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Pinellas sheriff launches criminal investigation of four former narcotics detectives

Published Jun. 29, 2012

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced that he will launch a criminal investigation into the actions of four former detectives — three who resigned earlier this month and one who was fired Thursday.

The announcement caps an internal affairs investigation of the narcotics unit that began months ago after detectives were accused of trespassing to gather evidence against indoor marijuana growers. Armed trespass is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

"Misconduct will not be tolerated and we will hold accountable any member of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office who acts contrary to the law," Gualtieri said. "The ends never justify the means."

Trespassing was limited to just the four deputies, Gualtieri said. Internal affairs investigators questioned 93 officers under oath, he said, including "anybody who could have touched a narcotics investigation over the last few years."

But no evidence emerged that others participated in trespassing or knew about it, he said.

"We have a great agency with great people," Gualtieri said. "And while we had four people who engaged in wrongdoing and embarrassed us, we held them accountable and we will forge ahead with our heads high."

Pot growers could benefit from the fallout. Prosecutors already have dropped 18 pending cases. Now Gualtieri and Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said they also will review charges against about two dozen other defendants who previously pleaded guilty, were convicted or accepted plea bargains.

Defense lawyers — whose persistent questioning brought the trespassing allegations to light — were skeptical that wrongdoing was limited to four detectives.

"It's hard to believe that just four guys in this whole organization are the only ones who knew about this," Clearwater lawyer Douglas deVlaming said. "I would like to know who knew what and when and what they did about it."

How vigorously the Sheriff's Office questioned other officers may not become clear for months because Gualtieri declined to release about 9,000 pages of interviews and other internal affairs documents that the investigation generated.

Those documents are exempt from public disclosure, he said, because they could figure in the criminal investigation.

Questions about trespassing arose after several years of surveillance of a Largo hydroponics store frequented by pot growers as well as legitimate customers.

Detectives Michael Sciarrino and Paul Giovannoni and Sgt. Christopher Taylor took down license tags of customers, then checked electric bills for tell-tale power spikes of indoor pot farms.

To get search warrants, detectives almost always said they could smell marijuana from sidewalks or neighbors' yards. But defense attorneys suspected that deputies actually snuck onto private property — illegally — to peek in windows and sniff up close for flowering pot plants.

Seminole resident Allen Underwood, arrested in 2010, said his surveillance system captured Taylor jumping over his fence several days before deputies entered with a search warrant and seized his surveillance recordings. Taylor then told sheriff's technicians to erase them.

When Underwood's attorney filed a complaint last year, internal affairs investigators found no deliberate wrongdoing by Taylor or other deputies.

A few months later, Largo lawyer John Trevena got wind that Giovannoni had used a Progress Energy shirt and hat to gain access to private property. Giovannoni first denied it under oath, then admitted it. Gualtieri chalked up the Progress Energy ruse to overexuberance by a young officer.

Then in February, Detective Kyle Alston was questioned under oath by Tarpon Springs lawyer Newt Hudson. Alston — who occasionally worked with the three growhouse investigators — refused to answer when asked if he ever saw them trespass.

After the Tampa Bay Times wrote about Alston's testimony, Gualtieri put Alston and the other three on indefinite leave while internal affairs investigated.

Under questioning, Alston admitted that he and Sciarrino had once broken down a fence to enter a suspect's yard, Gualtieri said Thursday. "That was the game changer," the sheriff said.

Alston said the property was either in Lealman or St. Petersburg but could not identify the specific address, Gualtieri said. According to a sheriff's document acquired by the Times, that trespass occurred in 2009 and the two detectives ventured 30 feet into the suspect's property. By doing so, they committed a felony, the document says.

Gualtieri said his investigators uncovered other indications of trespassing, but he declined to reveal them.

Taylor, Giovannoni and Sciarrino all resigned this month.

Alston, who was fired Thursday, could not be reached for comment, but Tarpon Springs lawyer Jerry Theophilopoulos said Alston has authorized him to act as his spokesman.

"My understanding is that (Alston) was following the lead detective and was told do certain things," Theophilopoulos said. "The other three deserved their ouster. Kyle Alston should have been punished, but not to that severity."

Alston told the truth about trespassing, but ended up getting fired, Theophilopoulos said. "What message does that send to the rest of law enforcement?"

Gualtieri noted that Alston had several chances to report the trespassing, but admitted it only when backed into a corner.

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