The Strange Rise and Violent Fall of Long Island's Dirtiest Police Chief
Former Suffolk County Chief James Burke's recent conviction on civil rights charges opened a window into a lurid cop culture of illegal wiretapping, cover-ups, sex addiction, drunk driving, and blackmail.
Former Suffolk County Police Chief James Burke is escorted by FBI personnel outside an FBI office in Melville, New York, in December. (Steve Pfost/Newsday via AP)
On December 14, 2012, cops arrested a 26-year-old named Christopher Loeb outside of his mother's house in Smithtown, New York, slammed his thin body to the ground, and started roughing him up. When his mother Jane arrived, the officers relented and drove him to the Suffolk County Police Department's fourth precinct in nearby Hauppauge, where they chained him to the floor. Loeb was kept in the dark about his arrest and denied access to a lawyer, but it soon dawned on him that the treatment might have something to do with a black duffel bag he'd recently stolen from the backseat of an unlocked black 2008 GMC Yukon. A heroin user who dabbled in burglary to support his habit, Loeb had found things in the bag that might have belonged to a police officer: handcuffs, mace, and a gun.
But he also found things that pointed to something much darker, according to a friend of Loeb's who spoke to him after the incident—like porn that appeared to him to feature prepubescent boys.
According to court documents, James Burke, then the chief of police for Suffolk County, derived pleasure from presiding over the continued abuse of Loeb at the police station. He told fellow officers with an air of wistfulness later on that it reminded him of his "old days" coming up with the force; he jokingly called the cops who aided him in subduing Loeb his "palace guards." One of these men allegedly told Loeb he was going to rape his mother during the beating, and Burke even threatened to murder Loeb with a "hot shot," or a fatal overdose of heroin that might later be arranged to appear self-inflicted.
Immobilized but conscious of the fact that Burke was the owner of the bag with the alleged porn stash, Loeb called the chief a name. Newspapers typically soften the word to "pervert," and the feds say Loeb was mistaken, but in Loeb's telling of the story, as documented in a video interview recorded for Newsday, he called Burke a "pedophile."
According to Loeb, when the chief heard that word, he exploded with rage, driving his thick fingers into the young man's face.
"He used to tell people that he wanted to become a cop so he could get away with breaking the law." —a high school acquaintance of James Burke
In subsequent weeks, Burke pressured his colleagues to cover up the abuse. One cop later told the US attorney's office that if it were discovered by Burke that he had spoken to the FBI during the investigation, he would be a "dead man."
On February 26, after a lengthy FBI probe, Burke pleaded guilty to federal charges of violating Christopher Loeb's civil rights and knowingly conspiring to conceal evidence of it. But according to former police officers, local politicians, lawyers, and Suffolk County residents with whom I spoke about the case, Burke's conviction likely represents only the first domino to fall in what could become one of the more surreal federal probes of local law enforcement in American history.
It involves allegations of illegal wiretapping, cover-ups, sex addiction, drunk-driving cops, and blackmail. It involves a super PAC funded by the Suffolk Police Benevolent Association that critics say uses mandatory donations to cement a wall between cops and the people they are paid to protect. And it involves Tom Spota, the longtime Republican-turned-Democrat District Attorney of Suffolk County, who fathered Burke's rise to power through a close friendship that began after they met during the high-profile trial of a bizarre murder case.
Robert Trotta, an outspoken ex-cop who is now the county legislator from Suffolk's 13th District, has been struggling to pass bipartisan legislation to reform the police for more than two years. He compared the atmosphere of paranoia and fear officers experience there to that overseen by the KGB during the Cold War.
"I had to get out of the police department," he tells me from his office. "That way I could be free to talk about what is going on there."
"Suffolk is so dirty," concurs Peter Fiorillo, a retired New York City cop who has lived on Long Island since the 1960s. "Every place has corruption, but on a scale from one to ten, it's an 11."
From the outside, it seems strange that Burke was given so much authority. How could a man who in 1993 carried on a sexual relationship with Lowrita Rickenbacker, a convicted prostitute and drug dealer who'd been arrested multiple times in the very precinct where he acted as supervisor, become, in 2012, the top cop on a force of over 2,500 officers?
