Suffolk police report: As sergeant, chief James Burke twice lost gun

James Burke, Chief of Department, Suffolk County Police, James Burke, Chief of Department, Suffolk County Police, addresses Suffolk County Legislators in Hauppauge. (Feb. 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Ed Betz

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Suffolk Chief of Department James Burke, as a sergeant in the First Precinct 20 years ago, twice lost his police-issued service weapon at the same time that he carried on a sexual relationship with a woman who had a criminal record, according to a police internal affairs report.

The March 1995 report, written by then-Sgt. Vincent Posillico and approved by then-Capt. Edward Vitale, charged that Burke could not find his handgun two times in the fall of 1993 -- once when he let the felon, Lowrita Rickenbacker, take his personal car to her Wyandanch home with his handgun lying on the backseat.

The report said Burke engaged in a personal relationship with Rickenbacker, "a convicted felon known to be actively engaged in criminal conduct including the possession and sale of illegal drugs, prostitution and larceny."

Burke's lawyer, Joseph Conway, did not return a call Saturday for comment. The Suffolk police department also did not return a call for comment. In the report, Burke said the relationship lasted six months and that he did not know that Rickenbacker had a criminal history. He also denied that she ever possessed his handgun.

Following the nearly two-year internal affairs investigation, officials determined that these activities constituted conduct unbecoming an officer, two law enforcement sources and the report said.

In April 1995, Suffolk then-Deputy Police Commissioner Robert Kearon signed off on that internal affairs determination, one of the sources said. It's not clear how or if Burke was disciplined.

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Internal affairs investigations are launched after a complaint is filed against an officer. Completed inquiries can either lead to the officer being cleared or to recommending some sort of administrative punishment, such as a reprimand, a fine or a suspension without pay, or referring the case to the district attorney. Under New York State law, internal affairs investigations are not made public.

 

Booking photograph from the Suffolk County Police Department of Lowrita Rickenbacker, whom a police internal affairs report refers to as "a convicted felon known to be actively engaged in criminal conduct including the possession and sale of illegal drugs, prostitution and larceny." Photo Credit: Handout

Now focus of federal probe

Burke, appointed by County Executive Steve Bellone to lead the police department last year, is now under a federal investigation for allegedly assaulting a Smithtown man who was in custody at the Fourth Precinct accused of taking department-issued equipment out of the chief's vehicle when it was parked near Burke's home last December.

Earlier this year, the FBI's Civil Rights Bureau and the U.S. attorney's office for the Eastern District launched the investigation, other law enforcement sources said, after Christopher Loeb told family members that Burke, now 49, punched him while they were alone Dec. 14, 2012, in the Fourth Precinct squad room.

Police said Loeb and an accomplice broke into Burke's department-issued GMC Yukon hours earlier that day and took a duffel bag containing Burke's gun belt, ammunition, cigars and other items.

"Chief Burke denies any allegation of wrongdoing," the department said about the federal investigation. "Once a subject has been arraigned, the Suffolk County Police Department does not comment on the case."

While the 1990s internal affairs investigation was underway, law enforcement sources said, Burke was being considered for a promotion, which eventually was denied because of the report's findings.

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"He was being considered for a designation as detective sergeant," said one source. "His background and reputation precluded him from consideration [for the promotion]."

In 2000, Burke became a lieutenant, which requires an officer to pass a civil service exam. Then in 2002, he moved to District Attorney Thomas Spota's office, where he led the police detectives squad. He remained in the district attorney's office until December 2011. He was then appointed chief of department, where he commands all personnel and operations and reports to Commissioner Edward Webber.

Spota spokesman Bob Clifford and Bellone spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter didn't return calls Saturday for comment.

 

The trail to Rickenbacker

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In August 1993, internal affairs report #93-152 was launched after allegations surfaced that Burke, known to those on the streets as "Starsky," was consuming illegal drugs and that he was taking drugs from dealers and failing to invoice them as police property, according to the document. The drug use allegation was unfounded and invoice accusation was found to be unsubstantiated, according to the report.

But those allegations led investigators to Rickenbacker, who at the time had 27 arrests on her record.

Investigators met Rickenbacker at the Nassau County jail in April 1994, when she consented to an interview to defend Burke against those allegations, according to the report.

"She was initially reluctant to discuss 'Starsky,' but when she was made aware of the allegation that he was using drugs, she adamantly refuted it and agreed to cooperate," the report said.

In a sworn statement to police on April 27, 1994, Rickenbacker told investigators she met Burke in May 1992 when her girlfriend was hit by a car in North Amityville near Sunrise Highway and Albany Avenue. She admitted to police that she was a crack user and Burke "seemed concerned for me and we became friends."

"After about six months I was comfortable enough to get in the police car number 137 with him," her statement said. Rickenbacker told investigators Burke gave her small gifts such as roses, money for food -- which she later admits she used to buy crack -- and that the two engaged in oral sex in his patrol car.

During the interview with Rickenbacker, investigators also learned that Burke failed to safeguard his service weapon twice, the report said.

She told investigators that in the fall of 1993 Burke went to her house after work and picked her up in his personal car, which she described as a blue Pontiac, the report said.

She told investigators, according to the report, that Burke drove her to his house to drop off some things. She waited in the car, then he took her to Roy Rogers for lunch. The next day he accused her of taking his gun, she said. Rickenbacker said he located the weapon at his home the day after that and apologized to her, according to the report.

When investigators checked her story, they found Burke had reported the loss or theft of his .380 caliber Beretta semiautomatic gun on Oct. 3, according to a Suffolk County Police Department field report. A supplementary report was filed on Oct. 4, 1993, saying Burke "reported that he located" his firearm. "The weapon was located in Sergeant Burke's residence in a secure location," it said.

 

Woman says gun was in car

According to the internal affairs report, the second time Burke is alleged to have lost his service weapon was in November 1993. Rickenbacker told investigators that Burke gave her his car keys while they were at a diner on Sunrise Highway in Babylon, the report said. When she got home, she started doing drugs and did not return to the diner. He got the weapon back when he arrived at her house hours later.

"She told him she needed to run home because she left the house unlocked, so he gave her his car keys and he waited at the diner for her," the report stated. Rickenbacker's statement, which is included in the report, says that Burke's gun belt and uniform were in the backseat.

"James' gun was in his gun belt," the statement read. "I took the gun out of the holster and brought it in the house. I put the gun belt and his uniform in the trunk. When James and his partner came to my house I gave him the gun back."

Rickenbacker told investigators that the two broke off the relationship after that incident, the report said.

During an interview dated Jan. 31, 1995, Burke told investigators that he had a six-month sexual relationship with Rickenbacker but denied he knew she was a criminal. "Sergeant Burke could not recall if he ever let Rickenbacker use his personal car, but he denied that Rickenbacker had ever possessed his weapon in the manner she described . . . ," the report said. "He could not recall if he allowed Lowrita to sit in the police car, but he absolutely denies having engaged in any sexual activity while on duty."

Burke said he ended the relationship "when he began to hear rumors about Lowrita," according to the report.

 

Woman considered truthful

Investigators found that Rickenbacker, who took a polygraph test, was telling the truth about the two times Burke failed to safeguard his weapon, the report and the sources said. In addition, the report found that Burke knew about Rickenbacker's criminal history because her crimes occurred in Burke's precinct.

"Given Sergeant Burke's forte for being aware of the criminal element in his patrol zone, and his intimate association with Lowrita Rickenbacker, his claim that he knew nothing of her activities or background seems disingenuous. . . . Her professed admiration and support for Sergeant Burke also lend credence to her account of the incidents she described," the report states.

Rickenbacker is in an upstate jail on charges of second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument.

In June, the FBI served subpoenas on nearly a dozen Suffolk police officers, detectives and headquarters personnel to appear before a federal grand jury investigating the alleged assault on Loeb, sources said.

Loeb, who has been indicted on almost 30 charges and held on $500,000 bail, is due back in court on Wednesday and is in federal custody as a material witness.

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