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Prosecutors recommend diversion program for St. Pete cop accused of kicking handcuffed suspect

ST. PETERSBURG — A police officer accused of kicking a handcuffed suspect during an arrest this summer may see a quick resolution to his criminal case.

Prosecutors said this week that they are recommending St. Petersburg detective Bartholomew Varacchi Jr. not spend any time behind bars.

Instead, officials have given their tentative approval for the 45-year-old to complete a probation-type program that could eventually result in dismissal of the misdemeanor battery charge currently lodged against him.

"He's got a lack of a prior record, he's former military and has been a successful police officer up until now," said Kendall Davidson, an assistant state attorney. "And so we're inclined to give him a chance to get it dismissed."

Before the deal is approved, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office must run a background check and both prosecutors and the defense must sign a contract. A judge must then issue an order.

Varacchi, who has been on the force for four years, is accused of slapping and kicking a drug dealer who fled from police during a traffic stop June 3. Kalonji Lester ditched his car and hid in a back yard near the interstate and 38th Avenue N.

Two other police officers caught up with Lester first and were in the process of handcuffing him when Varacchi ran up on the scene. He screamed at the man, who was facedown, and then kicked him twice in the head and slapped him, according to the other officers, who reported Varacchi's actions to supervisors. One of the officers said he had to physically restrain Varacchi and tell him twice to "cut it out."

Weeks later, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office quietly charged Varacchi with a crime, a rare occurrence in most use-of-force disputes regarding law enforcement.

Davidson said prosecutors filed charges because they felt Varrachi used "unnecessary force." His fellow officers said Lester was not resisting arrest and had done nothing to provoke Varacchi, who until now has had a blemish-free career.

A couple weeks ago, Varacchi filed for the pre-trial intervention, a diversion program for first-time offenders.

"He's a good guy. Fellow officers have characterized him that way," said Debra Gell, Varacchi's attorney. "The ones that have accused him won't talk to me."

Gell said she could not say more because the deal isn't final.

Davidson said Varacchi would periodically have to report to the Sheriff's Office and would have restrictions similar to probation.

"Our normal time frame on this charge would be six months," he said. "We can also consider things like anger management classes."

If Varacchi completes the program successfully, the charge against him would be dismissed.

Varacchi still could face discipline from his own agency, which is conducting its own internal affairs investigation of the incident.

"How (the criminal case) plays out does not necessarily determine what happens here," said police spokesman Mike Puetz.

Prosecutors recommend diversion program for St. Pete cop accused of kicking handcuffed suspect 09/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, September 6, 2013 10:04pm]
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