Former Suffolk Police Chief of Department James Burke was denied bail and ordered permanently jailed pending trial Friday by a federal judge who agreed with prosecutors that the chief was a danger to the community.
As part of their argument against bail, federal prosecutors said at least 10 unnamed Suffolk police officers are cooperating with the Justice Department in its case against the former chief, who resigned in October after 31 years in law enforcement.
Burke was arrested Wednesday on charges of beating a Smithtown man, Christopher Loeb, who in 2012 stole a duffel bag from the then-chief’s department-issued SUV, which had been parked in front of the Burke’s St. James home.
Burke then orchestrated a massive cover-up within the Suffolk police department of the alleged assault, prosecutors say.
“I find the corruption of an entire department by this defendant is shocking,” U.S. District Judge Leonard Wexler said in federal court in Central Islip after listening to federal prosecutors recite a litany of alleged misconduct by Burke.
“A man who has taken every oath taken, who has made pledges and has a responsibility, has violated every one of them,” Wexler said in agreeing with prosecutors James Miskiewicz and Lara Treinis Gatz.
“Based on his past performance, there is no set of circumstances concerning bail that I can honestly trust him to fulfill and there is no way he can be supervised to the degree where he’s not a danger to the community,” Wexler said.
Burke’s attorneys Joseph Conway and Nancy Bartling, of Mineola, argued that since Burke had left the department, he no longer had the power to tamper with any witnesses who could be called to testify against Burke during a trial.
But Wexler agreed with the prosecutors, noting the number of union officials and others in the department who had supported Burke and now shows that fear of the former chief still pervades parts of the department.
Wexler set Jan. 6 for the next hearing in the case.
Burke is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and one count of deprivation of civil rights.
If convicted, Burke faces 5 to 5 1⁄2 years behind bars.
After the ruling, Conway said the ex-chief was disappointed that the judge decided to keep him locked up.
“We lost a battle today, but there is still a war to be fought,” Conway said, adding that his client would appeal the bail decision.
Three of Burke’s brothers and his sister, who attended the hearing, declined to speak to reporters as they left the courthouse in Central Islip.
Burke has been in custody since his arrest outside his St. James home at dawn Wednesday, when he was handcuffed and taken for booking after a probe by special criminal investigators reporting to the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District and the FBI.
Burke had been sent Wednesday to the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn in protective custody.
Prosecutors Gatz and Miskiewicz argued in court that numerous police witnesses now supported the account of Loeb, the alleged victim, about his being beaten by Burke, as well as the subsequent alleged cover-up.
After Loeb was arrested at his home for the theft of the duffel bag, which police say contained a gun belt, ammunition, handcuffs, a whistle and a box of cigars — and items from other cars in the area, he was taken to the Fourth Precinct and placed in an interrogation room.
Subsequently, Burke entered the room with Loeb. One police witness identified only as John Doe No. 3 and standing outside the room said he heard “thumping, yelling, slapping,” Gatz said.
Three other police officers were inside the room and described Burke assaulting Loeb, Gatz said.
One recalled Burke “grabbing the victim by the ear and shaking him violently to hurt him, screaming words like . . . ‘you want to steal from me.’ ”
Another police officer recalled Burke “really going out of control when the victim accused him of being a . . . pervert.” A third officer said Burke told Loeb, a heroin addict, that he would get a “hot shot” [containing a] poison to kill him.
Miskiewicz also detailed what he said were details of the alleged obstruction charge — an attempted cover-up orchestrated by Burke and aided by unnamed police and officials of the Suffolk police union.
One cooperating officer, identified only as Jane Doe No. 1, said that when she reported she had heard that a pornographic DVD may have been in the duffel bag, Miskiewicz told the judge, she was “pummeled essentially by her union officials and told, you got it wrong. Tried to get her to change her recollection.” “No. No. No. No,” she was told, the prosecutor said.
When a special prosecutor from Queens was appointed to prosecute Loeb, Burke himself summoned three officers who were witnesses to the assault to his office, Miskiewicz said.
