The former top cop for Long Island's Suffolk County has been indicted for allegedly assaulting and violating the civil rights of a man arrested for breaking into the officer's department-issued vehicle in 2012. The two-count indictment unsealed Wednesday also charges James Burke with conspiracy to obstruct a federal civil rights investigation into the attack on Christopher Loeb.
Burke, 51, was arrested by authorities early Wednesday, less than a day after NBC 4 New York first reported he would federal charges in connection with Loeb's Dec. 14, 2012 arrest. Burke was seen being led in handcuffs into an FBI building in Melville.
According to the grand jury indictment and court filings, New York State Probation Department and Suffolk County officers arrested Loeb, now 28, at his mother's home in Smithtown for a variety of probation violations and, during the course of that arrest, discovered a large cache of merchandise stolen from more than a dozen vehicles, including Burke's department-issued SUV. A duffel bag stolen from Burke's car, which had been parked outside his home at the time of the theft, contained his gun belt, ammunition, a box of cigars and a canvas bag with toiletries, clothing and other items.
Burke was allowed to enter Loeb's home while the search of the suspect's residence was underway to retrieve his belongings, then drove to the stationhouse where Loeb was being interrogated, the indictment says. According to court documents, Burke walked into the interrogation room where Loeb was handcuffed and chained to an eyebolt fastened to the floor, then allegedly punched and kicked Loeb in the head and body.
Burke and others then allegedly pressured the detectives who witnessed the attack to cover it up, according to the indictment. The alleged conspiracy to conceal the attack continued even after the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office opened an investigation into the case in May 2013, court papers say.
In one instance, Burke allegedly called detectives under his command to SCPD headquarters in Yaphank to persuade them to agree on a false version of events surrounding Loeb's interrogation. In October 2013, one of those detectives allegedly lied in a state pretrial hearing, denying that Loeb had been attacked, according to the indictment.
Several other Suffolk County police officials are facing federal scrutiny in connection with the case, but Burke is the only one named in the grand jury indictment unsealed Wednesday.
He pleaded not guilty at an arraignment in federal court and was ordered held without bail until another hearing later this week. Burke's attorney, Joseph Conway, confirmed Burke was at Loeb's home and at the precinct, but denied his client ever beat Loeb. Conway also denied the allegations of a cover-up. He said he looked forward to his client's defense.
The Suffolk County Police Department had no comment on Burke's arrest.
Loeb is out of prison after serving time on concurrent sentences of criminal possession of a weapon and violation of probation. He had previously pleaded guilty to stealing the duffel bag from Burke's car, among other items. He is suing both Burke and the county for alleged civil rights violations.
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Loeb's attorney, Amy Marion, couldn't immediately be reached for comment on the indictment. Previously, she had told NBC 4 New York she and her client were confident justice would be served.
Loeb's mother, Jane Loeb, told NBC 4 New York her son suffered at the hands of police.
"I remember that night, there were 10 detectives at our house, why would 10 detectives show up for a simple burglary?" Jane Loeb said. "They dragged him into the house and they were punching him in my living room, I couldn't do anything about it. Who was I going to call? The police?"
"It just wasn't right what happened to Chris and now someone's being held accountable," Jane Loeb added.
Burke resigned in October amid new developments in the federal investigation. His resignation led to shakeup in the police department, with some high-ranking officials announcing their retirements. Police Commissioner Edward Webber has announced his retirement effective Jan. 23, and Chief of Detectives William Madigan also announced he'll be retiring.
“We entrust our law enforcement officials with the tremendous responsibility to uphold the Constitution and protect the communities they serve as they enforce the law. Wearing a badge is a privilege and honor – not a license to exact retribution and corrupt the administration of justice,” U.S. Attorney Robert Capers said in a statement. “We will protect the rights of all no matter where the evidence may lead, and those who break the law will be held to account regardless of their rank and status.”