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Key witness Hickey returning to stand in Spota, McPartland trial

Thomas Spota, left and Christopher McPartland arriving last

Thomas Spota, left and Christopher McPartland arriving last Monday for court.   Credit: John Roca

A key government witness, who testified last week at the obstruction of justice trial of ex-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and his aide that the pair knew a top police official had beat a handcuffed suspect and assisted in the cover-up,  is scheduled to continue on the stand Monday morning.

Former Suffolk Police Lt. James Hickey, 55, who was the commanding officer of the police department’s criminal intelligence section, is testifying as a federal government witness. He pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice for his role in the cover-up of then-Chief James Burke's beating of a heroin addict who stole a duffel bag from Burke's police car on Sept. 14, 2012.

Hickey was the first witness to tie Spota and former prosecutor Christopher McPartland directly to the conspiracy, taking the jury inside a series of meetings with the defendants at which he claims they schemed to keep the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office from prosecuting Burke, a protégé of Spota and close friend to McPartland.

"This is about keeping Jimmy out of jail," Hickey said the defendants told him.

Defense attorneys for both Spota and McPartland are expected to spend hours cross-examining Hickey, who has yet to be sentenced. He retired from the department in late 2016.

The defense has painted Hickey as an alcoholic and mentally unstable, saying he experienced hallucinations and delusions during an October 2015 hospital stay — and perhaps beforehand — and therefore his testimony should be discarded.

Hickey has contested some of the accusations. He said he was deeply stressed because of his role in covering up the conspiracy of the Burke beating -- facing constant questioning from Spota, McPartland and Burke on whether he was keeping his detectives, who participated in the beating, from telling the truth -- and was severely sleep-deprived. Once he slept, he returned to relative normal, he said. Hickey also said he has stopped drinking alcohol.

Spota and McPartland have pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of the suspect's civil rights.

Their attorneys have argued that Burke, who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 46 months in prison for assaulting the now-recovering heroin addict Christopher Loeb, never told the defendants he had beaten the suspect.

But Hickey's testimony last week called that into question.

He described vividly a June 2015 meeting in Spota's first-floor Hauppauge office, where the then-DA grilled him on who had "flipped" after the group learned the federal civil rights probe into the Loeb beating had intensified.

Hickey quoted Spota saying: "Somebody's talking. You better find out fast, if it's not too late."

According to Hickey, McPartland told Spota: "Call Joe Conway. Conway has all the lawyers corralled and he will know if somebody's talking."

After leaving a voicemail for Conway, Burke's attorney, Spota turned to Hickey and asked: "Who do you think flipped?"

Hickey said he tried to divert the conversation and said maybe someone was scooped up — or, as they called it, "kidnapped" — by the feds, a law enforcement tactic where a potential witness or suspect is discreetly approached for an interview.

Spota said, according to Hickey: "The feds don't do that. The feds show up at your house at 6 in the morning. They show up at your job. They try to embarrass you. They're bad people."

Hickey soon left Spota's office and Burke followed him out.

"You tell those guys, 'I go, we all go, including you, Mr. Little League baseball coach.'"

And Burke added "with your pretty little analyst," according to Hickey, who said that was a reference to him having an affair with an intelligence analyst at work.

Hickey said he "realized my career was over."

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