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Sleeplessness, stress over Loeb probe landed police lieutenant in hospital

Christopher Loeb, seen on Nov. 14 outside the

Christopher Loeb, seen on Nov. 14 outside the federal courthouse in Central Islip, has been attending former Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota's obstruction trial. Credit: John Roca

Sleep denied

A lack of sleep and stress over a reopened investigation into the assault of Christopher Loeb landed former Suffolk Lt. James Hickey, then-commanding officer of the Suffolk police criminal intelligence unit, in Huntington Hospital.

“ … Patient is a Suffolk County police detective and that his work has been very stressful as they have reopened a case and co-workers have been subpoenaed," according to hospital notes read aloud to jurors Monday by Dr. Vinu Kurian, a prosecution witness in the trial of Thomas Spota, Suffolk's former district attorney, and Christopher McPartland, former head of Spota's anti-corruption unit.

Hickey's wife, a nurse practitioner, told doctors that "he slept for less than 10 hours last week due to increased hours at work and fears of getting a subpoena," Kurian read, as the document was projected onto the courtroom's big screen.

"Starting Sunday night, patient has been having … [audio and visual hallucinations] of people outside his home which he thought are out to get him," Kurian read on, referring to the days before Hickey walked into the hospital's emergency room, in October 2015.

"At a later date, wife reports that he saw his son in the living room and was talking to him even though his son was away at college."

Fear of stroke

At one point, "upon driving from work, patient became confused and lost his way, which is very unusual, wife reports that his conversations also became loose and his answers inappropriate," Kurian continued, under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicole Boeckmann.

"He developed slurred speech and was concerned he was having a stroke, which prompted his wife to bring him to the emergency department."

Hickey continued, during his first 24 hours in the hospital, to have hallucinations.

"Wife reported that when he saw children eating ice cream in the hospital, he thought he was selling them the ice cream."

He also became agitated, at one point ripping the IV from his arm and running out of the hospital room and into the hallway, according to notes of Hickey's dayslong stay.

At one point — as both defense attorneys had pointed out in their opening statements two weeks ago — Hickey's arms and legs had to be tied to his hospital bed.

And he was moved from one floor to another after nurses reported that they could no longer handle his agitated behavior — because of a fear that he could hurt himself or others.

Initially, Hickey was suspected of having had a transient ischemic attack, a stroke that lasts a short while and leaves no permanent damage.

But after being sedated, Hickey began to improve, or "reset," as Kurian testified.

The doctor also read aloud Hickey's ultimate diagnosis: "Altered mental status possibly due to severe sleep deprivation in a setting of stress."

State of mind

During his time in the hospital, another physician made a note of Hickey, writing that he "has an intense stare."

At cross-examination, Larry Krantz, lead defense attorney for McPartland, hammered away at Hickey's mental state, at one point asking Kurian whether Hickey had exhibited psychosis or had a nervous breakdown.

Kurian said that, as a internist, he did not agree with either term.

"I don't know about psychotic," he testified at one point.

In opening statements, Krantz and Alan Vinegrad, lead defense attorney for Spota, sought to use the medical episode to defuse anticipated testimony from Hickey, who they described as the prosecution's key witness.

Hickey has yet to testify. 

Union meeting

Earlier Monday, Boeckmann asked former Suffolk Det. Anthony Leto about who he saw in the courtroom during a 2013 suppression hearing, during which Leto lied about Loeb's assault by then-Suffolk police Chief of Department James Burke.

Russ McCormack, a Suffolk police union official, was among those Leto named.

"What is the role of the union with respect to its members?" Boeckmann asked.

"They represent the members," Leto replied.

"Did you feel that response in the Loeb investigation?" she asked.

"No," Leto said.

"I felt they weren't concerned about the members," he went on. "They were protecting Chief Burke, not us." 

Happy holidays

Boeckmann asked about the kinds of gifts Leto and squad members at one time often gave Hickey.

