Former K-9 officer joins lawsuit against Pasco County Sheriff's Office, says supervisor threatened to kill his dog

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media during a press conference in 2016. Times (2016)
Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco addresses the media during a press conference in 2016. Times (2016)
Published June 21, 2019

A former Pasco County Sheriff's Office K-9 deputy has joined the growing list of plaintiffs who filed a federal lawsuit against Sheriff Chris Nocco and several of his high-ranking commanders.

Former deputy Cliff Baltzer says his sergeant filed a false internal affairs complaint against him in 2018 and threatened to euthanize his canine partner and then go on social media and blame Baltzer for the dog's death.

The lawsuit was first filed against top Pasco sheriff's officials on April 16 by three plaintiffs. They alleged that Nocco and agency leaders are "intoxicated with power and will physically abuse, intimidate, incarcerate, extort, and defame in order to ensure their absolute control."

Clearwater attorney John McGuire filed an amended suit on Wednesday, increasing the number of named plaintiffs to 21 former sheriff's employees, including Baltzer. The civil lawsuit makes a claim under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, often called RICO. The suit accuses high-ranking members of the department of gender discrimination, falsifying internal affairs complaints and targeting people who spoke against the department.

"Our response in court will answer all questions and, once the facts come out in court, we are confident these allegations will be proven false," sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said in an email Thursday.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: 'Intoxicated with power.' Pasco sheriff, agency leaders accused of retaliation, suit says

The original plaintiffs included John Horning, a deputy who resigned in 2012; Anthony Pearn, an intelligence-led policing manager fired in 2018; and Christopher Squitieri, a training supervisor fired in May.

In addition to Baltzer, the other new plaintiffs include:

• James Steffens, a former captain who resigned in 2018, who the suit says was forced to donate $2,000 to Nocco's reelection campaign or risk losing his command duties.

• Dean Mariani, a former lieutenant who resigned in 2018, who the suit says was told that if he left for another law enforcement agency, the Sheriff's Office would produce a false internal affairs complaint against him.

• Cheryl Hazelton, a former K-9 deputy and school resource officer who resigned in 2017, who the suit says was subjected to gender and sexual discrimination by her supervisors. She said she moved out of state for fear of retaliation from the Sheriff's Office.

"I have a case where the Pasco Sheriff's a criminal and ultimately should be removed," McGuire said. "It's the most corrupt county in the state."

Former K-9 officer Baltzer, 49, told the Tampa Bay Times this week that he joined the agency in May 2000 and resigned in December after he was targeted by a new K-9 sergeant.

Baltzer was the acting K-9 sergeant for several months, he said, and replaced by a sergeant who had little K-9 experience. The new sergeant said he was going to file a complaint against Baltzer for not showing up for K-9 training because his dog, Tundra, was performing poorly during SWAT training, Baltzer said.

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After Baltzer challenged the sergeant's assertions, he said, the sergeant confronted him in a parking lot and said "I'll make sure I'll put your dog down and make sure you're blamed on social media."

Baltzer said he was demoted from the K-9 unit due to the complaint. He decided to buy Tundra, paid $8,500 to the Sheriff's Office, and was allowed to pick up the dog after he resigned, he said.

Baltzer said other agencies wouldn't hire him because of the complaint, so he decided to join the lawsuit.

"I need help trying to clear my name," he said.

Contact Paige Fry at Follow @paigexfry.