Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

Pinellas sheriff launches criminal investigation of four former narcotics detectives

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced that he will launch a criminal investigation into the actions of four former detectives — three who resigned earlier this month and one who was fired Thursday.

The announcement caps an internal affairs investigation of the narcotics unit that began months ago after detectives were accused of trespassing to gather evidence against indoor marijuana growers. Armed trespass is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

"Misconduct will not be tolerated and we will hold accountable any member of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office who acts contrary to the law," Gualtieri said. "The ends never justify the means."

Trespassing was limited to just the four deputies, Gualtieri said. Internal affairs investigators questioned 93 officers under oath, he said, including "anybody who could have touched a narcotics investigation over the last few years."

But no evidence emerged that others participated in trespassing or knew about it, he said.

"We have a great agency with great people," Gualtieri said. "And while we had four people who engaged in wrongdoing and embarrassed us, we held them accountable and we will forge ahead with our heads high."

Pot growers could benefit from the fallout. Prosecutors already have dropped 18 pending cases. Now Gualtieri and Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said they also will review charges against about two dozen other defendants who previously pleaded guilty, were convicted or accepted plea bargains.

Defense lawyers — whose persistent questioning brought the trespassing allegations to light — were skeptical that wrongdoing was limited to four detectives.

"It's hard to believe that just four guys in this whole organization are the only ones who knew about this," Clearwater lawyer Douglas deVlaming said. "I would like to know who knew what and when and what they did about it."

How vigorously the Sheriff's Office questioned other officers may not become clear for months because Gualtieri declined to release about 9,000 pages of interviews and other internal affairs documents that the investigation generated.

Those documents are exempt from public disclosure, he said, because they could figure in the criminal investigation.

Questions about trespassing arose after several years of surveillance of a Largo hydroponics store frequented by pot growers as well as legitimate customers.

Detectives Michael Sciarrino and Paul Giovannoni and Sgt. Christopher Taylor took down license tags of customers, then checked electric bills for tell-tale power spikes of indoor pot farms.

To get search warrants, detectives almost always said they could smell marijuana from sidewalks or neighbors' yards. But defense attorneys suspected that deputies actually snuck onto private property — illegally — to peek in windows and sniff up close for flowering pot plants.

Seminole resident Allen Underwood, arrested in 2010, said his surveillance system captured Taylor jumping over his fence several days before deputies entered with a search warrant and seized his surveillance recordings. Taylor then told sheriff's technicians to erase them.

When Underwood's attorney filed a complaint last year, internal affairs investigators found no deliberate wrongdoing by Taylor or other deputies.

A few months later, Largo lawyer John Trevena got wind that Giovannoni had used a Progress Energy shirt and hat to gain access to private property. Giovannoni first denied it under oath, then admitted it. Gualtieri chalked up the Progress Energy ruse to overexuberance by a young officer.

Then in February, Detective Kyle Alston was questioned under oath by Tarpon Springs lawyer Newt Hudson. Alston — who occasionally worked with the three growhouse investigators — refused to answer when asked if he ever saw them trespass.

After the Tampa Bay Times wrote about Alston's testimony, Gualtieri put Alston and the other three on indefinite leave while internal affairs investigated.

Under questioning, Alston admitted that he and Sciarrino had once broken down a fence to enter a suspect's yard, Gualtieri said Thursday. "That was the game changer," the sheriff said.

Alston said the property was either in Lealman or St. Petersburg but could not identify the specific address, Gualtieri said. According to a sheriff's document acquired by the Times, that trespass occurred in 2009 and the two detectives ventured 30 feet into the suspect's property. By doing so, they committed a felony, the document says.

Gualtieri said his investigators uncovered other indications of trespassing, but he declined to reveal them.

Taylor, Giovannoni and Sciarrino all resigned this month.

Alston, who was fired Thursday, could not be reached for comment, but Tarpon Springs lawyer Jerry Theophilopoulos said Alston has authorized him to act as his spokesman.

