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Ex-cop testifies in Spota trial that he feared for life as beating cover-up unraveled

Thomas Spota, left and Christopher McPartland arriving last

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

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

A former police lieutenant testified Monday at the obstruction trial of ex-Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota that he feared for his life in fall 2015 when he met then-Police Chief James Burke alone in a restaurant parking lot after getting a federal subpoena.

"I was very concerned he wanted to kill me," James Hickey said of Burke — the figure at the center of a prisoner beating scandal that prosecutors say Spota and others tried to cover up.

Hickey, a key prosecution witness, has testified that he played a vital role in protecting Burke from exposure to criminal charges. He took the stand for a second time as the fourth week of the trial of Spota and Christopher McPartland began Monday in U.S. District Court in Central Islip.

The witness detailed for a prosecutor how Burke was "scared, agitated, nervous" and "really on edge" when the two met outside a Ground Round restaurant in fall 2015 after Hickey got the subpoena. Testimony showed federal officials had reopened a probe into the prisoner assault by that time.

Hickey, 55, is the first witness to directly connect Spota to allegations that Spota and McPartland, who headed the former DA's anti-corruption unit, took part in an effort to conceal Burke’s beating of handcuffed prisoner Christopher Loeb in December 2012. 

Burke was Spota's former chief investigator and his protege.

But McPartland's attorney on Monday also got a chance to take aim at Hickey's credibility with a line of questioning focused on his history of alcoholism and mental problems.

The witness agreed during part of his cross-examination that prosecutors didn't ask for his medical records — which document hospitalizations in 2013 and 2015 — until shortly before the trial.

Hickey also angrily insisted that he didn't agree to implicate McPartland solely to avoid charges.

Defense attorney Larry Krantz asked if he was "desperate" to not be charged.

"No one wants to get charged. I wasn't desperate. I wanted to be truthful and cooperate," Hickey said.

Under questioning by the prosecution, he also said he and Burke met at Ground Round when they decided to go somewhere to talk privately. Burke had showed up at the police union office where Hickey had gone to seek a lawyer immediately after receiving the subpoena.

Hickey said he had not told anyone he was going there but learned later a union official had texted Burke.

Burke, according to Hickey, got on his hands and knees and looked for GPS tracking devices on their cars in the parking lot. The prosecution witness said the cover-up effort was falling apart at the time and Burke knew it. Hickey said he wanted to meet Burke in a public place because he was afraid of him. 

Burke shared with him that County Executive Steve Bellone knew Burke had assaulted Loeb and had told him he'd have to resign, the witness testified.

Hickey recalled Burke also said in the parking lot that one of Hickey's detectives already had told the truth in the grand jury.

Burke further confided that he didn't mind "doing three years, playing cards with mobsters" but needed Hickey "to be strong," the witness recalled.

Hickey said in testimony last week that Burke meant one thing: to "not cooperate against Spota and McPartland."

But on Monday, Hickey told jurors he was ready to cooperate with prosecutors after that meeting with Burke.

His decision followed three years of anxiety and stress as he tried to ensure that a trio of detectives who worked for him in the criminal intelligence unit and took part in Loeb's assault stayed silent, according to the witness.

By that point, Hickey said, he "just wanted to tell the truth."

Burke punched Loeb in a police precinct hours after the now-recovering heroin addict stole a bag from Burke's police vehicle on Dec. 12, 2014, 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.

Spota, 78, of Mount Sinai, and McPartland, 54, of Northport, say they couldn't have been part of trying to conceal Burke's actions because Burke never admitted his guilt to them.

They pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, obstruction of justice, witness tampering and acting as accessories to the deprivation of Loeb's civil rights.

Hickey also said during questioning by prosecutor Lara Treinis Gatz on Monday that he's met with government officials 24 times since he became a cooperator and "absolutely" hopes for leniency when he is sentenced.

The former lieutenant turned in his retirement papers in December 2015 after three decades on the police force and pleaded guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice on Jan. 15, 2016, according to his testimony.

The witness said he gave prosecutors notes he made during the alleged cover-up scheme, along with calendar entries where he marked down relevant meetings.

Treinis Gatz used Hickey's calendar entries, notes and phone records to try to bolster his testimony.

Hickey told jurors last week that Spota demanded at a June 2015 meeting that also included Burke and McPartland to know who “flipped” and exposed the cover-up scheme after federal officials reopened their investigation into Loeb’s beating.

On Monday, Hickey testified that his calendar for that day listed an 11:30 a.m. meeting at the district attorney's office with "TS and CM" — Spota and McPartland.

Last week, Hickey named some of those who took part in the cover-up attempt as the five members of a self-described group known as "The Inner Circle" that included himself, Spota, Burke, McPartland and then-Chief of Detectives William Madigan.

He also testified previously that he took part in the cover-up attempt because he feared crossing members of "The Inner Circle," who would destroy enemies financially, personally and professionally.

Throughout questioning by the prosecution, Hickey recalled constant pressure to make sure his detectives kept quiet. He also testified about one hospitalization for pancreatitis caused by excessive drinking in summer 2013, and about another hospitalization in October 2015. 

A physician who treated Hickey previously testified that Hickey in 2015 had suffered hallucinations brought on by stress and sleep deprivation.

Hickey admitted Monday lying to his wife about four extramarital affairs.

He also disclosed during questioning by Treinis Gatz that he pleaded guilty to an internal disciplinary charge and lost several vacation days after a judge in 1992 found his testimony in a burglary case wasn't credible and dismissed an indictment.

Later, Krantz, got Hickey to agree after his cross-examination began that he didn't tell prosecutors at first about suffering hallucinations, delusions and paranoia in 2015, but rather said he had suffered a mini-stroke brought on by lack of sleep and stress.

The witness said prior to his guilty plea, he told government officials about the delirium and altered mental status he experienced in October 2015.

But Hickey also insisted he acknowledged to federal officials in his first conversation with the government that he'd been brought to a psychiatric unit for an emergency.

"We discussed that before we even sat down at the table," the witness said as the cross-exam began to get heated.

However, Hickey also testified that prosecutors didn't ask for his medical records until October or November, shortly before the trial.

McPartland's lawyer also got Hickey to agree that the only physical evidence of some conversations between himself and McPartland, Spota and Burke are notations on his calendar that don't include substance of the talks.

"We only have your word, true?" Krantz asked.

"True," Hickey replied.

Hickey also disputed his wife's contention, as documented in hospital records, that he'd suffered memory problems since his 2013 hospitalization.

The witness said his wife, a nurse practitioner, "can't remember where she put down her phone."

Hickey admitted he drank a bottle of wine and half a bottle of vodka every day for part of 2013, but said he "built up such a tolerance" it never hurt his performance at work the next day.

The government witness agreed he never told anyone he was a risk in terms of fitness for duty because of his drinking.

"I never thought I had a problem until I had a problem, which was the problem," Hickey said.

His cross-exam continues Tuesday.

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