NEW PORT RICHEY — A captain has resigned and more shake-ups are likely after the Pasco County Sheriff's Office discovered supervisors failed to act in a case of a deputy tampering with evidence tampering, said Sheriff Chris Nocco.
Ex-deputy Joseph Mercado, 25, was arrested Thursday on a felony charge of tampering or fabricating evidence in connection with a Dec. 8 drug bust in New Port Richey, according to the arrest report.
He also made headlines last month: He was arrested Feb. 28 for misdemeanor battery, accused of unlawfully touching a woman and performing a lewd act in front of her, according to the Sheriff's Office. He was also fired that day.
But at a Friday news conference Friday, Nocco reserved his sharpest words for Mercado's supervisors in Patrol District 1 in New Port Richey.
Sheriff's officials saw videotape and other evidence that Mercado knowingly returned syringes and a spoon to a suspect's backpack and tossed the backpack over a fence into a yard, Nocco said. Yet the deputy's supervisors did nothing, he said, and the crime only came to light after Mercado's arrest three months later.
"Nothing happened. Nothing happened," Nocco said. "No call to major crimes, no call to internal affairs."
As a result, Capt. James Steffens has resigned, the sheriff said. Steffens joined the department in 2013 after a stint as New Port Richey police chief and a 20-year career with the Clearwater Police Department, according to the Sheriff's Office website.
Steffens could not be reached for comment Friday.
The sheriff told reporters it was important to draw attention to the episode to show residents they can trust his department to police its own.
"You have to have that trust and have faith in what we do," Nocco said. "This isn't one of the happiest days that we have. But we have to do these things."
An internal investigation is now underway, Nocco said, and he expects it could result in more resignations and more charges against Mercado.
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office has also been alerted that actions taken by sheriff's personnel might affect criminal prosecutions, Nocco said.
"We're moving forward, were cleaning up all the cases," the sheriff said. "Anyone who has any information of anything else, please let us know. We will handle it."
Nocco said they don't know what motivated Mercado's actions in the Dec. 8 tampering incident. "I don't know if it was laziness or a criminal act," Nocco said. "I know he committed a crime in our eyes."
Here's how the tampering incident unfolded, according to Mercado's arrest report:
The deputy was following a man he knew to use drugs in the past, Edward Roe Jr., as he walked toward the home of another drug user Roe knew. The deputy approached Roe, who was carrying a backpack and then dropped a container of marijuana at his feet.
Mercado searched Roe and found a piece of methamphetamine and a syringe, the report said. He recorded them using his body camera, noting the syringe had never been used. Another deputy arrived, and Roe was arrested on drug charges. The video footage showed Mercado as he "places items back into the backpack," the report said.
Mercado then carried the backpack to a fence and tossed it over into the yard of the home — actions caught on the homeowner's surveillance system. The next day, a neighbor and the homeowner found the backpack with syringes inside and a spoon that appeared to contain drug residue. The homeowner, who was on probation, feared authorities would think the paraphernalia was his, so he had the neighbor destroy it.
When Roe was released from jail, the report said, the homeowner returned his backpack. The homeowner asked Roe: "Why were you trying to set me up with the cops?" Nocco said at the news conference. Roe replied: "I wasn't trying to set you up, the cops were trying to set you up."
Mercado later told an investigator the syringes he found hadn't been used, and that his supervisors had given him conflicting opinions in the past about whether an unused syringe constitutes "drug paraphernalia."
When Mercado was arrested Thursday, he was free on bail from the Feb. 15 incident, in which the agency said he visited a woman's home while off duty. That arrest report said Mercado went to woman's home "under the guise of discussing a serious incident that he witnessed."
He then masturbated in front of the woman, the report said, and she repeatedly asked him to leave. He touched the woman on her upper torso, the report said, and attempted to place his finger "on the victim's lips, prior to her pulling away." He was arrested Feb. 28, then fired.
Times staff writer Tylisa Johnson contributed to this report. Contact Dennis Joyce at firstname.lastname@example.org.