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Hernando sheriff's captain is target of vice unit investigation, court hearing reveals

BROOKSVILLE — One of the targets of an investigation into the Hernando County Sheriff's Office vice and narcotics unit is an 18-year veteran who was promoted to the rank of captain last month.

Capt. Tom Garcia, 53, is under investigation for "stealing money," an assistant state attorney confirmed Thursday during a court hearing in which the scrutiny of Garcia contributed to dismissal of the case. The Tampa Bay Times obtained an audio recording of the hearing on Friday.

The Sheriff's Office announced last week that two employees had been placed on paid leave pending the outcome of a criminal investigation involving the unit. The agency did not release the names of the employees, citing a provision in state law that requires details of active investigations to be kept confidential.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Denise Moloney said Friday that officials would not comment on a pending investigation. She said there was no estimate for how long the investigation will take.

According to a Nov. 15 news release announcing his promotion by Sheriff Al Nienhuis, Garcia oversees both the vice and major case units at the Sheriff's Office. Before that, he was a lieutenant in the vice unit.

Garcia has also worked as a patrol and community policing deputy, a vice and narcotics sergeant, and a lieutenant in District 2, which covers Spring Hill. His wife, Teresa, is a crime analysis manager for the agency.

His current salary is $88,456.81.

The way Garcia's identity was revealed — during a hearing focused on a search warrant — shows how damaging allegations of criminal wrongdoing could be to cases handled by the unit he oversees.

Defense attorney Guillermo Gomez argued that the Sheriff's Office, in preparing a probable cause affidavit to search the Spring Hill home of his client, showed "reckless disregard for the truth." The client, Eduardo Cabeza, was charged with cultivation and trafficking in marijuana, among other charges.

Investigators noted in a probable cause affidavit drafted for a search warrant that electricity was being diverted around a meter box at the house on Gifford Avenue. To further justify the warrant, Gomez said, a vice detective who prepared the affidavit wrote that the owner of the house "has been the owner of a series of grow houses previously investigated by the vice and narcotics unit." When Gomez asked the detective during a sworn deposition if he had evidence to support that claim, the detective said no.

In court Thursday, the detective, whom the Times is not naming because he works undercover, testified that Garcia and a fellow detective told him the house Cabeza lived in "might possibly be related to a bigger thing we were looking into at the time." The detective testified that he included the information about the investigation into other possible grow houses at the direction of Garcia, who at the time was still a lieutenant.

Gomez then asked if Garcia was being investigated for "stealing money." The detective deferred to Assistant State Attorney Matt Pila, who said Garcia was under investigation. Gomez asked whether Garcia was being investigated for "a crime involving dishonesty."

"The state stipulated that Detective Garcia is under investigation for stealing money?" Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Jr. asked Pila.

"Yes, sir," Pila replied.

"I would take that to mean a crime involving dishonesty," Merritt said.

Merritt called that a concern. Based on that fact and the lack of other evidence in the probable cause affidavit, the judge granted Gomez's motion to dismiss all six counts against Cabeza and his co-defendant, Yaneris Barbara Perez.

Brooksville lawyer Peyton Hyslop said he and other defense attorneys are closely watching the investigation into the vice and narcotics unit. "Any time the credibility of an officer who's involved in a criminal investigation comes into question," said Hyslop, a former county judge, "it hurts the prosecution of the case."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Hernando sheriff's captain is target of vice unit investigation, court hearing reveals 12/06/13 [Last modified: Saturday, December 7, 2013 7:56am]
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