Described by those who knew him as a sex-obsessed narcissist, Burke—a squat, sharp-talking middle-aged bachelor with a vulgar disregard for social niceties—could also be charming when he wanted to be. He carried the reputation of a cop's cop, and his natural intelligence helped compensate for his lack of a college education. Three former officers with whom I spoke described him as an inspiring public speaker, and the Internal Affairs report into his relationship with Rickenbacker describes Burke's reputation as that of an "extraordinary street cop" with an intimate knowledge of "local street people."
It has been documented by Internal Affairs that Burke lost his gun on one outing with Rickenbacker, whom he knew then as Lowrita Fields, and that the pair had sex in his patrol car. But based on conversations with others about the incident, Trotta suspects Burke may have been shaking down drug dealers for crack and using the contraband with his girlfriend while they had sex.
There are few law enforcement agencies where a man like Burke would be a candidate for a leadership role. But Suffolk County is the exception to a lot of rules.
The county's demographics render it uniquely positioned for the kind of corruption embodied by men like Burke, according to Bruce Barket, the attorney handling Loeb's lawsuit against the county. Tucked onto the eastern end of Long Island, it's home to 1.5 million people and is bordered only by Nassau County (and then New York City) to the west, the Long Island Sound, and the Atlantic Ocean. Other counties in the New York metropolitan area have borders that are frequently crossed by police and civilian vehicles, Barket notes, but Suffolk is an exception.
"To become what it is now," Barket says from his office in Nassau, "Suffolk County operated unobserved for decades."
At over 85 percent white and predominantly Catholic, the area is less than diverse, despite a robust Latino population dispersed throughout Long Island's East End. Communities like Smithtown, where Burke grew up, emerged largely through the phenomenon of white flight, where Caucasian families dealt with the specter of urban crime by fleeing from the five boroughs and heading toward the sea.
It's ironic, then, that Suffolk itself became known for a brutal murder case. On April 21, 1979, Joseph Sabina found his 13-year-old neighbor John Pius Jr. lying motionless in the yard of Dogwood Elementary School. Stones had been stuffed down his throat to asphyxiate him. The resulting trial was an odd convergence of the people who would run the county's law enforcement apparatus years later: The prosecutor assigned to the case was a young Spota, and Burke, then 14 years old, served as one of Spota's key witnesses. In the end, Smithtown locals Michael Quartararo, his brother Peter Quartararo, Thomas Ryan, and Bresnic—all high school–aged boys—were convicted of the murder.
Jesse Kornbluth, a journalist who chronicled the Pius case for New York magazine in a labyrinthine two-part 1982 story, describes Suffolk residents to me over the phone "as people who view New York City life as a kind of sinful Gomorrah." At the same time, he explains, people there are prone to ignoring the more psychologically horrific dangers that mutate along the quiet, tree-lined streets on which they live.
For some, the verdict in the Pius case did not bring any closure. One of those people is attorney Frank Bress, now a law professor at New York Law School in Manhattan, who defended Bresnic in a 1986 appeal.
"Burke was a low-level burglar and drug dealer as a kid," Bress says over a salad not far from his home in Westchester. "It made his testimony unreliable."
The lawyer ran a yearlong clinical program on Bresnic's appeal with eight of his students while he was teaching at New York's Pace University, immersing himself in what he perceived to be inconsistencies of evidence. Today, he believes the same thing he believed then: that all four boys were innocent. Theories abound about who might have committed the murder—some suggest it was Pius's father, or possibly a local drug dealer—and it's difficult to talk about the case without acknowledging a degree of doubt about the true identity of the killers.
Bress accuses Spota of dipping between his work as a prosecutor and as a civil attorney, handling the victim's side of civil suits he himself prosecuted in criminal court. A yellowed file copy from the Bresnic retrial refers to Spota's "pecuniary interest" in trying cases.
"I could see right away that Spota was dirty," Bress says now. "The way he conducted himself, moving between prosecution and civil cases like that was highly unethical behavior."
