LARGO — With his narcotics unit mired in allegations of trespassing, stealing and lying, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri says he is the best person to root out any wrongdoing.
Lawyers defending marijuana growers have called for federal intervention, saying the sheriff and his top brass cannot be trusted to police their own.
Exhibit A? The case of the erased surveillance system.
A Seminole man arrested in 2010 for growing marijuana said cameras he installed had recorded a detective vaulting his fence to gather evidence. If true, that would be illegal trespassing and could jeopardize the prosecution.
But when deputies entered the property later with a search warrant, they seized the recorder and erased all the images.
Internal affairs investigators who were supposed to find out what happened failed to ask key questions, ignored obvious contradictions, and asked leading questions that would provide an excuse for erasing the video.
"It seemed like they were trying to help out the officers involved,'' said Wyndell Watkins, former deputy police chief for Washington, D.C., who reviewed transcripts of the erasure investigation at the request of the Tampa Bay Times.
Gualtieri and his top brass should have worked harder to spot deficiencies in the questioning, Watkins said.
"You get out what you put in,'' Watkins said, "and you don't want to run your department based on this hit-or-miss proposition.''
Interviewed last week, Gualtieri acknowledged that internal affairs mishandled the erasure complaint, and will reinvestigate.
"We need to make sure no stone is unturned,'' said Gualtieri, who has a law degree. "We need to make sure we get everything out that needs to get out.''
He also said he would add another midlevel supervisor to the internal affairs division.
Much is at stake.
Gualtieri has either completed or launched at least 15 internal affairs investigations of the narcotics unit since taking over last fall. Prosecutors are dropping charges against indoor pot growers because of questions about the investigations. And four officers have been relieved of duty while investigators examine their behavior.
"The reputation of the department and the city is lying in the balance,'' said Watkins, who oversaw internal affairs at the D.C. Police Department and is now a private consultant.
"What you don't want (as sheriff) is somebody coming in behind you and pointing out all these failures. Now the focus has gone from the officers to you. It reverts back to who conducted the investigation, and that taint is permanent.''
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In 2010 and 2011, then-narcotics Detectives Paul Giovannoni and Michael Sciarrino obtained dozens of search warrants, saying they could smell marijuana growing inside houses while they stood on sidewalks or neighboring property. Their supervisor, Sgt. Chris Taylor, concurred.
Sure enough, their raids invariably turned up pot plants.
Allen Underwood's surveillance system offered an alternate theory: Officers knew pot plants were in houses because they had illegally sneaked up closer to check for telltale clues.
Underwood, 57, had four outside cameras, triggered by motion sensors, that fed a digital recorder inside his house. After his arrest, he told his lawyer, Jerry Theophilopoulos, that men had come onto his property several times to peek over his fence or vault into his back yard — and his recorder could prove it.
Deputies seized the recorder during the raid. Told that deputies had erased the images, Theophilopoulos filed an internal affairs complaint in July, alleging trespass, destruction of evidence and thievery. During the raid, he said, someone had stolen a $200 necklace, a high-power flashlight and 25 Cohiba cigars that retail for about $15 each.
Taylor, the supervisor, said he ordered technicians to wipe out the images because they showed faces of narcotics detectives during the raid.
Because of heated debate about the erasures in Underwood's court case, internal affairs investigators Joseph Gerretz and Darrell Spiva knew of Taylor's explanation before they began interviewing witnesses in October.
Judging by their questions, they believed that explanation — that the erasure was designed to keep officers' faces out of the public eye, not to cover up trespassing.
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Q: If a suspect or someone during a drug buy recognizes them as a police officer, they could be seriously hurt or even killed, right?
A: That is correct.
Q: It would basically make the detective useless in an undercover capacity?
A: Yes, it would.
That is Gerretz questioning narcotics Cpl. Kris Lutz, who had conveyed Taylor's erasure order to the technician.
The recorder's hard drive held three weeks of images. If Underwood's claims were true, images recorded before the raid would show a detective in his back yard.
Technician Joseph Soutullo testified that he knew earlier images existed because they were listed on an on-screen menu. But he said he never looked at them, and investigators never asked him or Lutz why not.
Then investigators questioned Underwood, who had identified Sciarrino as the fence jumper. But in his interview with internal affairs, he said Taylor was the jumper, and described him.
Investigators did not question this discrepancy. Underwood later told the Times he had mistakenly deduced from police reports that Sciarrino was the fence jumper. But when Underwood saw Taylor at his trial, Underwood realized he was wrong. Taylor was the guy.
If true, that gave Taylor particular motivation to discourage anyone from viewing images that predated the raid.
In his interview with internal affairs, Taylor said he saw images from the raid on the recorder. But, he said, technicians told him there were no pre-raid images.
That conflicted directly with the technician's statement about a menu of earlier images — and it's another contradiction Gerretz and Spiva never questioned.
Nor did they ask Lutz, Soutullo or Taylor an obvious question: Deputies had three weeks of potential evidence — video of comings and goings from a grow house. Why wouldn't they want to know who might be coming to buy or sell drugs?
Gerretz and Spiva did ask Taylor, Giovannoni and Sciarrino if they trespassed, but they limited their questions to the few nights that sheriff's reports placed them at Underwood's house.
As for pot sniffing, Giovannoni and Sciarrino told a judge that they stood east of the house on a sidewalk on two windless nights.
William McCarty Jr., a retired Federal Aviation Administration weather observer, examined National Weather Service records from those two nights and said wind was blowing constantly from the north and northeast 9 to 14 mph. The detectives "could not have possibly smelled any scent,'' he wrote.
Neither internal affairs investigator asked about that report.
And the supposedly missing $15 cigars, the flashlight and the $200 necklace?
Not one question.
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Gerretz and Spiva filed their report with the Administrative Review Board, top supervisors who review documents and recommend discipline, Gualtieri said. The board was composed of Lt. Joe Manning, Capt. John Tillia, Maj. George Steffen and Chief Deputy Daniel Simovich.
None responded to requests for comment. Nor did Gerretz and Spiva.
The board absolved Taylor, Giovannoni and Sciarrino of trespassing. In December, Taylor was suspended for five days for mishandling the video recorder.
Gualtieri said he received an oral summary of the case and signed off on the discipline, but didn't read the documents. Internal affairs handles many cases and this one produced 880 pages of documents. "There was a time factor,'' he said.
Recently, Gualtieri removed Taylor, Sciarrino and Giovannoni from active duty. He declined to say why because an investigation is pending. They have declined to comment.
In retrospect, Gualtieri said, the Underwood case indicates that internal affairs investigators may need retraining. "They need to be fact gatherers … without regard to what might come,'' he said. "No leading questions. Just ask the question … where there's no wiggle room.''
Underwood's is not one of the grow house cases currently under review by the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney because he was tried in federal court. Theophilopoulos said he will attempt to reverse the conviction after current internal affairs investigations become public.
But he remains skeptical.
"The same people that were signing off on everything on the Underwood case, now all of sudden when it is brought to public attention, they say they are cleaning it up.
"Where were they a year ago? Where were they?"
Contact Stephen Nohlgren at [email protected]