The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A scandal sent a Long Island police chief to prison. Now it’s brought down the D.A., too.

Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, right, and his attorney Alan Vinegrad leave the courthouse in Central Islip, N.Y., on Oct. 25. (Seth Wenig/AP)

Christopher Loeb had stolen from the wrong guy.

He was just trying to feed a habit. Heroin had Loeb, and the 26-year-old regularly busted into parked cars around Long Island to fund his addiction, according to court documents.

When he broke into a GMC Yukon in December 2012, he walked away with quite a haul — a gun belt, ammo, a box of cigars, a humidor, and a canvas bag containing sex toys and porn videos. But he had no idea of the trouble he was about to confront.

On Dec. 14, 2012, police picked up Loeb at his mother’s house in Smithtown. Within hours he found himself handcuffed and manacled to the floor of an interrogation room at the Suffolk County Police Department’s Fourth District headquarters in Hauppauge.

The Yukon’s driver, it turned out, was Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke. Burke strutted into the room, looking to leave Loeb with a lesson.

A beefy cop with a painter’s brush mustache and a swaggering reputation for bending rules to their breaking point, Burke began viciously attacking the helpless Loeb, according to court documents.

He bashed his fist into the suspect’s face. Burke then screamed death threats at Loeb, promising to give him a “hot shot,” a fatally powerful dose of heroin. When Loeb spat back that Burke was a pervert for what he was keeping in his car, the police chief’s attack went into overdrive. Another detective had to pull him off.

“Boss that’s enough, that’s enough,” the officer said.

The aftershocks of assault were considerable — and continue today. Burke’s attack triggered a federal investigation into the police chief’s behavior.

In turn, Burke and others within the department maneuvered in a backroom plot to sabotage investigators and muzzle department insiders from leaking damaging evidence. Although Burke eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges related to Loeb’s attack and is serving a 46-month prison sentence, prosecutors found a coverup that they say went all the way to the top of local law enforcement in Suffolk.

Last week, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota and another top county prosecutor were indicted on federal charges related to an alleged coverup. The next day, Spota resigned from his position, according to Newsday, vacating one of the most politically powerful jobs in Suffolk.

Although the Long Island politician denies any wrongdoing, the charges have pitched the entire local criminal justice system into turmoil in the New York county with a population close to 1.5 million.

“The district attorney is the district attorney’s office,” Patrick Halpin, the former Suffolk County executive, told Newsday last week. “Everything stems from the DA and in this case the office has been tainted, which means that everything from the office is tainted.”

The disgraced police chief’s and indicted district attorney’s histories were entwined from the start. In 1979, Burke was the teenage star witness in a murder case involving a dead 13-year-old found with rocks jammed down his throat, the New York Times reported. The experience steered Burke to a law enforcement career. Thomas Spota was the prosecutor.

The two remained close during Burke’s rise, which culminated in 2012 when he was elevated to the top position in a department with more than 2,500 officers.

But according to federal charges to which Burke pleaded guilty, the chief regularly flouted rules and the law. He bashed up a state-owned car while driving under the influence, left the scene and “paid thousands of dollars out-of-pocket for vehicle repairs to cover up his crimes,” court records say.

Suffolk County police officers would later tell investigators they “regularly performed personal favors for Burke while on duty.” This included the illegal, like installing a GPS device on one of Burke’s political enemies within the department “in an attempt to gain information that would enable him to blackmail or force that official out of office.”

Burke displayed the same attitude for the law in dealing with Loeb, who broke into the chief’s car that day in December. When police arrested him, the chief grabbed his stolen bag — containing porn and sex toys — from the suspect’s house “in direct violation of SCPD procedure and protocol,” prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memorandum.

“In other words, [Burke] tampered with and removed evidence from a crime scene because he was the ‘Chief,’ because he knew no one would stop him, and because some of the items taken from his SCPD vehicle would cause him significant embarrassment.”

The chief’s reckless behavior was reportedly protected by his close relationship to the county’s district attorney. “[H]e was Spota’s boy,” a former officer told Vice in 2016. “That was his hook.”

According to federal prosecutors, Loeb’s allegations about the beating first became public in 2013, triggering a federal investigation. Burke kicked into damage control summoning senior members of the department to his office to get everyone’s “stories straight.”

“Burke told the witnesses that they should agree that he merely ‘popped’ his head in to look at Loeb at the precinct, but that otherwise, nothing happened,” court documents say. “Knowing Burke’s reputation for violating the law and seeking retribution against those who went against his corrupt orders, the witnesses feared their careers would be destroyed if they did not join Burke’s conspiracy to cover up the assault of Loeb.”

Spota and one of his top prosecutors who headed the public corruption unit, Christopher McPartland, were involved in Burke’s effort to cover his tracks and stymie the federal investigation, the government now alleges.

According to the federal indictment filed last week charging the two prosecutors with obstruction of justice and witness tampering, the men “had numerous meetings and telephone conversations wherein they discussed” the beating with Burke, and they “agreed to conceal Burke’s role in the assault and to obstruct and attempt to obstruct the Federal Investigation.”

The indictment says McPartland and Spota used “intimidation, threats and corrupt persuasion to pressure one or more witnesses . . . not to cooperate” with investigators, and to “provide false information, including false testimony under oath” regarding the assault.

Both attorneys were arraigned last week.

“Tom Spota committed no crime,” Spota’s attorney said following the hearing, according to the New York Times. “In fact, for many years of a very long and distinguished career, Tom had worked hard to investigate and prosecute crime, and deliver justice to the residents of Suffolk County. Tom categorically denies the government’s charges, and he looks forward to vindicating himself in court.”