Bess's recollection of Burke as a small-time burglar and drug dealer was corroborated by an anonymous source that claims Burke mostly trafficked in small stuff, like marijuana and hallucinogens. Selling weed, the source notes wryly, was a slightly bigger deal back in 1979 than it is now, and he shares Bress's conclusion that Burke's criminal proclivities likely made him a malleable resource for the prosecution.
Even in those days, Suffolk cops had a reputation. According to Kornbluth's research, the department had a 97 percent confession rate for murder suspects, a number three or four times higher than most American homicide squads' best years—and there were allegations that officers would break all sorts of eggs in order to make that omelette. Examples cited by Kornbluth include a man who claimed that a thin telephone book was placed against his head before he was beaten with a slab of concrete, and another who said cops tied a slip of paper to his penis and then held it over a paper shredder, threatening to feed his member through the blades.
"None of what's happening is a surprise to me because Burke is the same guy then that he is now," the source who knew him in high school tells me. "He used to tell people that he wanted to become a cop so he could get away with breaking the law."
Burke was officially hired by the Suffolk County Police Department in 1986 as a 21-year-old. He was promoted to sergeant in 1991, when he was 26, and reportedly had Spota's ear. Two years later, Burke was having sex with a convicted prostitute inside his patrol car.
"Horny," says a gruff voice with a thick New York accent on the other end of the phone, when asked to describe the disgraced chief in one word. " Horny guy."
The voice belongs to a man I'll call R, an ex-cop who met Burke as a student during a police-training course the former chief taught in the late 90s. The two hung out together, drinking and chasing women. At that time, Burke was being promoted from sergeant to lieutenant, and R describes him as personable and friendly, "the loudest guy in a given room." He also says Burke was a short guy with a Napoleonic complex and "a sex addict."
"He was once in a bathroom in a hotel room with other guys and there was definitely coke there. But drugs weren't his thing. Sex was." —a former New York cop
"Burke used to take me and some of the other guys to Gossip, a strip club in Melville," R says. "Downstairs, in the private room, Burke and other cops used to fuck some of the dancers for money. Burke loved prostitutes, and he loved smoking cigars. He loved dipping his cigar in cherry brandy."
R cites a locally infamous bust at World Gym in Ronkonkoma in 2002, where officers were convicted for selling cocaine and steroids, as representative of the scene among Long Island cops at the time.
"[Burke] was once in a bathroom in a hotel room with other guys, and there was definitely coke there," R says. "But drugs weren't his thing. Sex was."
I ask whether he ever imagined his friend would go on to become chief.
"No way," he responds with a laugh. "I figured he'd just get hit with a DUI. But he was Spota's boy, and that was his hook."
Burke has since admitted to driving drunk and using the power of his badge to avoid paying a price. Court documents reveal that in 2011, he struck a state-owned vehicle, abandoned the scene, and failed to report the incident. He later concealed the crimes by surreptitiously paying thousands of dollars for repairs.
When asked about R's allegations of sex work, a spokesperson for Gossip informs me that the club was rebranded under new ownership in 2014 with an emphasis on "upscale and sophisticated" entertainment. But a dancer named Gia who worked at the old Gossip between 2003 and 2004 confirms R's description of the place as a "cop hangout," though she admits she wouldn't know Burke's face from thousands of others because of the heroin she was abusing at the time.
Gia says she worked on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday nights with two regular dancers named Tara and Hawaii, and that the trade of sex for money was commonplace in the basement of the club. She adds that empty "liquor cabinets" were used for sex work, and the ownership at that time, which she describes as "shadowy" and Russian, encouraged prostitution—and that one dancer at the club had a " Felix the Cat magic bag" filled with vibrators, nipple clamps, and other gear for female submissive S&M sessions.
Gia says cops were regular customers, but "different from the firefighters," who were usually looking for a gentler time. The police she knew, as a rule, were misogynists who liked it harder. And some of the cops, she claims, would bring "base" to smoke with the girls—a.k.a. crack cocaine.
"You have to understand that these were vulnerable girls with drug problems," Gia says. "They were raised to respect cops, and then when they see them breaking the law with drugs, or roughing them up, it can be really upsetting because it suddenly feels like the whole world is against you."
