Suffolk County District attorney Thomas Spota in his Hauppauge office....

Suffolk County District attorney Thomas Spota in his Hauppauge office. (Dec. 16, 2011) Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota says police Commissioner Richard Dormer's public airing of his single serial killer theory in the Gilgo Beach murders may damage efforts to eventually get a conviction in Long Island's most notorious criminal case in decades.

The county's top elected law enforcement official on Friday elaborated on his sharp criticism of Dormer, which first surfaced at a public hearing before the Suffolk County Legislature on Thursday, in an exclusive interview in his Hauppauge office. Spota also went a step further and faulted Dormer's boss, County Executive Steve Levy, for what Spota characterized as Levy's excessive control of the police department.

As for Dormer's comments that a single killer was responsible for all the remains found in Gilgo and nearby beach communities, Spota said that might hurt efforts to win convictions -- if there are arrests in the case -- because the airing of different theories suggests disagreement within law enforcement over who is responsible. In his own testimony Thursday, Spota stuck to the theory that he and Dormer once shared -- that more than one killer was likely to blame.

"Surely the homicide detectives and the prosecutors are going to be challenged by any decent . . . defense attorney," he said. "That's why we try to keep these theories to ourselves."


History of tension

There has been tension between the district attorney and Levy, who surrendered his $4.3-million campaign war chest to the prosecutor's office last March after an investigation into his fundraising practices. Along with turning over his fund, Levy agreed not to seek a third term as county executive.

Beyond any possible damage in a prosecution, Spota said the disagreement between him and Dormer over the murder case was bad for the public's perception of law enforcement.

"That's the worst thing in the world -- two people feuding in public . . . top people in law enforcement feuding publicly," he said. "That's not good, to say the least. I'm well aware of that."

Nevertheless, when asked if he had other criticisms of Dormer's management of the police department, Spota responded that:

Levy exercised "unprecedented" political influence over police operations. He said Dormer, a Levy appointee, was too willing to go along with it and showed more loyalty to the county executive than to the men and women of his department.

He was surprised by what his office discovered after it launched its own investigation into violent hate crimes against Latinos after Marcelo Lucero was murdered by a gang of teenagers in Patchogue in 2008. The killing drew national attention and charges that the police department downplayed attacks on Latinos.

He has been interviewed by U.S. Department of Justice investigators who are examining the police department's handling of hate crimes against Latinos.


Levy responds

Both Levy and Dormer declined to be interviewed to respond to Spota's comments. In a written statement, however, Levy strongly defended himself and Dormer, a career cop who came out of retirement to serve as his police commissioner for eight years.

"I ran, and was elected, on a platform that specifically included giving control of the police department back to management, rather than the police union, and implementing reforms such as civilianization, redeploying highway patrol officers and creating more efficient shifts," Levy said. "Rich Dormer implemented these changes and the result is that we have controlled the growth of police costs for taxpayers dramatically while lowering total crime by more than 20 percent."

Suffolk's biggest unsolved crimes have exposed the rift between the DA and Dormer.

The district attorney's comments constitute an unusual public critique of both the police department and the county executive. They come just two weeks before Dormer and Levy leave office and return to private life.

Levy was first elected county executive in 2003 as a Democrat. He switched to the Republican Party before unsuccessfully running for governor last year. During his tenure in Suffolk he was out front in his criticism of certain practices of the police department, saying, for example, that he had saved the taxpayers millions of dollars by pulling officers off routine patrol of the Long Island Expressway and replacing them with county sheriff's deputies.

Spota, a Democrat, is in his third term as district attorney. He was first elected in 2001 and was endorsed by both parties when he ran for a second term. He received support from the Police Benevolent Association and the Superior Officers Association within the department.

To Spota, Dormer has often said too much, too soon about the skeletal remains found near Gilgo and other South Shore communities.

An example, Spota said, was Dormer's announcement at a news conference last Tuesday, hours after the remains were found by police near Oak Beach, that they were likely those of Shannan Gilbert, a missing 24-year-old woman from Jersey City, N.J., who worked as a prostitute. The statement was made even though the medical examiner had yet to identify the body.


Public comments

The Suffolk medical examiner on Saturday positively identified the remains as those of Gilbert. But Spota said earlier, "I think when the commissioner stated what his beliefs were, they [forensic experts] hadn't even looked at the remains yet. To be talking about something like that publicly benefits nobody."

Dormer has said he does not believe Gilbert was a homicide victim, and on that, he and Spota agree.

The other 10 sets of remains are being investigated as victims of what Dormer has said was a single serial killer. As for Dormer's statements in news media interviews and before the legislature that a single killer was involved, Spota said he is unaware of any detective working the case who shares that view.