Burke told them the purpose of that meeting “is so they could get their stories straight . . . not go in there and tell the truth,” Miskiewicz said. “Let’s figure out what we are going to tell.”
Furthermore, Miskiewicz said, witnesses to the alleged beating were also summoned to the Suffolk Detectives Association.
“They were told when the federal investigation began, don’t worry. We are going to get you lawyers, and, by the way, if you admit any wrongdoing, you are on your own,” Miskiewicz said, indicating that if they contradicted Burke they would have to pay for their own attorneys.
A spokesman for the Suffolk PBA did not immediately return calls for comment.
Miskiewicz and Gatz argued that Burke’s belief that he got away with his untoward behavior was not new because he had instituted a “climate of fear” in the department.
To illustrate this, they said, one commanding officer was aware that Burke while intoxicated had crashed his car, causing “up to $10,000 in damage,” but the incident was never reported.
“No police intervention. No DUI. No ticket. No nothing,” Miskiewicz said.
Burke also had a GPS bug planted on the vehicle of a high-ranking civilian official in the police department in order to get information on her movements “to dig up blackmail dirt,” Miskiewicz said,
Sources identified the official as Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, the first woman and first African–American to hold the post.
“That’s something out of the KGB. That’s not an American law enforcement official sworn to uphold the Constitution, privileged to wear a badge and a gun,” Miskiewicz said.
Assistant Deputy County Executive Tim Sini, who has been tabbed to become Suffolk police commissioner, said he could not comment on an ongoing federal investigation.
To further illustrate how Burke operated to create what prosecutors called the climate of fear in the department, Gatz placed into evidence what she said was one of 10 identical text messages Burke sent to a police union official and others to identify who would dare attend a farewell party for police Capt. Patrick Cuff, a person Burke considered one of his enemies.
The message sent to the union official asked to ensure that “our people who went were able to recognize faces, enemies, bosses, active and retired, and politicians,” Gatz said.
Gatz said: “This defendant has the ability to frighten detectives, people with careers, high-ranking members of the police department, people who have been at war, veterans.”
“He scares them enough that they’d lie under oath and cover up their crimes,” Gatz said.
Sources identified the union official as PBA vice president Louis Tutone. Tutone’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.
On Wednesday, Wexler sealed the courtroom for Friday’s bail hearing and sealed a letter that the federal prosecutors had entered, listing the litany of reasons as to why Burke should be denied bail.
But Friday, the judge said “after consulting the Supreme Court’s decisions, Second Circuit decisions, I realized I was in error in granting a closed hearing.”
Wexler said he initially acted because he believed that the allegations in the memo “had such prejudicial information . . . that it could affect the defendant’s rights to a fair trial.”
An attorney for Newsday filed a letter in court, saying that the judge had no right to seal to the public either the court proceedings or the bail letter.
The Newsday letter was joined by News 12, the Daily News, The New York Times, the New York Post, The Associated Press, WABC and WNBC.
The judge also said he was unaware that “Newsday legitimately got a copy of [the bail letter] and everything appeared in the papers on Thursday concerning what was in the letter. Therefore there is nothing to protect anymore.”
— With Chau Lam and Tania Lopez
Federal allegations about Burke’s behavior
- When a special prosecutor from Queens was appointed to prosecute Loeb, Burke summons three officers who were witnesses to the assault to his office to “get their stories straight.”
- Witnesses to the alleged beating of Christopher Loeb were summoned to the Suffolk Detectives Association and told they would be given lawyers. If they contradicted Burke, they would have to pay for their own attorneys.
- One commanding police officer was aware that Burke while intoxicated had crashed his car causing “up to $10,000 in damage” but the incident was never reported.
- Burke had a GPS bug planted on the vehicle of a high-ranking civilian official in the police department in order to get information on her movements “to dig up blackmail dirt.”
- In a text message, Burke asked that someone go to a farewell party for a person the chief considered one of his enemies in the department in order to see who showed up.