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Long IslandCrime

Retired detective testifies about prisoner beating ex-DA Spota, aide, are charged with covering up

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left,

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left, and former aide Christopher McPartland arrive in U.S. District Court in Central Islip on Tuesday. Credit: Composite: John Roca

This story was reported by Nicole Fuller, Robert E. Kessler, Bridget Murphy and Michael O'Keeffe. It was written by Murphy.

A retired Suffolk police detective testified under immunity Tuesday at the trial of ex-District Attorney Thomas Spota that he watched former Police Chief James Burke punch a handcuffed burglary suspect in a 2012 assault that prosecutors say Spota and one of his chief aides later tried to help cover up.

Kenneth Bombace told jurors in U.S. District Court in Central Islip that Burke's beating of Christopher Loeb happened during a "very chaotic" few minutes in a precinct interview room, with three detectives and Burke "cursing and screaming" as Burke "punched" Loeb and grabbed him by his ears.

Bombace, who retired in 2015, said Loeb was handcuffed to a chain and tried to stand up a few times as Burke assaulted him. But Bombace and the other police officials, who had slapped Loeb earlier and tried to get him to confess, pushed Loeb down in his seat.

"At least one of us slapped him in the face," Bombace added of the detectives, which besides himself he said included criminal intelligence unit members Anthony Leto and Michael Malone.

After that slap, Leto told Burke, "Chief, that's enough," Bombace recalled.

Bombace said he added: "Chief, you should leave."

The retired detective said the cover-up began soon after the beating ended.

His account Tuesday at the trial of Spota and Christopher McPartland, who had headed the district attorney's anti-corruption unit, followed earlier testimony from a Suffolk detective — who also took the witness stand with an immunity deal. 

Det. Brian Draiss recalled purposely failing to mention to the FBI and other law enforcement officials who questioned him that sex toys were among the items found in a gym bag belonging to Burke that was recovered in Loeb's home earlier that same day.

Federal prosecutors have alleged that Spota and McPartland orchestrated a cover-up with Burke to try to protect him following Loeb's beating on Dec. 14, 2012, after the Smithtown man, then 26, stole the Police Athletic League bag from Burke's department vehicle hours earlier.

Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 53, of Northport, are standing trial on charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of Loeb's civil rights.

Both maintain their innocence and say they couldn't have been part of trying to conceal Burke's actions because Burke never admitted his guilt to them.

In November 2016, a federal judge sentenced Burke to 46 months in prison for the attack on Loeb and carrying out a cover-up after he pleaded guilty earlier that year. The former chief served most of his sentence before his release last year to home confinement.

Bombace said Burke told him and Leto during a meeting at police headquarters in early 2013, after a special prosecutor was assigned to Loeb's case, that "nothing happened" with Loeb.

"The chief said, 'Look, nothing happened here. I may have poked my head in. The door may have been closed, may have been opened. We don't remember because it wasn't a big deal," Bombace recalled.

"The implication to me was that's what we should be telling the special prosecutor and we needed to be on the same page," Bombace added. 

The witness said he couldn't tell the truth about the event to the special prosecutor because "there would be retaliation" in the form of a "targeted criminal prosecution."

But Bombace said Malone told him that the special prosecutor from Queens, Peter Crusco, was "hand-picked" and knew Burke and McPartland.

Bombace said he met Crusco at State Police barracks in April 2013 and said "exactly what we were told to say," believing everything was going back to Burke and McPartland during what he called a "stressful time" as he, Leto and Malone were being "managed."

FBI agents knocked on his door two months later and gave him a subpoena, according to Bombace, who said they left after he told them: "I'm sorry, I can't talk to you."

Bombace said he then called Lt. James Hickey — the commander of the criminal intelligence unit who became "like a middleman" for Burke in the cover-up effort — and told him about the FBI visit.

About two weeks later, Bombace, Malone and Leto met with PBA president Noel DiGerolamo and union official Russ McCormack, with DiGerolamo saying the PBA would cover their legal expenses — unless they admitted wrongdoing — and pick their lawyers.

Bombace said Burke's attorney, Joseph Conway, was "working in sort of a joint agreement" with lawyers for the detectives and he worried anything he told his attorney "would be shared."

Hickey spoke to Bombace, Leto and Malone all during the summer of 2013 about the assault and investigations, checking how they were "holding up," Bombace said.

But in December 2013, they thought they got a reprieve when Hickey met Bombace, Leto and Malone on a soccer field in Yaphank and Hickey told them an FBI official had called Burke and said the probe was over, Bombace recalled.

He called Burke "instrumental" in the cover-up effort.

Bombace called Hickey "the best boss" he had in the department, and said while he saw him drunk at work once in 2012, Hickey stopped drinking by fall 2013.

An earlier witness, Lt. Michael Kelly, formerly Draiss' partner, who brought Loeb to the precinct and was outside the room during the beating, said he too feared retaliation if he told investigators that the door to the room was closed, saying: "I was afraid if I said the door was closed it would get back to the chief."

Just as Bombace and Kelly did, Draiss testified Monday that he feared the consequences of crossing Burke after the Loeb arrest.

The 19-year police veteran said he believed he would be transferred to an administrative job if he divulged all of the contents in Burke's Police Athletic League gym bag when it was found in Loeb's bedroom.

Besides the sex toys, inside it at that time were condoms, soap, clothing and union cards with Burke's name on them, he said. 

"There were a whole host of things that could happen to you if you embarrass your boss' boss," Draiss told jurors.

Draiss said he never mentioned the sex toys when the FBI interviewed him in January 2013, when a special prosecutor from Queens questioned him, or when he testified in the late fall of 2013 in the state case against Loeb.

Draiss said his involvement began when he went to Loeb's house on Dec. 14, 2012, the day of the beating, to assist probation officials who were following up after seeing illegal metal knuckles at the residence a month earlier. 

The witness, then a Fourth Precinct officer, said Loeb's bedroom "was disgusting," with about 100 drug needles scattered around, pornography on a television stand, and drug paraphernalia and lots of electronic gear, mail and credit cards also in the room.

At some point, Burke arrived at Loeb's house, went to the bedroom and picked up his bag and left with it after it was photographed, the witness said.

Draiss said that later, while processing evidence at the precinct where Loeb was being held, he saw a police official throw out a bottle of Viagra with Burke's name on it.

He told jurors that Burke's bag and the items inside it also weren't processed as evidence.

Draiss said he got a promotion to detective in 2014 but that he didn't know if it would have happened if initially he'd been honest about the bag's contents.

Draiss said he didn't tell a special prosecutor about the sex toys because he feared consequences if he embarrassed Burke.

In a July 2013 FBI interview, he also failed to mention the sex toys, something he also did in the fall of that year when testifying in Loeb's state court case, the witness acknowledged.

Draiss said he finally spoke about everything he saw in the gym bag when he testified before a grand jury in fall 2013 with immunity.

Later Tuesday, Draiss told Spota's attorney that he never spoke to Spota about the federal obstruction case.

Draiss also told McPartland's lawyer he never spoke to McPartland either and agreed his immunity grant meant he had to tell the truth.

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