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Former detective testifies about brutal beating

Former Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke

Former Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke is escorted by FBI personnel in 2015. Credit: Newsday / Steve Pfost

All amped up

It often seems as if jurors listening to testimony in the trial of Thomas Spota, Suffolk's former district attorney, and Christopher McPartland, former head of Spota's anti-corruption unit, are getting two trials in one.

There's the existing case, which prosecutors continued Wednesday to carefully build against the defendants.

And then there's the case authorities potentially could have tried against James Burke, the former Suffolk police chief of department who pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the cover-up and beating of Christopher Loeb, thus avoiding a trial.

More testimony on the latter score came from former Suffolk Det. Anthony Leto, whose description of Loeb's beating by Burke was more brutal than one offered earlier by former Det. Kenneth Bombace.

Leto said Burke had asked him and other detectives whether he should go back into the interview room when they went to interview Loeb a second time.

"I told him I didn't think it was a good idea," Leto testified.

"Does Chief Burke decide to go in?"

"Yes"

At some point, after Loeb calls Burke a "pervert." Leto testified: "He starts striking, kicking, punching him, grabbing his ears, shaking him."

Loeb "is screaming, groaning, trying to cover up," Leto went on. "We tried to separate Chief Burke from him."

"Was it hard?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Boeckmann asked.

"Yes," Leto said, "He was going at him pretty hard."

"He was all amped up."

The first interview 

Early in their first interrogation of Loeb, in an interview room at the Fourth Precinct in Hauppauge, Leto said he and other detectives tried to develop a rapport with the prisoner.

"That didn't work?" Boeckmann asked.

"No," Leto answered. "He seemed very nasty and he appeared to be strung out."

And so, Leto said, he struck Loeb.

"Was that the first time that you had struck a prisoner in custody?"

"No," Leto answered.

Did Loeb "ever scream out in pain when you were striking him?" Boeckmann asked.

"Yes," Leto answered.

Coffee break

Later, then-Det. Michael Malone, who also had been in the room, "said something about [urinating] in Christopher Loeb's coffee."

"When he said that, did you think he was serious?" Boeckmann asked.

"No," Leto said.

"Did he do it?" she pressed.

"No," Leto answered.

However, later in the evening, Leto testified that Malone had boasted that he had — to others at a squad Christmas party at Oheka Castle.

It wasn't me

At one point, as Boeckmann was taking Leto through a series of events involving meetings with police union officials and his decision to hire his own lawyer, Leto testified about a particular attorney.

"What was his name?" Boeckmann asked.

"It was Krantz, or something," Leto answered.

At that point, McPartland's lead lawyer, Larry Krantz, stood up.

"I wasn't there," he said, as the courtroom broke into laughter.

"It is not the Mr. Krantz who is in the building today," Boeckmann agreed.

The other guy, jurors would learn later, also spells his name differently.

Enemies list

Leto, as did Bombace, listed detectives that Burke did not like.

Among them was former Suffolk Capt. Patrick Cuff, Leto said, "He was involved in investigating one of Mr. Burke's complaints earlier in his career and was demoted," he said.

Others included former detectives John Oliva and Robert Trotta, who had worked on a federal task force. "They were transferred out of there because they weren't liked," Leto said.

He said Burke engendered fear in the department.

"He had a lot of powerful friends … including Mr. Spota," he said.

Leto said he feared for "my career, my partners, my family."

And especially his sons.

"He could have them falsely arrested or something," he said, "I was very afraid of that."

"You think Chief Burke would do that?" Boeckmann asked.

"Oh, yeah," he replied.

Job One

Leto said he went through extraordinary lengths, during the cover-up, to make sure that Lt. James Hickey knew exactly what he and his lawyers were doing — so it could be passed up the line to Burke.

"I wanted everybody to know, the Chief and Mr. Spota, that I am not ratting out," he testified.