I ask Gia if she might introduce me to Tara or Hawaii to see if they ever encountered Burke.
"I can't," she says, her lips curling downward into a pout. "They're dead of a drug overdose."
Trotta's online bio once noted that his campaign was waged with "the goal of making county government more efficient," a polite reference to the vile culture he says he witnessed over 25 years as a Suffolk cop. He speaks from his office with a Long Islander's vowel-twisting accent, peppering descriptions of his homeland with words like "Gestapo," "unbelievable," "crazy," and "staggering." He says that beyond what's already known about corruption through local newspaper stories about Burke, police have created an unsustainable system where they receive massive paychecks to the tune of hundreds of thousands per year while the county plunges into deeper and deeper fiscal ruin.
Even after Burke was forced into retirement by the scandal surrounding Loeb, for example, he was still owed an eye-popping payout of $434,370 under the auspices of unused sick and vacation time. (Burke averaged an annual salary well over $200,000 in his final years on the force.) Trotta keeps the news clippings of Burke's public implosion taped to the wall above his toilet.
"The money that the cops are putting together right now is just stupid, staggering," he says, flipping through a set of stapled pages. "Look at how stupid this is."
The pages refer to financial disclosure reports of a super PAC called the Long Island Law Enforcement Foundation. Trotta claims that the county Police Benevolent Association (PBA) fills the coffers of the super PAC with mandatory paycheck deductions from officers, and that the money they collect is then spent on massive advertising blitzes to help friendly candidates. He further claims that these mandatory donations are illegal—and that they reinforce a culture of secrecy that enables men like Burke to rise unchecked. He believes the majority of cops are not behind these efforts, however, and that they emerged from corruption in the upper ranks of the PBA and county administration.
(The Suffolk County Police Department referred me to the PBA regarding inquiries into the super PAC. The PBA did not respond to multiple phone messages left at its office.)
When he was still a cop, Trotta served on a special FBI task force formed in 2010 featuring two other Suffolk officers, John Oliva and Willie Maldonado. The unit was charged with bringing violence under control in heavily Latino neighborhoods of Brentwood and Central Islip, where MS-13—a Salvadorian gang—had gained a foothold, according to Robert Doyle, a retired detective sergeant who helped assemble the squad. MS-13 members, often identifiable by blue and white colors and sometimes their love of Alex Rodriguez jerseys (he sports the number 13), were believed responsible for a gory trail of unsolved murders that the county needed federal assistance to solve. (Gang members' ability to escape south to Latin America when pressured by local police presented unique challenges.)
Former Suffolk Police Commissioner Richard Dormer praises the work of that task force in a phone interview, saying they did a "yeoman's job," singling out in particular the skills of Oliva, the son of Cuban immigrants who gained reliable access to Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. But on the Friday before Labor Day 2012, with the probe still underway, both officers were abruptly transferred to peaceful, low-crime districts. Doyle now alleges that Burke and Spota moved the officers to eliminate a hovering FBI presence in the county. At around the same time, Burke was reported to be obstructing federal authorities from collaborating on the effort to catch the Long Island Serial Killer. (Spota's office referred numerous requests to comment for this story to the US attorney's office, which declined to comment.)
Doyle describes the reassignment of the officers as "having diamonds that you toss away in the coal."
The New York Times reported this February that federal investigators were examining the circumstances under which Officer Oliva's phone was tapped by Spota's office in 2014. The bug was said to be the work of Assistant DA Chris McPartland, who is described, ironically enough, as Spota's top anti-corruption lawyer. (Cops who knew McPartland, and feared his power, called him the "Lord of Darkness" behind closed doors.) Meanwhile, court documents reveal Burke ordered his officers to install a GPS in the Suffolk deputy police commissioner's car in an effort to blackmail him. And Newsday published a story on March 8 detailing how federal investigators believe Spota blocked their probe of Suffolk Conservative Party leader Ed Walsh, a former county sheriff charged with wire fraud and stealing government funds.
