Thursday, May 24, 2018
Public safety

Second Pinellas narcotics officer resigns before testifying under oath

LARGO — Pinellas sheriff's Sgt. Christopher Taylor, who supervised the narcotics surveillance of a Largo hydroponics store, resigned Wednesday rather than face interrogation under oath about alleged misconduct.

Taylor, 40, spent hours reading evidence that internal affairs investigators had amassed, then turned in his resignation, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

Taylor is the second narcotics officer to resign this week after months of allegations that officers trespassed and lied to judges while building cases against indoor marijuana growers.

Four other deputies did answer internal affairs questions this week, Gualtieri said. Their cases will go before an administrative review board next week, and then the sheriff will decide on any discipline.

Taylor, who could not be reached for comment, supervised a three-man unit that was primarily responsible for investigating customers of Simply Hydroponics, where a sheriff's surveillance camera recorded people coming and going.

Detective Michael Sciarrino, who worked under Taylor, resigned Monday. Another Taylor subordinate, Detective Paul Giovannoni, did answer investigators' questions, Gualtieri said.

One allegation involved a suspect who complained that deputies beat him up outside a Largo WingHouse after he had a verbal altercation with Sciarrino's wife, who worked there as a bartender. Taylor had called in the officers accused of roughing up the suspect.

Suspicions about trespassing came to a head last year after the arrest of Seminole resident Allen Underwood, who had digital surveillance cameras monitoring his yard. Underwood claimed that someone in plain clothes had vaulted his backyard fence just days before deputies came in with a search warrant and seized pot plants and his digital recorder.

Taylor told sheriff's technicians to erase the digital images, saying they showed the faces of undercover officers. When Underwood's attorney complained, Taylor was suspended for five days — not for trespassing or evidence destruction, but for mishandling electronic images that might have shown suspicious activity at Underwood's house.

After the Tampa Bay Times reported that the internal affairs investigation into the erasure was rife with leading questions and conflicting statements by officers, Gualtieri ordered that it be done over.

By then, prosecutors were dropping cases against pot growers and troubles in the narcotics unit had become campaign fodder in the current sheriff's race.

Given the two resignations this week, "the culture of corruption in the narcotics unit is beginning to collapse," said Tarpon Springs attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos, who represented Underwood. "Sheriff Gualtieri had a shot at this once already. He is now trying to save face."

Taylor, a 14-year veteran, stirred controversy in 2005 when he shot and killed Jarrell Walker, an unarmed St. Petersburg man lying face down on the floor during a drug bust. Taylor said Walker appeared to be reaching under a couch, possibly for a gun, and the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney ruled the shooting justifiable homicide.

Officers retain their ability to collect a pension regardless of whether they resign or are fired, Gualtieri said. A state board will decide whether they can maintain certification as law enforcement officers.

Gualtieri would not comment on possible criminal charges against the officers.

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