Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Pinellas sheriff places four officers on leave over pot farm cases

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said Thursday that he has put a sergeant and three deputies on administrative leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation into how his narcotics unit handled indoor pot farm cases.

The investigation began about a week ago amid allegations that detectives had trespassed on suspects' properties to gather evidence.

"Based on information we continue to receive, it appears best to put Kyle Alston, (Sgt.) Chris Taylor, (Paul) Giovannoni and (Michael) Sciarrino on administrative leave and have them relieved of all responsibilities," Gualtieri said. By union contract, the men will continue to be paid.

"The investigation is being done in a comprehensive, thorough way, but I think (the suspensions are) the right thing to do for the interests of the citizens of Pinellas County."

Gualtieri would not elaborate on why he stripped the officers of their duties, because the internal affairs investigation is ongoing. None of the officers responded to a request for comment.

Giovannoni and Sciarrino were lead detectives on cases stemming from a nearly two-year camera surveillance of Simply Hydroponics, a Largo supply store sometimes frequented by marijuana growers. The surveillance ended last fall.

Taylor was their supervisor and Alston was a former narcotics detective who recently refused to answer under oath when a defense lawyer asked about any trespassing by Giovannoni and Sciarrino.

To persuade judges to sign search warrants, officers often said they could stand on public property and smell pot growing inside houses. High-grade, budding marijuana emits a distinctive smell.

Defense lawyers contend that officers were actually trespassing so they could sniff at windows up close, listen for pumps and fans and find other evidence of an indoor grow farm.

Trespassing to collect evidence is illegal. Armed trespassing is a felony.

Taylor was recently suspended for five days without pay for ordering the erasure of images on a digital recorder seized from one suspect during a bust. The recorder was connected to an outdoor surveillance system, and the suspect claimed it showed Taylor and Giovannoni jumping over his fence and into his back yard days before they showed up with a search warrant and found his pot plants.

Both officers denied trespassing. Taylor said he ordered the erasure because images of undercover officers who had entered the suspect's house during the bust had been recorded.

Earlier this week, the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office dropped charges against St. Petersburg resident David Cole, who said he was growing pot to relieve his multiple sclerosis symptoms. Alston was due to give sworn testimony in Cole's case, but that testimony was canceled when the charges were dropped.

Gualtieri said Cole's charges went away because of concerns about the "veracity" of the officers involved. Giovannoni and Sciarrino were listed on Cole's arrest documents.

Other pending cases against indoor pot growers could also be in jeopardy, Gualtieri said, as well as cases recently resolved through plea bargains or convictions.

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

Pinellas sheriff places four officers on leave over pot farm cases 03/22/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 10:33pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. "They're the players that we have" is really an alarm bell


    The other day, Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith was asked about the lack of production and pressure from the defensive line, especially off the edge.

    Then it happened.

  2. Police seek public's help as they investigate third death in Seminole Heights


    TAMPA — Police are seeking the public's help in their investigation of three suspicious deaths in southeast Seminole Heights during the past two weeks.

    Interim Tampa police Chief Brian Dugan addresses reporters about the latest suspicious death in southeast Seminole Heights Thursday night. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL | Times]
  3. Listen: Soldier's widow shares her call with Trump


    Natasha De Alencar had just returned home on April 12 after making T-shirts and pillowcases in her husband's memory when the Army casualty assistance officer told her there was someone on the phone for her. It was President Donald Trump.

    Army Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar was killed during a firefight with Islamic State fighters in eastern Afghanistan on April 8, 2017. His widow, Natasha De Alencar has shared the condolence call she had with President Donald Trump on April 12. [Image from video via Washington Post]
  4. Superiority complex: USF continues to battle schedule, expectations


    TAMPA — His voice, a perpetually scratchy bellow, betrays conviction. USF coach Charlie Strong has been asked if he believes he has the 16th-best team in America. Hesitation doesn't precede his response. Resolution fuels it.

    Does USF deserve its No. 16 national ranking? Coach Charlie Strong says there's no doubt. He expects that his Bulls can match up with any Division I-A program. (Octavio Jones, Times)
  5. Guest column: Girl Scouts designed to help girls excel on their own terms


    This column was written to coincide with the International Day of the Girl on Oct. 11. It comes on the heels of an announcement from the Boy Scouts of America that the organization will begin accepting girls.

    Girl Scouts like these, earning a patch at the Medical Center of Trinity earlier this year, are exposed to the best leadership experience in the world, says Jessica Muroff, who runs the organization locally. [Times files]