Both Trotta and Doyle are quick to note that Spota has run twice unopposed for office. In 2013, the most recent election, he was cross-endorsed by both the Democratic and Republican parties as well as the Independent and Conservative parties. Ray Perini, a Republican attorney who attempted to challenge Spota, was quickly stifled by members of his own party.
"They had the cops out working in force against me," Perini says over the phone with a chuckle.
When I visit Suffolk County police headquarters in Yaphank on a recent warm Wednesday evening, farms and empty fields engulf the isolated station. One cop car shoots across the open road and disappears onto the Long Island Expressway, flashing red and blue lights into the dissolving daylight. Inside, it feels like most of the station has gone home. One plainclothes officer behind the reception desk stares vacantly at a News 12 Long Island TV broadcast chirping about Spota's alleged efforts to protect Walsh.
Words like "corruption" and "ongoing" echo in the deserted lobby.
At 35, Timothy Sini is Suffolk's youngest-ever police commissioner. He had to adapt quickly to the atmosphere of mistrust that engulfs this end of the island: On first being appointed last November by County Executive Steve Bellone, he was greeted by a harsh op-ed in Newsday assailing his "zilch experience" and "weak credentials."
The cop has the kind of face that stays young, along with round, clean-shaven cheeks that undercut the gravity of his somber talk about reform.
"It's a humbling experience," Sini says of his first few months on the job. "But I see this as an opportunity to move the department forward in a much more positive direction."
Sini assures me he's done a top-to-bottom assessment of the department and that he's working hard to increase transparency. He's also planning for the county police to have an active social media presence down the road, and he wants a better relationship with the press. He adds that he has transferred more officers into Internal Affairs to help avoid more incidents that might stain the reputation of the county, and he says that as a former member of the US attorney's office himself, his relationship with federal authorities is stronger than that of any predecessor.
So far, at least, Sini's strategy seems to be bearing fruit: The FBI has rejoined the hunt for the Long Island Serial Killer, and federal agents are once again going after MS-13 members in the area. Still, it's impossible not to notice how questions about Suffolk's shady past are taking a toll on the new commissioner.
"I didn't know who James Burke was when I was an attorney," Sini says, his light, intelligent eyes tracing the distant corners of a tired-looking conference room.
"I do now."
When he steps into Judge Leonard Wexler's federal courtroom in Central Islip on the morning of February 26, Burke is dressed in prison grays with pants cuffed at the ankle. The emblematic mustache he wore throughout his career as a cop has been shaved off, lending him a softer, more fragile appearance.
He looks skinnier than in recent pictures, and he wears a vague smile across his face, perhaps at the recommendation of his lawyer, a broad-shouldered man named Joe Conway. (When I speak to Conway before the plea, he describes Burke as inquisitive in their meetings, always provoking thoughtful discussions about his own defense.)
Burke has been housed in Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center, far from the inmates he helped put behind bars over three decades in law enforcement on Long Island. "People adapt," Conway tells me of his client's state of mind. "Right now, James is making the most of a bad situation. You know how it is."
For his part, Loeb is also secluded from the public as he receives treatment for an addiction he can't seem to shake. Heroin problems are on the rise on Long Island, as they are across much of America, and Loeb is just one of many people scuffling with the disease. The man made headlines again in December after a violent altercation between himself and two other people spilled out into the gated community where his mother lives. When I go there to try to speak with Jane Loeb, Christine, a security guard, tells me Chris's public battles with drug addiction took a toll on his mother, and that she's grown depressed and reclusive in the years following his abuse at the hands of Burke.
Jane doesn't even bother showing up to the disgraced cop's date in court.
Christine makes it out for the occasion, though. As does retired NYPD Officer Fiorillo, along with other members of the community determined to catch a glimpse of Burke up close—and perhaps gain some insight into how a culture of police corruption has festered for decades.
When I ask Christine what she thinks of Burke, she shakes her head in disgust, calling him "just a dirty, dirty dog."
"Why do people like Burke even become cops?" she asks. "Don't they want to help people?"
Michael Edison Hayden grew up on Long Island. His work has been featured in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, the Los Angeles Times, and National Geographic, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter.