Friday, February 16, 2018
Public safety

St. Pete officer accused of kicking suspect during arrest, faces criminal charge

ST. PETERSBURG — A police officer with a blemish-free record is under investigation by state prosecutors and his own agency after being accused of kicking and smacking a suspect during an arrest in June.

Detective Bartholomew Varacchi Jr., 44, was quietly charged last month with simple battery, a misdemeanor, court records show.

Assistant State Attorney Kendall Davidson said Tuesday the office believes the force Varacchi used was "unnecessary to effect the arrest" of the suspect. The charge stems from Varacchi's involvement in the June 3 arrest of Kalonji Lester, an admitted drug dealer who led police on a vehicle and foot chase before being cornered near 38th Avenue N and 19th Street.

Two other officers had put Lester in handcuffs on the ground when Varacchi ran up, yelling, according to a police report.

Varacchi, who is 5 foot 9 and 193 pounds, then kicked and slapped the suspect in the head, police said.

Lester didn't complain about the incident. But the other two officers on scene that day did, records show.

Both told officials Lester, who still faces several charges related to the incident, was not resisting at all when Varacchi struck him. One officer said he actually had to body check Varacchi and tell him twice to "cut it out."

Varacchi, who is part of a unit that tracks career offenders, is not allowed to comment because he is the subject of an internal investigation. His lawyer, Debra Gell, did not respond to messages.

A St. Petersburg detective was assigned to investigate the incident a day after it happened.

The agency turned over its investigation to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office in June. Prosecutors filed the battery charge against Varacchi on July 10.

Varacchi will remain on administrative duty until the conclusion of an internal investigation, which isn't likely until after the criminal case is over.

The Police Department did not publicly announce that one of its officers was facing criminal charges. Officials did, however, acknowledge that an internal investigation was underway after an inquiry this week by the Tampa Bay Times.

Police Chief Chuck Harmon acknowledged on Tuesday that it is not often that an officer becomes a defendant.

"Nor do we expect it to," Harmon said. "But we take it seriously. ... We certainly weren't trying to hide anything. It's a public record. We're not shy about publicizing officer discipline."

This is not the first time Varacchi has been accused of battery.

In 2004, the Seminole County Sheriff's Office arrested him on a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery, after accusing him of striking a family member while intoxicated. Prosecutors, however, declined to pursue the case, records show.

Four years later, Varacchi, who spent five years in the U.S. Navy in the 1990s, was hired as a cadet for St. Petersburg police. He was sworn in as an officer on March 9, 2009. His personnel record since then has been free of any discipline. In fact, in nearly all his evaluations, supervisors have praised Varacchi as a professional who knows when to de-escalate heated situations.

"He is polite and courteous to those he encounters and maintains an excellent working relationship with the community," a supervisor wrote in Varacchi's most recent evaluation in March.

He has been nominated twice for agency awards, and been called "more reliable than most officers."

Last week, Varacchi applied for pretrial intervention, a program akin to probation that can result in charges being dismissed at the end of the process.

Davidson said prosecutors have not yet made a decision on Varacchi's request.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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