3 officers ousted after sex scandal
By CHRIS TISCH, Times Staff Writer
CLEARWATER -- After a seven-month investigation, two Clearwater police officers have resigned and a sergeant has been fired amid allegations of on-duty sexual misconduct with a mentally disturbed woman.
Officers James E. Mehr Jr. and Anthony J. Pearn, both five-year veterans, resigned Thursday. Sgt. James M. Heinz, a 19-year veteran, was fired.
The woman accused Mehr and Pearn of having sex with her simultaneously after they were called to her home in April 2000. She said the officers took advantage of her mental state and intimidated her. The woman's friend had called police that night because she had a history of mental illness and was threatening suicide.
She accused Heinz of trying to take off her dress after he helped her to her home in March 2000. She had been drinking and passed out inside her home, but awoke to find Heinz taking off her dress, she said. She called him a pig and kicked him out.
"There are no excuses for the moral and professional lapses of these men," police Chief Sid Klein said at a news conference Friday. "What they did was inexcusable and unjustifiable. I will not even attempt to explain, or excuse, what they did. My disappointment today knows no bounds."
The woman reported the allegations, which occurred over an 18-month period in 2000 and 2001, to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement last year. Agents investigated her claims, then told Clearwater police of their findings in October. Internal affairs detectives then investigated the woman's claims and found them credible.
A 131-page summary of the investigation spins a tale of tawdry sex and accusations of police intimidation. Police did not identify the 40-year-old woman because of the nature of the allegations.
"They were using their uniforms. They were using their power," she told investigators.
All three officers denied the woman's claims, but investigators found these compelling pieces of evidence: The woman told officers that Mehr had a Winnie the Pooh tattoo on his right shoulder blade, and that Pearn wore leopard-print underwear.
Investigators learned Mehr has the tattoo. And Pearn has the underwear. Neither officer could explain to investigators' satisfaction how the woman knew those things.
Pearn, 29, and Mehr, 30, were placed on administrative leave, with pay, on March 13. Heinz, 41, was placed on leave May 3.
Police acknowledge the woman is not the strongest of witnesses. She has a history of mental illness, including manic depression, that includes past suicide attempts and more than a dozen hospitalizations, she told investigators.
"There's no truth to any of it," said George Tragos, an attorney representing Mehr. "Her credibility is very suspect." He called the investigation "a witch hunt."
There also are no other witnesses who saw the officers have sexual contact with the woman, nor is there physical evidence supporting her story. Agents also couldn't polygraph the woman because of her mental state.
But during a seven-month investigation, detectives were able to substantiate enough of the woman's claims to sustain departmental charges against the officers.
Neighbors reported seeing police cars at her home for long hours. The woman's brother told police he saw one of the officers visit her. Computer dispatch records showed the officers were at her home when she said they were.
However, FDLE agents and prosecutors agreed there is not enough evidence to support criminal charges against the officers. Police said they could not substantiate that the woman was raped or forced to have sex with the officers.
When asked if she was raped, the woman told FDLE agents she was not. Though she suggested the officers intimidated her, she gave inconsistent stories when investigators pressed her, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
"They interviewed her extensively," Bartlett said. "She never used the word rape."
The potential charge against the officers was sexual battery. State law provides the charge can apply if the offender is a law enforcement officer who wields his or her authority to obtain sex.
Klein said he believed the officers committed sexual battery in this way. But the chief said he understood why the officers could not be prosecuted.
Local attorney Steven Loewenthal, who is representing the woman, said his client was raped. He said officers also threatened to kill or Baker Act her if she didn't comply.
"She was sexually battered," he said. "She was raped. She was coerced, she was forced into having sex."
The woman claims that on the first night of sexual activity, Pearn pulled her onto his lap while Mehr brushed her hair. Pearn then said, "I think I know something that would make you feel even better" and led her into a bedroom, she said.
The officers stood on either side of her bed, stripped off their uniforms and turned off their radios. Then they had sex with her for about a half-hour. They returned two more times that night, having sex with her both times, she said.
"In my heart I just felt they knew that I was weak and they were taking advantage of me," she told investigators.
When they left, "both gave me a kiss, like they were my husbands going off to work in the morning," she said.
The woman said she never saw Pearn again, but Mehr continued to come to her home, while on and off duty, for sexual activity. She said he would offer a not-so-subtle threat by telling her: "I would hate to have to Baker Act you because everybody's saying you're not doing well."
Loewenthal is in talks with city attorneys, hoping for a settlement for the woman. If one can't be worked out, he plans to sue the department.
Loewenthal said the woman has since moved from Clearwater Beach, though he wouldn't say where she is living.
"She just couldn't take it anymore," he said. "It took a real toll on her."
She reported the sexual activity after someone persuaded her to do so. She hadn't reported it previously because she feared retribution by the officers.
Klein said he initiated the complaint against the officers after learning of the FDLE investigation. He also asked FDLE regional director Jim Sewell to have his agents conduct another independent investigation of the allegations, "if for no other reason than to overcome any appearance of favoritism or impropriety," he said.
Klein called the allegations distressing, but he said the incidents were isolated and shouldn't reflect on the department.
"This episode is not in any way representative of the professionalism of the Clearwater Police Department," he said. "The actions of these officers were an anomaly."
-- Chris Tisch can be reached at (727) 445-4156 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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