By Timothy Bolger, Rashed Mian & Christopher Twarowski
Disgraced former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke was sentenced in federal court Wednesday to 46 months in prison on civil rights violations and conspiracy charges for beating a 24-year-old larceny suspect in 2012 and ordering his subordinates to cover it up.
U.S. District Court Judge Leonard Wexler delivered the sentence before his packed Central Islip federal courtroom, imposing less than the maximum of 51 months under the suggested guidelines and more than the minimum of 41 months. With 11 months already served, Burke will be mandated to serve just shy of three years, and three years of post-release supervision.
“I feel Mr. Burke was acting as a dictator,” Judge Wexler told the court before handing down his decision. “If you’re good to them, they’re good to you.”
In February, Burke pleaded guilty to federal civil rights violations and conspiracy charges for beating Christopher Loeb while the then-24-year-old was in police custody at the Fourth Precinct station house in Smithtown on Dec. 12, 2012. Loeb had stolen a duffel bag from Burke’s SUV containing sex toys, pornography, Burke’s gun and ammunition belt, among other items. Burke’s subordinates were instructed to lie about the interrogation-room beating.
While Loeb was shackled, Burke punched and kicked him, grabbing him by the ears, shaking him and, according to court documents, declaring: “You want to steal from me?” He also threatened to give Loeb, a heroin addict, a “hot shot”—slang for a lethal overdose.
Prosecutor James Miskiewicz said in December that Burke’s porn was his “motivation for beating the hell out of Loeb.”
Burke retired three months prior to his arrest in December 2015. Last week, Burke had petitioned Judge Wexler for no prison time, citing his 75-year-old mother’s cancer. Prosecutors had asked for the maximum sentence.
“During his tenure as the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the Suffolk County Police Department, James Burke considered himself untouchable,” said Robert Capers, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, who was seated at the prosecution table. “He abused his authority by brazenly assaulting a handcuffed prisoner, he pressured subordinates to lie to cover up his criminal acts, and he attempted to thwart the civil rights investigation into his conduct…With today’s sentence, Burke learned that no one is above the law and that the consequences for such egregious behavior are severe.”
Burke, donning a tan prison jumpsuit, apologized to Loeb, the court and the public for his actions.
“I have always believed that one must be held accountable for his actions,” Burke stated in court, calling his crime a “calamitous misdeed.”
Loeb, wearing a blue prison uniform at Burke’s sentencing and nearing the end of his own incarceration for a parole violation, had much to say to his former tormentor:
“You were the chief of police, and what you did shook the foundation of the entire police department and the district attorney’s office, who I believe helped you get away with your your crimes, at least for a short time,” he declared.
“I thought you would get away with threatening and brutally assaulting me,” Loeb continued. “You told me that no one would believe me. You told me my word was no good against that of a decorated police chief. You laughed at me when I asked for a lawyer. You said to me, quote-unquote, ‘This isn’t Law and Order, asshole.'”
He told the court that although Burke’s sentencing restores his faith in the criminal justice system, he still doesn’t trust the Suffolk County Police Department.
Loeb also suggested he’d be moving out of the county once released.
Suffolk County Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a retired detective, was also in court at Burke’s sentencing. He said the beating is not an isolated incident. He recalled how Burke was known to retaliate against those perceived to have wronged the ex-chief. For instance, Trotta was the target of an internal affairs investigation after a Press story exposed how, at Burke’s behest, Suffolk police had pulled detectives—Trotta included—out of the the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force due to an inter-agency turf war.
“‘Don’t feel bad, you’re not the only person he’s after, I feel like I’m in the gestapo,'” Trotta recalled an internal affairs detective telling him. He also questioned how Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone had allowed Burke to stay in office for so long, given his past.
Burke, whose father and grandfather were both New York City cops, was 14 years old when he was a witness in the murder case of John Pius, Jr., a 13-year-old from Smithtown whom classmates suffocated with rocks in 1979 for stealing a dirt bike. Following a year as a New York City police officer in 1985, at age 21, Burke joined the Suffolk County Police Department, first as a patrolman in North Amityville and then as an undercover narcotics officer.
Burke later spent a decade as chief investigator under Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, the former chief prosecutor in the Pius case. Spota’s office is also under investigation for corruption.
The Loeb incident is not the first time Burke, a 30-year Suffolk County Police Department veteran, has come under scrutiny.
Burke was the subject of a 1995 Internal Affairs investigation that concluded allegations he “engaged in a personal, sexual relationship” with “a convicted felon known to be actively engaged in criminal conduct including the possession and sale of illegal drugs, prostitution and larceny,” “engaged in sexual acts in police vehicles while on duty and in uniform,” and “failed to safeguard his service weapon and other departmental property” were “substantiated,” according to its report.
Rather than facing discipline, Burke received promotions, rising through SCPD’s ranks to its top position despite his improprieties—an ascension facilitated by Spota and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who appointed Burke police chief in 2012.
Also in attendance at the sentencing was Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, who previously complained that Spota’s office refused to investigate allegations that one of his staffers, former Suffolk County Conservative Party Chairman Ed Walsh, was conducting private affairs while he was on the clock. Walsh is appealing his theft and fraud conviction for golfing, gambling and politicking on county time.
“Jim Burke not only betrayed his oath to the people, he undermined the criminal justice system here in Suffolk County,” DeMarco told reporters outside the courthouse. “What the judge did today is send a strong message that our public officials—whether they’re law enforcement officers, elected officials or appointed officials—must act with honesty, integrity and uphold the law.”
Bruce Barket, a Garden City-based attorney representing Loeb in his lawsuit against Burke and the county, said he will move to have his client’s theft conviction vacated since it was based in part on allegedly perjured statements. Barket was uncertain what to make of Burke’s apology.
“I’m loathe to speculate whether his apology is sincere or not,” he said. “I’ll take him at his word.”
Burke’s sentencing comes two weeks after Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano, his wife, Linda, and Oyster Bay Town Supervisor John Venditto pleaded not guilty to federal corruption charges.