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Tarpon police inquiry grows

An evidence-planting allegation causes friction between the police chief and public defender.

By CANDACE RONDEAUX
Published June 24, 2004

TARPON SPRINGS - The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is reviewing an allegation that three Tarpon Springs police officers planted evidence on a suspect in March.

The Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's office notified FDLE of the allegation about two months after officers arrested Tarpon Springs resident Terry Campsen on charges of unlawful use of a driver's license and possession of cocaine.

The claim is the latest in a series of complaints being scrutinized by the FDLE, which launched an inquiry into Tarpon Springs police practices early last year. It also marks one of the first times that the public defender's office has lodged a formal complaint against the Police Department.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger's accusation has provoked a heated dispute over how the police department handles internal affairs investigations. Dillinger has called for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to investigate, but Tarpon Springs police Chief Mark LeCouris balked. He denies his officers did anything wrong and sent an angry letter this week to Dillinger.

Sheriff Everett Rice said his agency is ready to step in but won't unless Tarpon Springs police ask him to do so.

Campsen, 42, said police planted a pocket knife tainted with cocaine on him when they arrested him near the corner of Harrison Street and North Avenue on March 20, said Troy Hitchcock, chief investigator for the public defender's office.

His arrest at an intersection near the heart of Tarpon Springs' Union Academy neighborhood is one of several arrests in the primarily African-American community being reviewed by the FDLE. Other cases under state scrutiny involve questionable police searches and use of force.

Officer Tommy Nguyen stopped Campsen during a routine patrol early that morning. Nguyen, police Sgt. Robert Gellatly and Officer Robert White questioned Campsen after chasing him when he ran, according to a police report.

When a check revealed that Campsen had given the officers a false name and Social Security number, police arrested Campsen. Officers found the knife in Campsen's pants pocket, records show. Nguyen later inspected the knife, finding a small baggy between the handle and the blade that contained cocaine residue, records show.

Records show Campsen disputed that the knife was his, and, according to Hitchcock, passed a polygraph exam involving his claim.

Campsen has a history of drug arrests that date to 1997, when he was charged with attempting to buy crack cocaine in Clearwater, according to FDLE records. He was released on his own recognizance about two months after the latest arrest. The case is scheduled for a hearing in July.

Tarpon Springs police Capt. Ronnie Holt said the FDLE requested information about Campsen's arrest earlier this month. But he said his department closed its internal affairs investigation into the complaint of evidence-planting after the public defender's office refused to allow Campsen to be interviewed by his officers.

"You can't have your cake and eat it, too," Holt said. "You can't make an allegation like this and expect us to take a third-party complaint, and, based on the fact that he passed a polygraph that they gave him, say now go out and do your investigation."

But Dillinger questioned the police department's handling of the case in a June 17 letter to Holt. He said the police department's request that Campsen submit to a second polygraph test administered by Tarpon Springs officers "appears to reflect a lack of basic understanding of the criminal court system."

"When there's a pending criminal case, you rarely make the defendant available to the agency that is accused of setting him up," Dillinger said. "You can investigate without talking to the defendant. They can look at the polygraph results."

Dillinger questions whether a police department as small as Tarpon Springs' is equipped to handle its own internal affairs investigations. In his letter, he suggests police ask the Sheriff's Office to conduct an independent inquiry into the allegations.

In response, LeCouris on Tuesday sent a sharply worded letter accusing Dillinger of attempting to "smear the reputations" of his officers.

"Regardless of the opinion of your office, the Tarpon Springs Police Department is qualified and very capable of conducting internal investigations of employee misconduct," LeCouris wrote.

Rice said that he has received no request from Tarpon Springs to intercede. But he said he thinks the Tarpon Springs Police Department might benefit from an independent internal affairs investigation.

The sheriff said the police department has come a long way since a grand jury recommended that the city disband the agency in 1987. Still, Rice said he thinks his office could do a better job of policing Tarpon Springs.

"I believe the people of Tarpon would be better served if they merged the police department with the Sheriff's Office," Rice said. "But I know that it's up to the people of Tarpon Springs to decide to do that."

FDLE spokesman Rick Morera said Wednesday that his agency is "aware" of Campsen's allegations about evidence-planting.

"We are monitoring Campsen's complaint," Morera said, declining further comment.

Holt, who led the internal affairs investigation into the evidence-planting claims, acknowledged he did not question the accused officers. He said the officers had no history of disciplinary problems and that he had no reason to believe they were involved in any wrongdoing.

Nguyen, 28, was officially hired by the police department a year ago. Nguyen has received several letters of commendation for his performance on the job. In April, he was issued a written reprimand after he crashed a police cruiser, according to police personnel files.

Gellatly, 36, and White, 33, are both considerably more experienced. Gellatly is a 14-year veteran. He has been disciplined twice by his superiors - once in March 2003 for failing to answer his pager and once for his involvement in an August 2000 traffic crash.

White joined the department nearly three years ago and previously worked for the New Port Richey Police Department for about seven years. He also worked for the Polk County Sheriff's Office and the St. Pete Beach Police Department.

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Candace Rondeaux can be reached at 727 771-4307 or rondeaux@sptimes.com

INQUIRIES SO FAR

The Tarpon Springs Police Department has been investigated in recent years for:

Allegations that two officers "hung out" with drug dealers and gave them information about forthcoming arrest warrants. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement closed the case in 1998, saying "prosecutable cases could not be made."

The death of a drug suspect who suffered a fatal head injury during an arrest by a plainclothes Tarpon Springs officer in June 2000. The officer left the department in April 2003. The U.S. Department of Justice closed its inquiry in January, saying it did not find enough evidence to pursue the case.

Police practices in 16 cases involving questionable searches and use of force. Officials familiar with the investigation have said the state is reviewing other evidence-planting allegations. The FDLE investigation is ongoing.

[Last modified June 24, 2004, 01:09:06]


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