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Burke's fury sparked by prisoner's 'pervert' insult, witness says

Former Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, left,

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

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

An insult from a heroin addict led then-Suffolk Police Chief James Burke to punch the handcuffed prisoner "like he wanted to hurt him" in a 2012 precinct beating, a witness said Thursday as ex-District Attorney Thomas Spota continued to stand trial with a former chief aide for allegedly trying to help conceal the assault.

Prisoner Christopher Loeb called Burke a "pervert" before Burke also hit, kneed and shook the man by his ears, threatening to give him a "hot shot," or deadly drug dose, retired Suffolk Det. Anthony Leto testified.

"It appeared to me like he wanted to hurt him," Leto said in U.S. District Court in Central Islip as he described Burke's fury. " … He was all worked up."

Leto also told prosecutor Nicole Boeckmann that Burke retaliated against people in the department he disliked. The chief also assigned favored detectives, like himself, to details that included providing security for dignitaries including Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, the witness said.

Leto added that when they worked a Bellone security detail, part of the assignment was to spy on him.

Leto said he retired in 2015 because he "was involved in the cover-up and conspiracy with Burke" and also pleaded guilty to obstructing a federal investigation.

Federal prosecutors have alleged that Spota and the prosecutor who headed his anti-corruption unit, Christopher McPartland, orchestrated a cover-up with Burke and others to try to protect him after Burke beat Loeb on Dec. 14, 2012, after the Smithtown man stole a duffel bag from Burke's police vehicle.

Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 53, of 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.

Both defendants 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 cover-up after Burke's guilty plea in February of that year. The ex-chief served most of his sentence before his release last year to home confinement.

Leto also testified Thursday that he and fellow criminal intelligence unit detectives Kenneth Bombace and Michael Malone hit Loeb before Burke came in the precinct interview room because they felt pressure to get Loeb to confess about his crime hours earlier.

Prosecutors say inside Burke's Police Athletic League duffel were items including a pornographic video, two sex toys, his gun belt, a box of cigars, ammunition and his Viagra prescription.

Loeb was screaming, moaning and trying to protect himself during the chief's attack, and the trio of detectives tried to pull Burke away, according to Leto.

The witness also recalled that Burke, after police left the room, quipped: "That was like the good old days."

Leto said the assignment of a special prosecutor to Loeb's case sparked a March 2013 meeting between himself, Bombace, Malone and Lt. James Hickey, commander of the criminal intelligence unit, because they felt if the district attorney's office had control of the matter they'd "be protected."

Leto said they all decided to tell the special prosecutor that the interview room door was open and Burke "popped his head in and left."

The witness said he has three sons and he was worried about Burke "setting them up" and having them "falsely accused of something."

Leto added that in the chain-of-command, only Spota outranked Burke.

"We're all concerned about everything, our jobs, our families. We all know that the chief is very powerful," the witness testified.

Leto said after he got a federal grand jury subpoena in June 2013, he conferred with Hickey, along with Bombace, Malone and a police union official to make sure no one was "gonna rat."

Later, after he went with his lawyer to the precinct room where that attack happened to create a diagram, he immediately told Hickey, Leto testified.

"I wanted the chief, Mr. Spota, everybody to know I'm not ratting out," he said.

Later, he testified in an October 2013 suppression hearing in Loeb's state court case and said he didn't have the option to take the Fifth Amendment because he feared for his job and family.

"You lied?" Boeckmann, the prosecutor, asked him.

"Yes, I did," Leto replied.

The former detective took the stand Thursday after earlier testimony from ex-Suffolk prosecutor Spiros Moustakas.

He said during a cross-examination that Spota advised him to document problems with how police had handled the case against Loeb after allegations arose that Burke assaulted him.

"Did he tell you make the deal, give the guy his deal and make this case go away as quickly and quietly as possible?" Spota's attorney, Alan Vinegrad, asked the witness.

"No," replied Moustakas, while testifying for a second day.

Moustakas said Wednesday during questioning by the prosecution that police didn't bring Loeb to court for his arraignment on the day after his arrest and had blamed it on a "manpower" problem.

Moustakas also testified that police said a day after Loeb's arrest that they wanted his help getting a search warrant for items they already had seized from Loeb's house.

On Thursday, Vinegrad showed memos in court that Moustakas put in Loeb's case file about the failure to produce Loeb in court and the search warrant request.

“Did he tell you to ignore it?” Vinegrad asked the witness of Spota.

“No,” Moustakas answered.

“Did he tell you to follow the law?” the defense attorney inquired.

“In sum and substance, yes,” the witness said.

Moustakas also had testified Wednesday that Spota spent a lot of time in 2014 listening to wiretapped calls of a detective — including a conversation with then-Newsday journalist Tania Lopez about Burke.

Moustakas said he never saw Spota listen to any other wiretapped calls before that investigation into whether now-retired Suffolk police Det. John Oliva was leaking confidential information to the media.

Spota was especially interested in calls with a small group of people that included Lopez, who had written articles that negatively portrayed Burke, the witness said.

The district attorney's office also was very alarmed by a conversation between Oliva and Lopez about an affair Burke had with a known prostitute and Lopez's plan to interview her, Moustakas testified. 

Moustakas said Wednesday that said “officer safety” was the reason cited on the 2014 wiretap application related to the Oliva probe, with Spota signing it before a judge authorized it.

That July, authorities questioned Oliva and he pleaded guilty two months later to official misconduct.

Spota said publicly then that Oliva’s actions had jeopardized officers closing in on two robbery suspects in January 2014. 

During more cross-examination Thursday, Moustakas agreed that Spota accepted his staff's advice after he asked about subpoenaing Lopez and was advised it couldn't be done based on case law. Her phone records weren't subpoenaed, the witness said.

Moustakas told McPartland’s attorney, Larry Krantz, that McPartland never interfered in the Loeb prosecution.

McPartland also didn’t interfere when Moustakas wouldn’t help police get a warrant for a search they’d already done in Loeb’s house, the witness said.

He also agreed his bosses in the district attorney’s office didn’t try to cover it up after Loeb’s defense lawyer alleged her client had been beaten.

“He didn’t tell you, ‘Don’t tell anybody,’ correct?” Krantz asked the witness, referencing McPartland.

“Correct,” Moustakas replied.

The trial continues Monday.

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