They last met in a Suffolk police squad room: the heroin addict and petty thief Christopher Loeb chained to the floor while the once-powerful Chief of Department James Burke assaulted and threatened him in an encounter that Loeb said still haunts him.
Wednesday, in a packed federal courtroom in Central Islip, the two men met again — now both as inmates.
But this time, it was Burke who was forced to listen to the stinging words of Loeb and others touched by his actions as they described their rampant, lingering fear of the disgraced former police chief, and how he ruined careers and brought financial despair.
“I thought you would get away with threatening and brutally assaulting me,” said Loeb, standing at a podium mere feet away from Burke. “You told me no one would believe me. You told me my word was no good against that of a decorated police chief.”
But Loeb’s word had been good enough. He was the man to start it all — his theft of Burke’s duffel bag was the flashpoint for an investigation that led to the chief’s downfall. And others had also come to see Burke’s judicial reckoning. Loeb was the victim, but there were many others — including Burke’s former colleagues — who say they were terrorized by him.
At one time, many had thought, Burke, sentenced Wednesday to 46 months in federal prison, was untouchable.
Legis. Robert Trotta, a former Suffolk police detective, told the court Burke’s behavior in the Loeb case was “not an isolated incident.”
Other good officers were forced from the department for raising concerns about Burke’s corrupt ways, and suffered disastrous financial implications, he said. “Kids aren’t going to go to college because of this man,” Trotta said.
Trotta recalled that after press reports surfaced about Burke disbanding the federal task force, an Internal Affairs investigation was launched and he spoke to the lieutenant of IA to deny that he was the source of the leak.
Trotta said the lieutenant told him: “Don’t feel bad. You’re not the only guy he’s after. I feel like I’m in the Gestapo.”
The federal investigation that took down Burke had also led to an ongoing probe into Suffolk’s law enforcement, including the office of Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota.
“There is certainly some poetic justice, that all the conduct of Suffolk and the alleged corruption by members of the law enforcement community seem to be unraveling and the first thread that was pulled was pulled by Chris,” said Bruce Barket, Loeb’s attorney.
Loeb himself pointed to the federal probe, saying, “You were the chief of police and what you did shook the foundation of an entire police department and the district attorney’s office, who I believe helped you get away with crimes, at least for a short time.”
A spokesman for Spota did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.
The confident swagger that Burke had as a longtime chief was evident Wednesday as he walked into the courtroom — his waistline expanded from 11 months of confinement — smiling at his rows of supporters.
It was a familiar posture to former Suffolk Det. John Oliva, who also lost his spot in the prestigious federal anti-gang task force when Burke disbanded it. Oliva, who did not address the court Wednesday, ultimately lost his job after Spota’s office wiretapped his phone and he pleaded guilty to official misconduct. Federal investigators are now looking at whether prosecutors used that wiretap as a way of garnering information about what Oliva was saying about Burke.
“He walked in with that smug look,” said Oliva, after the sentencing. “That’s just the arrogance that he has.”
While Oliva said he felt like justice was done, he called the results bittersweet, knowing he’ll likely never work as a cop again. “I loved the job,” said Oliva. “I loved the guys I worked with, the camaraderie.”
And despite Burke’s apologies in court, Oliva said he doesn’t believe he regrets his actions.
“I don’t think the guy has much remorse,” Oliva said. “He destroyed lives.”
Victim Christopher Loeb
“Today is the day I honestly believed would never arrive. I thought you were untouchable. Now look at us both, we are both incarcerated. The difference, besides the fact that my sentence is about to end and yours is only the beginning, is that my actions reflected only me. Your crimes revealed deep problems in the entire Suffolk County law enforcement community.”
“You came to my house. You had me arrested. When I was suffering from the consequences of addiction, you handcuffed me to a ring in the floor, and you beat me repeatedly. You threatened to kill me. You degraded me and you humiliated me, all while I was unable to defend myself. Your henchmen threatened to arrest and rape my elderly mother. You bragged to your officers at how helpless and pathetic I was and fondly recalled abusing other suspects during your career as a police officer.”
“I will never feel safe again after what you and your officers did to me. I will never again feel comfortable living in the confines of Suffolk County, the place I used to call home. Every day I fear retribution by other police officers in Suffolk for my role in your downfall. Today, you ask for mercy from this court because of your ill mother. If you had been thinking about your mother when you had me chained to a floor, maybe you would not have officers threaten to rape mine, maybe you would not have assaulted me, and then maybe none of us would be in this courtroom today.”
“You were the chief of police and what you did shook the foundation of an entire police department and the district attorneys office, who I believe helped you get away with crimes, at least for a short period of time….”
Ex-Chief James Burke
“I apologize to the subordinates that I engaged in these acts with. This was, among other things, a misguided and wrongful attempt to protect them and myself. It was a calamitous misdeed. I apologize to my colleagues who I deceived in the wake of this incident. I apologize to the men and women of the Suffolk County Police Department. It is my sincere desire that with this sentencing the focus can be on the great deeds and heroic actions that they perform every day and on every tour of duty.”
Judge Leonard Wexler
“I find this is the most serious of all the crimes committed. It did not affect one person. It did not take one day or one week. It was stretched over three years. It affected a whole police department. I feel Mr. Burke was acting as a dictator. How do dictator’s operate?”
“I believe every letter that was sent on his behalf. He did something good for them. But he also did bad if you were not on his side. That’s corruption. He corrupted a system, not on one act, but for three years.”.