Friday, August 17, 2018
Public safety

Clearwater officer suspended after 4 a.m. off-duty accident

CLEARWATER — Officer Dennis Shane Cason was off-duty, bar-hopping, and drinking Bud Light on Dec. 9. Although he felt a "buzz going," he got behind the wheel of his Ford pickup and crashed into a tree on Hercules Avenue just before 4 a.m.

Several witnesses reported that he smelled of alcohol, had slurred speech, and an unsteady gait, but his blood-alcohol level was never measured and responding officers did not charge him with DUI, deciding instead to cite Cason for careless driving, according to internal affairs records released Wednesday by the Clearwater Police Department.

Cason was also suspended for eight days and will be removed from the SWAT team for two years.

"I'm disappointed," said Clearwater Chief Dan Slaughter. "There were multiple officers that were involved in this investigation, and they all had information. I don't think that information came together collaboratively the way that it's supposed to."

When asked if Cason should have been charged with DUI, the chief replied: "I think that there's the potential that that evidence was there and we didn't get it."

According to records, after Cason slammed into the tree, a woman living nearby called 911. When she passed the phone to Cason, he told dispatchers that he wasn't driving. Paramedics arrived and placed him inside an ambulance.

A Sunstar paramedic later told investigators that Cpl. Steven Squillante, a 20-year veteran, told Cason "We'll get this figured out" and that he could refuse to have his breath checked. After arriving at Morton Plant Hospital, Squillante told hospital staff that Cason "may have just been tired while driving home," records state.

Dr. Joshua Kaplan said he could smell alcohol while stitching Cason's facial injuries. Other officers and paramedics also detected the odor. One EMT said Cason's "speech was slurred and he had an unsteady gait."

Medical staffers conducted a blood test, but did not measure alcohol content. A nurse explained to investigators that an alcohol test is typically ordered to determine how long they need to keep a patient, but since Cason's family was taking him home, there was no need for the exam.

Cason also refused to have a consensual blood draw. Officers also discussed the option of conducting a forced blood draw, but Cason's wounds were not considered "serious bodily injury," records state.

After learning of the crash, the agency assigned Sgt. Michael Ogliaruso to investigate further. He completed a search warrant request to obtain blood samples from that night, but a prosecutor said the State Attorney's Office "wouldn't entertain" a warrant for a misdemeanor, according to records.

Cason, who has worked in Clearwater for 12 years, paid a fine for the careless driving citation, county records show.

"I take full responsibility for everything that happened here," he told investigators. "I messed up. "

Squillante received a written reprimand from the department and was removed from his corporal position.

Clearwater police also released several other internal affairs cases Wednesday:

• Officer Brian Jerard was accused of exaggerating the severity of injuries he received during work and was paid nearly $30,000 in disability compensation. State investigators compiled an insurance fraud case against Jerard, but it was dismissed when Jerard agreed to resign from the department in January.

• On March 8, Officer Nicholas Capogna was driving a marked cruiser when he was distracted by his computer and rear-ended another cruiser on Cleveland Street. He told investigators he was looking at the music website Pandora at the time of the crash. Capogna was suspended for five days and his take-home car privileges were revoked.

• Officer Raniel Heredia received a written reprimand and remedial training for arresting Alexander Hageli, who was approaching Church of Scientology members March 8 on Fort Harrison Avenue. Heredia believed the sidewalk Hageli was standing on belonged to the church and arrested him for trespassing.

Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or follow @lauracmorel.

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