"My understanding is that (Alston) was following the lead detective and was told do certain things," Theophilopoulos said. "The other three deserved their ouster. Kyle Alston should have been punished, but not to that severity."

Alston told the truth about trespassing, but ended up getting fired, Theophilopoulos said. "What message does that send to the rest of law enforcement?"

Gualtieri noted that Alston had several chances to report the trespassing, but admitted it only when backed into a corner.

Comments

Frozen food spilled on Lakeland road after CSX train, truck crash

LAKELAND — Lakeland residents got some frozen treats the hard way Wednesday morning after a CSX train struck a semi-truck that was carrying beef, chicken and fish, splitting it in half and spilling its contents along the roadway.While en route from W...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Students hurt after Highlands County crash involving school bus, semi-truck

Several children were injured Wednesday morning in Highlands County when their school bus was struck by a semi-truck.The crash occurred just before 8 a.m. on U.S. 27 and Lake Placid Drive, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.Two students were air...
Updated: 1 hour ago

Woman, 54, killed while crossing U.S. 19 in Hudson

HUDSON — A Hudson woman died Tuesday evening after being struck by a car while crossing U.S. 19 near Babson Avenue, according to Florida Highway Patrol.Patricia Lynn Pla, 54, was crossing U.S. 19 westbound about 6:10 p.m. when troopers said she was s...
Updated: 3 hours ago
St. Pete losing two assistant police chiefs; one will join Rays

St. Pete losing two assistant police chiefs; one will join Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — Two assistant police chiefs are stepping down next month, leaving two of the three second-in-command jobs vacant at the St. Petersburg Police Department.Assistant Chief Jim Previtera announced this week that he will resign from the d...
Published: 12/12/17

Tampa forum focuses on reforming Florida’s juvenile justice system

TAMPA — Changing the way Florida treats juvenile offenders was the focus of Monday night’s forum on criminal justice reform."We send more children to adult prison than any other state," said Raymer Maguire IV, manager of the ACLU’s Florida Campaign f...
Published: 12/12/17
Buchanan Middle aide used Instagram to seek nude photos, sex from students, deputies say

Buchanan Middle aide used Instagram to seek nude photos, sex from students, deputies say

TAMPA — A 24-year-old aide at Buchanan Middle School was arrested Monday and charged with using Instagram to ask for sex and nude photos from female students at the school, deputies said.Between Sept. 1 and the time of his arrest, Quinton J. Bradford...
Published: 12/12/17
New tracking system could help put a dent in juvenile car theft epidemic

New tracking system could help put a dent in juvenile car theft epidemic

LAKE MARY — Hundreds more juveniles who steal cars each year could be kept off the streets under a new tool approved by a Department of Juvenile Justice committee Tuesday, a move that could put a dent in a dangerous local car theft epidemic.Secretary...
Published: 12/12/17
Tampa police looking for Plant City girl, 15, considered to be in danger

Tampa police looking for Plant City girl, 15, considered to be in danger

TAMPA — Police were searching Tuesday for a missing 15-year-old Plant City girl who disappeared from a Tampa girls school.Zoe Warren was last seen about 8 a.m. Monday at the PACE Center for Girls, 1933 E. Hillsborough Ave., where she attends school, ...
Published: 12/12/17
Largo man arrested after passenger falls out of minivan and dies

Largo man arrested after passenger falls out of minivan and dies

PLANT CITY — A Largo man struck a pedestrian with a minivan last Friday, authorities said. Five minutes later, his female passenger was fatally struck by on-coming traffic after falling out of the vehicle.Plant City police arrested Todd Charles Riggs...
Published: 12/12/17

Police searching for robber who hit three North Tampa hotels

TAMPA — Police believe the same armed man committed early morning robberies at three North Tampa hotels within half a mile of one another, the latest just before 4 a.m. Tuesday.In the latest heist, the robber pointed a gun at a clerk in the West Wing...
Published: 12/12/17