"I did speak to people who are right in the investigation. They didn't even have the slightest clue that this was coming," he said. "Frankly, I have no idea why the commissioner, to this day, why he said what he said. I don't understand it. . . . This is going to be clearly challenged in a courtroom."

Spota said he was particularly puzzled by Dormer's statements because they had appeared at a joint news conference in May and stated that at least three killers were likely responsible for the 10 deaths. The district attorney said he had no plans to publicly disagree with Dormer until he repeated his theory to the legislature.

"I didn't want to go public on this," Spota said. But "I'm just not going to let it go unchallenged. I have not yet met one person [investigating the case] who shares this theory. . . . There's just no way that one person would be doing this, from what we've seen.

"I just said to myself [about Dormer], 'You're misleading the public, you're misleading more importantly the friends and relatives of the victims who are going to be hearing this.' So I just decided, I've got to clear the air."

Spota Sunday elaborated on the potential harm to a Gilgo prosecution. "It makes a difficult case to try even more difficult," he said in a statement. "The damage comes not from the publication of a theory but the announcement of a change in theory. Confusion and indecision are a defense attorney's strategic ally."

The difference from Dormer and Spota's joint discussion of a multiple-killer theory in May, Spota said in the statement, is that prosecutors and detectives back then "deliberated at length" among themselves and concluded "it was useful to share the scope of the evidence for the first time in a public forum" -- after the families were briefed.


Mishandling alleged

Beyond the Gilgo case, Spota said Dormer and Levy have mishandled the police department.

"I certainly think the relationship between the commissioner and the county executive was such that the county executive had an unprecedented influence on the way the police department was being run," Spota said. Offering one example, he said, "I know absolutely that Levy's office had to approve just about every news release that the police did.

"I don't think the commissioner stood up for the men and women of the police department as he should have," Spota added. "He's the leader, he's got to let them know that he supports them. I don't think that he did that. I think he supported one person -- Steve Levy."

Levy has defended his hands-on role, saying the county executive's office needed to step in to better oversee a department filled with six-figure salaries and to trim costs.

Spota said when his office and the FBI, along with Suffolk police, started investigating hate crimes in the county after Lucero's death, he was surprised at what he says they uncovered. He did not provide specific examples during the interview, but the statement from the DA's office yesterday cited "the extent of the street violence against Hispanic victims."

Community and Latino activists have accused the police under Levy and Dormer of ignoring or mishandling hate-crime allegations in an effort to downplay them.

"We came up with so many more arrests and so many more indictments," Spota said. "It was disturbing to me, what I was seeing."

Spota said he has been interviewed by the U.S. Justice Department, which opened an investigation into the Suffolk Police Department shortly after Lucero's death. In September, the Justice Department sent a letter to Levy calling on Suffolk police to strengthen efforts to combat hate crimes, even as the federal investigation is under way. Federal investigators faulted police procedures and pointed to warning signs that had preceded Lucero's slaying.

Among the flaws Justice cited were inconsistent reporting and tracking of hate crimes, a failure to adequately instruct officers to understand what constitutes a hate crime and bureaucratic hurdles that confront members of the public who want to report police misconduct.

Levy accepted some of Justice's recommendations, disagreed with others and defended his record. "With the many reforms we have made over the last few years, we are likely far ahead of other like counties," Levy said at the time.

Levy rejected Spota's latest criticism on the issue.

In his written statement, Levy said there were examples of Spota trying to downplay hate crimes.

"Whatever concerns the district attorney's office had with cases involving Latinos was never communicated to my office; however the DA's office had, on a number of occasions before 2008, communicated its concern that incidents were being hastily classified as hate crimes before comprehensive investigation, compromising the office's ability to prosecute hate crime charges," Levy said.

Two examples, he said, were an incident in a Laundromat where a suspect making hateful remarks was later determined to be mentally challenged, and the vandalizing of a menorah by intoxicated men.

Told of Levy's statement, Spota responded with his own written statement: "The county executive's response to Newsday's inquiry today corroborates what members of the law enforcement community have known for eight years -- that the county executive is running the police department.

"Concerns that the DA's office has about criminal investigations would never be communicated to the county executive's office. They would be, and often were, communicated directly to the police department."

Dramatic change is sure to come to the police department after Jan. 1. County Executive-elect Steve Bellone has asked Dormer to leave at year's end, naming veteran police official Edward Webber as interim commissioner. Spota's chief investigator, James Burke, will be named the department's top uniformed officer at the start of the new year, according to Democratic Party and other sources.

Spota said he welcomed those changes. "I think the change in leadership is healthy," he said.

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