That held true even after, Leto said, he was dispatched to lie to a grand jury.

At one point, he testified, Hickey "tells me that they did not want Chief Burke to take the stand and I was chosen to get on the stand."

"I'm unhappy that I have to go," he said. “ … I voiced my views."

His attempt, he said, was fruitless.

"This is what you signed up for," he said Hickey told him.

What did that mean? Boeckmann asked.

"It means this is what you have to do," Leto answered.

"This," he said, "is now your job."

In the beginning

Early on, Boeckmann asked Leto whether he knew how Spota and Burke met.

"Yeah," Leto answered. "He was a witness in a homicide trial that Mr. Spota handled as a prosecutor; I am pretty sure he was a teenager."

In 1979, Spota tried four young men charged with killing John Pius, a Smithtown boy who died when other teenagers crammed rocks down his throat.

I spy

Leto detailed a number of what he called "unorthodox assignments" that he and other detectives were given by Burke.

Among them was keeping an eye on Steve Bellone, Suffolk's county executive.

"We were basically following him around and we were supposed to be giving him protection," Leto testified.

"But we were spying on him," Leto went on.

And where did that information go, Boeckmann asked.

"Up the chain," Leto testified, "to Chief Burke."

And who did Burke report to, Boeckmann asked.

"To me," Leto replied, "it was Mr. Spota."

Thinking of you

Earlier, during his second day of testimony, former Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Spiros Moustakas spoke of a call he received from Cindy Scezny, who was secretary to Spota.

"She said Joe Conway was on the phone and he would like to speak with you," he said.

Conway was a lawyer for Burke.

"What did he tell you?" Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Maffei asked about the 2016 call.

"He said that he and Mr. Burke would like me to tell Mr. McPartland that they are thinking of him at these difficult times," he testified.

By then, McPartland had been informed, via letter, that he was a target of a federal investigation.

"Did you pass it along?" Maffei asked.

"No," Moustakas replied.

Yes or no

During their cross-examinations, Krantz and Alan Vinegrad, Spota's lead attorney, repeatedly pressed Moustakas to answer questions with either a simple yes or a simple no.

At one point, early on, U.S. District Court Judge Joan Azrack jumped in to remind Moustakas of that request.

"Yes or no questions can be hard for lawyers," she said, as a few chuckles broke from spectators in the courtroom. "Listen carefully to questions."

"Yes, your honor," Moustakas replied.

No, no, and no

Krantz asked how McPartland had instructed Moustakas, early on, to handle the prosecution of Loeb.

"He didn't ask you to cover anything up?"

"Correct," Moustakas replied.

"He didn't ask you to do anything wrong?"

"No," Moustakas agreed.

Vinegrad later asked about Spota's instructions after Loeb's attorney, Toni Marie Angeli, told him of Loeb's allegations that he had been "abused and mistreated" after his 2012 arrest. (Those allegations wouldn't become public until months later.)

"Did he say 'we can't let this out'?"

"No," Moustakas replied.

“ … that 'this is going to be devastating to James Burke's career'?"

"No," Moustakas said.

“ … 'I'm going to look bad here because I made him chief of department'?"

"No," came the reply.

Burke was appointed chief of department in January 2012 by Bellone.

On vacation

At one point, Krantz asked about a particular wiretap.

"I was in Aruba," Moustakas said, "I was there for a very long time."

"I hope you were on vacation," Krantz said.

"I think that this jury wishes it was in Aruba," Moustakas continued.

"Maybe the lawyers, too," Krantz said.

No crime

Much was made Wednesday of information that Oliva leaked to then-Newsday reporter Tania Lopez for stories about transfers and other doings under Burke's leadership.

Asked by Vinegrad if Lopez was ever prosecuted, Moustakas said, dryly, “There wouldn’t be anything to prosecute her for.”

“Explain that comment,” Vinegrad pressed.

“You have to commit a crime to be prosecuted,” Moustakas replied.

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