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St. Petersburg detective pleads guilty to federal charge days before trial

ST. PETERSBURG — Homicide Detective Anthony Foster pleaded guilty to a charge of wire fraud in federal court on Thursday, admitting that he extorted cash and gifts from his own confidential informant.

U.S. Attorney Robert O'Neill, the top federal prosecutor in Florida's Middle District, said that the FBI's investigation implicated no other St. Petersburg police officers in the scandal.

"That it happens at all is terrible, but it happens rarely," O'Neill said. "I think it's important that people realize that law enforcement does police itself once they find out someone has broken the rules."

Foster, 39, was arrested on June 8 by FBI agents who spent the summer secretly surveilling the detective and recording him demanding — and accepting — cash and gifts from the informant. After Foster's arrest, the police department suspended him without pay and launched an internal investigation.

The FBI said Foster extorted up to $8,000 in money and goods from the informant, including a flat-screen TV, Nike Air Jordan sneakers and even groceries paid for with the informant's food stamp benefits.

In exchange, Foster vouched for the unidentified informant in their own criminal cases. Foster also encouraged Sgt. Terrell Skinner, his supervisor in homicide, to help the informant with a Hernando County criminal case.

Police officials said Foster had misled his sergeant, who was unaware of the detective's duplicity. The agency on Thursday highlighted this portion of the 14-page plea agreement signed by Foster: "at no time did the defendant ever inform the Hernando County Assistant State Attorney or any official with SPPD that he had received cash and property from (the informant.)"

Foster's trial was set to begin Monday. But the plea deal came together quickly this week, according to defense attorney Frank Louderback, after federal prosecutors released depositions of the informant and others to the defense. Louderback did not elaborate on what was in those depositions.

"They disclosed some evidence to us that we hadn't seen before," he said. "In light of that, it changed our perception of where we might be at trial."

There wasn't much negotiating, the lawyer said. Foster accepted the basic framework proposed by the prosecution. In exchange, the U.S. Attorney's Office agreed to drop six other federal counts against Foster.

Sentencing will likely be in January. The charge carries up to 20 years, but guidelines call for Foster to spend 18 to 24 months in a federal prison.

Foster, a 13-year veteran of the force, was known for grooming confidential informants and closing homicide cases. But his career was often marred by his chaotic personal life. He was suspended five times in eight years.

After Foster's arrest the police department implemented new safeguards for dealing with informants. But the department must still finish its internal inquiry before Police Chief Chuck Harmon can decide his fate. The chief could immediately fire Foster after reviewing those findings.

That same report will be sent to the state, which could revoke Foster's law enforcement certification. That would bar him from ever serving with another police agency in Florida. Louderback said that a conviction and prison sentence will have the same effect on Foster's career.

All roads appear to lead to the end of Foster's days as a police officer.

St. Petersburg detective pleads guilty to federal charge days before trial 10/20/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 21, 2011 12:36am]

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