Sunday, May 27, 2018
Public safety

Pinellas narcotics detective resigns after seeing sheriff's evidence against him

LARGO — One narcotics detective has resigned and three others will begin disciplinary hearings this week amid allegations of trespassing, lying and brutality that have plagued the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office for months, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Monday.

Michael Sciarrino, 36, was scheduled to be interviewed under oath today in an administrative hearing.

Instead, said Gualtieri, Sciarrino quit on Monday after reading thousands of pages of interviews and documents collected by internal affairs investigators.

The sheriff declined to provide details because three other deputies — Paul Giovannoni, Chris Taylor and Kyle Alston — are still scheduled for hearings this week. Some allegations that involved Sciarrino involve them as well.

Gualtieri did confirm that allegations against Sciarrino involved trespassing, lying and brutality, including the alleged beating of a suspect who had a verbal interchange with Sciarrino's wife at a WingHouse restaurant on Ulmerton Road.

Sciarrino could not be reached for comment. His attorney, police union lawyer Michael Krohn, did not return a phone call.

Gualtieri put all four deputies on administrative leave in March. The trespassing and other allegations have since become election fodder for candidates running for sheriff against Gualtieri.

While on leave, Sciarrino got into a fight at a Clearwater Beach bar, then lied about it to Clearwater police and sheriff's investigators, Gualtieri said.

"He said he wasn't involved, but we have him on video punching the guy in the face and putting him in a headlock,'' Gualtieri said.

While investigating the reported WingHouse beating, the Sheriff's Office also discovered another case involving Sciarrino's wife, Gualtieri said.

Ashley Sciarrino had called her husband in March 2011 to report a prowler in the back yard of their St. Petersburg home late at night. Sciarrino drove there, which took about 30 minutes, Gualtieri said, and confronted the man personally.

The suspect, Pinellas Park resident Michael Blood, 26, said he was cutting through Sciarrino's property to visit a girlfriend who lived next door. The properties are separated by a fence and he was trying to avoid her parents, Blood said Monday in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times.

Blood said he had used that route several times before because the property was vacant. He did not realize that the Sciarrinos had moved in, he said.

Blood said he had been there less than five minutes when Sciarrino showed up and accused him of peeping in windows.

"He told me to get on the ground and crawl toward him, which I did, and then he kicked me in the face,'' Blood said.

"It was enough to bust blood vessels in my eye and I had a swollen jaw and cheekbones for a month.''

Sciarrino's report says that he held Blood at gunpoint and called 911 and waited for St. Petersburg police to arrive. He kicked Blood, he said, because Blood was trying to get up and possibly run.

Charged with loitering and prowling, Blood waived his right to an attorney, paid court costs and accepted a pre-trial intervention offer. He did not file an abuse complaint against Sciarrino at the time and told his story only after internal affairs investigators approached him about two months ago, he said.

Blood said he spent no more than five minutes walking from his car and through the Sciarrinos' yard. He said he has no idea why sheriff's records show that it took Sciarrino 30 minutes to arrive.

Other than this case, Blood's only encounters with Pinellas authorities involve traffic citations.

Allegations of deputy trespassing stemmed from surveillance of the Simply Hydroponics store in Largo, an operation run mainly by Sciarrino, Giovannoni and Taylor, who was their supervising sergeant. Alston joined a few of these investigations.

Defense lawyers think detectives trespassed to gather evidence against indoor marijuana farmers, then lied to judges to get search warrants. In February, one lawyer asked Alston under oath whether he had ever seen his colleagues "jump fences,'' which is shorthand for trespassing.

Alston refused to answer.

After the Times wrote about Alston's statement, Gualtieri put all four men on leave.

Once investigators finish their work, an administrative board of sheriff's supervisors reviews the evidence and questions the accused deputy under oath. The board summarizes facts, then the sheriff decides on discipline.

A deputy who refuses to answer the board's questions can be charged with insubordination in addition to the original allegations. State law lets officers review the evidence amassed against them before the board convenes.

Sciarrino and his lawyers reviewed the evidence Friday, then he quit Monday.

Gualtieri declined to speculate on Sciarrino's motivation for resigning rather than face the review board.

Sciarrino had 12 years with the department. Even if fired for cause, he could still collect his state of Florida pension, Gualtieri said.

The Sheriff's Office plans to notify state authorities that Sciarrino resigned while under investigation, which could result in removal of his state certification as a law enforcement officer.

In general, Gualtieri said, deputies sometimes resign to avoid answering more questions under oath and to avoid formal, written findings that they broke rules.

Trespassing is a crime and armed trespassing is a felony. Gualtieri declined to say whether he would seek criminal charges against Sciarrino.

"We are going to pursue everything, but I have to be careful with that,'' he said. Discipline hearings have yet to be held on the other three deputies.

Gualtieri did say that the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office is now evaluating possible charges against former Deputy Jeffrey McConaughey, who resigned last year amid allegations that he kept $200 intended for a confidential informer.

"My understanding is that McConaughey has left the state,'' Gualtieri said. "If it were up to me, if he showed up in Pinellas County, I would arrest him myself. We are waiting for a final determination from the state (attorney) on that one.''

Stephen Nohlgren can be reached at (727) 893 8442 or [email protected]

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