldn't believe it."
Wilson said he first learned of Sickles' addiction immediately after the confrontation at Kiernan's house, in a phone call from either Kiernan or Gwinn. Wilson quickly found Sickles a bed at a treatment center in Mineola.
Following treatment and an unpaid suspension, Sickles returned to the force in March 2013.
Wilson opened a formal investigation into the handling of Sickles' addiction in February 2012, enlisting the help of the Suffolk County Police Department's Internal Affairs Bureau. The town board suspended Kiernan in early May 2012 as Wilson leveled the 32 departmental charges against him, including 12 that accused him of lying to investigators.
On May 25, after his own investigators had hauled boxes of evidence out of the Southampton police headquarters, Suffolk District Attorney Spota announced that the drug convictions of two men were being vacated because of concerns that Sickles' addiction compromised the cases.
They would be the first of seven vacated convictions.
Town board members convened privately in executive session in October 2012 to decide Kiernan's future, a matter that would later become complicated by the fact that Kiernan is not just a cop.
Kiernan was also a longtime Southampton GOP committeeman who has been active in the Republican Party since he was a teenager. He followed in the footsteps of his father, a former cop who won election to the Sachem School Board and once served as its president.
Campaign finance records show that Kiernan and his wife are among the local GOP's largest contributors. Their beneficiaries included three of the five board members who would decide Kiernan's fate: $1,775 to Republican Chris Nuzzi; $250 to Republican Christine Scalera; and $125 to Conservative Jim Malone.
Over the past seven years, the couple has given more than $14,000, mostly to Southampton Republicans and Conservatives. At least $6,350 has gone to town Republican groups, double the amount donated in the same period by the Southampton PBA.
As the October hearing date neared, Wilson and Southampton labor attorney Vincent Toomey discussed a settlement of the charges against Kiernan. Wilson said he would not sign any agreement unless Kiernan admitted to a substantial charge, such as lying to investigators.
The deal Wilson approved called for Kiernan to plead guilty to four of the 32 charges: failing to act decisively after Erica Sickles called him; failing to correct Sickles' time sheet to reflect time away from work; allowing Sickles access to a firearm; and lying to investigators when he told them he did not know to whom Sickles and Harrigan reported.
But Toomey and Perini, who is Kiernan's attorney and represents the department's Superior Officers Association, had inserted a phrase in the settlement agreement that said Kiernan was admitting to the lying charge only in that he had "failed to document by personnel order or otherwise changes of assignment" for Sickles and Harrigan.
Perini said the additional language meant Kiernan did not have to say that he had lied to investigators. Wilson says he didn't understand that distinction when he signed the agreement, which the five board members approved unanimously.
In a recent interview, Supervisor Throne-Holst said she did not listen to the internal affairs audiotapes but read parts of transcripts of the investigation and relied on the advice of the board's labor attorney.
Throne-Holst stressed that the board had only two choices -- reinstate Kiernan or terminate him.
Councilwoman Bridget Fleming, the lone Democrat on the board, said she conducted her own "thorough review" of the matter before voting to reinstate Kiernan. She declined to say whether her review included listening to the audiotapes.
Board members Nuzzi and Malone did not return calls for comment. Scalera declined to comment, citing the pending civil litigation.
Responding to concerns in the community that the department was a place where political connections mattered, Fleming led an effort to ban police personnel from sitting on party committees.
"As a minority member of the town board, I took the steps I could take to move the town forward," Fleming said.
The town board approved the resolution in May in a 4-1 vote. Only Councilman Malone voted against the restriction, arguing that it clearly targeted Kiernan.
Two weeks before a public hearing on the rule change, Kiernan wrote a letter to the board that said the proposal's timing "reeks of political grandstanding." He added that he resented "its timing in the wake of so many outright lies and falsehoods that my family and myself have had to endure."
He signed the letter: James Kiernan, Citizen, Town of Southampton.