Former Suffolk Police Chief James Burke was arrested at Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park in Farmingville and charged with offering a sex act, public lewdness, indecent exposure and more. Burke was released from prison in 2018 after serving time for beating a handcuffed prisoner and orchestrating a cover-up. NewsdayTV's Ken Buffa reports. Credit: Newsday Studio

Disgraced former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke was arrested Tuesday on multiple sexual misconduct charges during an undercover sting by county park rangers investigating complaints about sex solicitation at a Farmingville park, police said.

Burke, a convicted felon whose federal prosecution for beating a handcuffed suspect and covering it up more than a decade ago left an ethical stain on the police department, attempted to use his former law enforcement status — and an appeal for sympathy due to the substance of the allegations — to avoid being arrested, officials said. 

“The ranger who made the arrest of Mr. Burke did not know he was [James Burke] … not at first, not until he identified himself and said who he was and said, ‘Do you know who I am?’” said Stephen Laton, chief of the Suffolk County Park Rangers, speaking at a news conference. 

Sgt. Brian Quattrini, also of the rangers, said: “He was expressing to us how this would be a public humiliation for him and such.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Ex-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke was arrested and charged Tuesday morning with alleged sexual misconduct crimes in a county park, officials said.
  • Burke was charged with offering a sex act, indecent exposure, public lewdness and fifth-degree criminal solicitation, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodkey K. Harrison said. Additional charges that were not specified could be pending, the commissioner said.
  • Burke was released with a desk appearance ticket. He is due in court on Sept. 11, according to Tania Lopez, a spokeswoman for Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney. 

Suffolk Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison said the Suffolk County Park Rangers' Targeted Response Unit was conducting a sting operation using undercover rangers at the park Tuesday morning because authorities had received "numerous complaints" that people were soliciting sex at the Suffolk County Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park in Farmingville.

"At 10:15 a.m. today, during this operation, they engaged one individual who was soliciting for sexual engagement," Harrison said. "Due to the actions that I am not going to share, this individual was placed under arrest. The rangers ascertained that our perpetrator involved was identified as James Burke, former chief of the Suffolk County Police Department."

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison briefs reporters about...

Suffolk County Police Commissioner Rodney K. Harrison briefs reporters about the arrest of ex- Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke outside the Sixth Precinct in Selden on Tuesday. Credit: John Roca

Park rangers arrested Burke, 58, of Smithtown, and took him to the Suffolk Police Department's Sixth Precinct in Selden for processing. He was charged with offering a sex act, indecent exposure, public lewdness and fifth-degree criminal solicitation, Harrison said. Additional charges that were not specified could be pending, the commissioner said.

Burke was released with a desk appearance ticket. He's due in court on Sept. 11, according to Tania Lopez, a spokeswoman for Suffolk District Attorney Ray Tierney. 

It was unclear if Burke has an attorney. He left the precinct without making comments.

Burke had a small amount of marijuana and a muscle relaxant at the time of his arrest, a law enforcement source told Newsday. The former chief has not been charged with drug counts. He drove a rental car to the park, the source said.

Burke remains a notorious figure on Long Island. 

Burke’s latest arrest comes as some recent public discussion has centered on his role in the initial police failings to crack the Gilgo Beach serial killer case following the arrest last month of suspected killer Rex A. Heuermann — 13 years after the victims’ remains were found. Burke cut out the FBI from the investigation, starving it of expertise and resources, which various law enforcement officials conceded hurt the investigation.

Then-Suffolk County Chief of Police James Burke in 2015, as he...

Then-Suffolk County Chief of Police James Burke in 2015, as he was arrested in connection with the beating of a man and the subsequent cover-up. Credit: James Carbone

Burke, who was Suffolk’s highest-ranking uniformed officer for four years, was arrested in December 2015 after he was indicted on charges of obstruction of justice and violating the civil rights of Christopher Loeb, then 26, of Smithtown, and then orchestrating a departmental cover-up of the crime. Burke was denied bail and remained in federal custody after the late U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler deemed him a danger to the community. 

In February 2016, he pleaded guilty, and nine months later Wexler sentenced Burke to 46 months in prison and 3 years of supervised release.

Burke was investigated in prison in 2017 after oxycodone was found in his housing area of the low-security federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, where Burke served the majority of his sentence, sources told Newsday then. His attorney said at the time he would be “vindicated.” The result of that investigation was not disclosed by federal officials.

Burke was released from federal prison in November 2018 after serving most of his 46-month sentence. 

Suffolk police had arrested Loeb, a heroin addict at the time, on Dec. 14, 2012, after he was suspected of stealing a duffel bag containing a gun belt, ammunition, sex toys and pornography from Burke’s unmarked police SUV in front of the chief's St. James home. 

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and top aide Christopher McPartland were later convicted of charges including conspiracy, witness tampering and obstruction in connection with the federal investigation of Burke. They are serving five-year prison sentences.

Burke, Spota and McPartland dubbed themselves "The Administration" and were the most powerful men in the county, maintaining their grip on Suffolk law enforcement by threatening their perceived enemies with demotion and career-ending false criminal charges, prosecutors said during the trial.

It was at Spota and McPartland's joint trial that some of the detectives who participated in the assault of Loeb, along with Burke, at the Fourth Precinct in Hauppauge and the ensuing cover-up, took the witness stand and testified in vivid detail.

The detectives, called Burke's "palace guard," ferried Burke to the airport, did surveillance on his girlfriend’s son and even spied on Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who had appointed Burke as chief. 

Det. Lt. James Hickey, the commanding officer of criminal intelligence who was the government's star witness, testified that he feared for his life in fall 2015 when he met Burke alone in a restaurant parking lot after getting a federal subpoena in the Loeb case.

"I was very concerned he wanted to kill me," Hickey said of Burke.

Former Det. Anthony Leto described Burke grabbing Loeb by his ears and shaking him, and punching and kneeing him during the attack. Leto said Burke threatened to give Loeb a “hot shot” — a deadly drug dose.

The county paid Loeb a $1.5 million settlement over the beating. 

Newsday reported in 2013, and it was later affirmed during trial testimony, that the police department’s Internal Affairs unit found it credible that Burke had sex with a prostitute in his police cruiser and twice lost his gun to her.

Despite those findings, Spota made Burke the supervisor of his office's detective investigators. And Bellone accepted Spota’s recommendation to hire Burke, even though others in the department warned Bellone in a letter not to do so. Bellone later fired Burke. 

Newsday has reported that Burke collects an annual pension of $145,485, according to state records.

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