"Me and the guys on my team chipped in and bought him bottles of wine," Leto replied.

But that changed after Hickey told Leto and others that he had stopped drinking.

So the next year, Leto said, "we bought him a tea set."

He appeared to be amused by the memory.

"Can you explain why?" Boeckmann asked.

“It is not very manly, I guess,” Leto replied.

Not the first time

During an interview with federal authorities in 2015 — after Leto had decided to change course and tell the truth about the Loeb assault — he told prosecutors that Loeb wasn't the only prisoner he had beaten.

"I remember five times, give or take," he testified under questioning from Boeckmann. "I don't remember."

"Why did you tell?" Boeckmann asked a few questions later.

"Because I wanted to tell the truth," said Leto, who later would plead guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice.

On cross-examination, Krantz returned to the topic.

"You said you volunteered that," he said.

"Yes," Leto answered.

"Did you provide the names?" Krantz asked.

"No," Leto replied. "Because I don't remember."

"Did the government ask who they were?"

"Yeah," Leto said.

"But you could not recall," Krantz said.

"Yes," came the reply.

Reality show

During the day's testimony, witnesses were asked about John Oliva, a former Suffolk detective; Robert Trotta, a Suffolk lawmaker who once worked as a police detective; Vincent DeMarco, Suffolk's former sheriff, and Loeb.

All four were in the various parts of the courthouse on Monday, during various times of the day.

Trotta, Oliva and DeMarco could be seen in the hallways, during breaks or in an overflow courtroom down the hall, where the proceedings and exhibits are broadcast on screens.

Trotta was not in the courtroom, however, when another former Suffolk detective, Dennis Sullivan, named him as one of Burke's enemies.

At one point, Sullivan, who described himself as a friend of Burke's, testified about a conversation he had with Burke in 2013, after the federal government began an investigation into Loeb's assault.

"Burke told me that the investigation was …[expletive] and that Trotta started it," Sullivan testified.

Grand jury

Sullivan returned to that investigation later, under questioning from Assistant U.S. Attorney Lara Treinis Gatz.

"He told me the feds were investigating," Sullivan said, relating a conversation he had with Burke in mid-2013.

"Mr. Burke described it as 'the feds' investigating him?" Gatz asked.

"Yes," came the reply.

In 2015, after a second grand jury began looking into the matter, Sullivan testified, Burke was stressed.

"I felt bad," he testified, "because I was bothering him about trivial matters."

“ … Like work?" Gatz asked.

"Yes," came the reply.

Sullivan said he attended a get-together "on Burke's last day with the Suffolk police."

At some point, Sullivan said, Burke told him that he expected to be arrested.

"He wanted to be with close friends," Sullivan testified.

One and done

In 2015, McPartland won the annual Thomas J. Spota Prosecutor of the Year award from the Suffolk County Police Department.

Sullivan was chairman of the awards committee.

"Whose idea was the award?" Gatz asked.

"James Burke," Sullivan said.

"Who made the selection?"

"He did," Sullivan testified. "He selected Chris McPartland."

At that, the prosecution showed jurors a video.

Burke was at the lectern.

Seated behind him, stage left, was Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who, according to testimony, was being spied upon by Burke's subordinates; Spota; and Timothy Sini, Spota's successor as Suffolk DA, who at that time was Bellone's deputy for public safety.

Seated behind Burke, stage right, was Edward Webber, Suffolk's then-police commissioner, who has been described by witnesses as a "figurehead" in a department run by Burke; and Suffolk police Deputy Commissioner Risco Mention-Lewis, whose car was tagged with a GPS unit under orders from Burke.

At some point, McPartland joins the others onstage.

In the video, he mostly stands still as Burke sings his praises, while in the courtroom, at the defendant's table, McPartland sat with his face growing redder.

"Was that award around the next year?" Gatz asked, once the video ended. "In 2016, did it continue to exist?"

"No," Sullivan replied. "Chief [Stuart] Cameron and Tim Sini decided to get rid of the award."

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