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Doctor: Key witness in Spota case hallucinated due to stress, no sleep

Thomas Spota, left, and Christopher McPartland arrive at

Thomas Spota, left, and Christopher McPartland arrive at the federal courthouse in Central Islip on Monday. Credit: Composite photo: John Roca

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

A physician who treated a key witness in the obstruction case against ex-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota testified Monday that retired police Lt. James Hickey was hospitalized in 2015 after hallucinations brought on  by stress and sleep deprivation.

Dr. Vinu Kurian told jurors in U.S. District Court in Central Islip that Hickey went through a short-term psychological episode in October 2015 and was in Huntington Hospital for numerous days. 

The internist said Hickey's wife, a nurse practitioner, told doctors the episode was brought on by the stress of a reopened federal probe, along with subpoenas, into a prisoner beating by Spota protege former Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke, Kurian testified.

She had brought him to the hospital, according to the witness, because he was delusional and paranoid, with slurred speech, confusion and memory loss.

"His work has been very stressful as they reopened a case and co-workers have been issued subpoenas. She reports that he slept for less than ten hours last week due to increased hours at work and fear of getting a subpoena himself," another doctor's report said of Hickey's wife's account.

Hickey is expected to provide vital testimony for the prosecution in its case against Spota and Christopher McPartland, his former anti-corruption unit chief.

The prosecution said in its opening statement that Hickey, who headed the Suffolk police force's criminal intelligence unit, will testify about how cops faced ruined careers and destroyed lives if they didn't lie for Burke.

The defense has already taken aim at Hickey's credibility, citing mental problems and alcoholism.

While in the hospital, Hickey had a delusion that he was selling ice cream to children, Kurian said.

But the lieutenant also became violent, at one point ripping out his IV hookup, shedding clothes and dashing into the hall before he had to be restrained, Kurian testified.

After treatment and sedative-induced sleep, Hickey's health and psychology were "within normal limits" after 24 hours, according to the doctor.

“The ultimate diagnosis was delirium caused by sleep deprivation," Kurian said.

Spota and McPartland are standing trial after prosecutors say they tried to help conceal Burke's beating of prisoner Christopher Loeb on Dec. 14, 2012.

Burke, Spota's former chief investigator, punched the now-recovering drug addict in a police precinct hours after Loeb stole a bag from Burke's police vehicle, according to testimony.

Burke pleaded guilty in early 2016 and served most of a 46-month prison sentence before his release to home confinement last year.

But both Spota and McPartland, who maintain their innocence, say they couldn't have been part of trying to conceal Burke's actions because Burke never admitted his guilt to them.

Spota, who is 78 and from Mount Sinai, and McPartland, who turns 54 on Tuesday and lives in Northport, have pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of Loeb's civil rights.

Prosecutors say the defendants brought Hickey "into the conspiracy" and trusted him "to keep it moving smoothly."

They've acknowledged he was hospitalized twice during the federal probes into the Loeb case, once for drinking heavily and again for stress and sleep deprivation.

The hospitalization Kurian testified about came at a time when federal officials had reopened an initial probe into the Loeb case and the possibility of a cover-up that originally fizzled out in 2013.

Hickey is cooperating, according to the U.S Attorney's Office, because he knows he broke the law by taking part in the conspiracy and hopes to get a lighter punishment when he is sentenced for his crimes.

On Monday, McPartland's lawyer, Larry Krantz, got Hickey's former physician to admit he advised Hickey upon his 2015 hospital discharge that he should get an outpatient psychiatric evaluation and avoid stress. 

But Kurian also said he didn't have further contact with the lieutenant or know if he followed his advice.

Also Monday, former Suffolk Det. Anthony Leto, who testified last week that he took part in the beating, returned to the witness stand for a second day. He also offered testimony about the stress of the alleged cover-up.

During questioning by prosecutor Nicole Boeckmann, Leto struggled to stay composed as he spoke of how lying about the Loeb case helped destroy his marriage and his relationship with his children, while also ending his police career.

"I had to retire. I got arrested. It changed my life," Leto said Monday.

Leto said during a cross-examination by Krantz that he didn't know Hickey had a nervous breakdown or suffered from hallucinations. 

Leto said the last time he spoke with his Hickey was before he personally became a cooperating federal witness.

Leto also testified he never spoke to McPartland about the Loeb beating and McPartland never ordered him to lie about it.

Leto told jurors he faces up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice.

The former detective said he lied for a long period of time — including in court in 2013 — because he didn't want to admit his guilt or "rat" on his friends.

The witness also testified Monday that then-Chief of Detectives William Madigan praised him after he testified falsely in 2013 during Loeb's prosecution in Suffolk County Court.

Leto said he feared that if he didn't go along with the cover-up that Suffolk prosecutors or police would fabricate criminal charges against him or his family.

During questioning by Spota’s attorney, Alan Vinegrad, Leto acknowledged that he never had contact with Spota about the Loeb case from December 2012 until December 2015.

Burke's former NYPD partner Dennis Sullivan, who retired from the Suffolk police force in 2017 after 28 years in the department, also testified Monday.

He recalled how in early 2013, Burke told him the investigation into Loeb's beating was "bullshit," but later admitted he had gotten physical with Loeb.

Sullivan also testified to being at a meeting between Hickey and Burke in Burke's office when Hickey told Burke "there's no problem," and his unit's detectives weren't going to say police had assaulted Loeb.

Sullivan also described meeting Burke by a Smithtown church in June 2015, when Hickey also was present and the conversation was about whether one of Hickey's detectives had flipped.

Sullivan said he met Burke in a St. James steakhouse three months later, when he said Burke was stressed about his mother being ill and the federal probe continuing with wiretaps and informants.

Sullivan also recalled about how Burke came up with the idea to create an award in Spota's name and give it to McPartland.

Jurors watched video footage of the 2015 ceremony, where Burke presented McPartland with the honor.

Burke called Spota a "true supporter of law enforcement" before dubbing McPartland "a cop's prosecutor."

But after that inaugural event, the award was never handed out again, Sullivan said.


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