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Questions follow the career of Pasco Deputy Robert Gattuso.
By THOMAS LAKE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 2, 2007
On a warm fall night two years ago, as the moon rose over Lake Tarpon, a silver Nissan Pathfinder rolled down a boat ramp and plunged into water the color of dark chocolate.
No one was inside as the Pathfinder sank. Its registered owner was Robert Scott Gattuso, a resident of New Port Richey. He said it had been stolen.
Gattuso was a Pasco County sheriff's deputy. He was paid to investigate others. Now he found himself under investigation.
In two decades with the agency, Gattuso has been investigated for 30 possible policy violations. Thirteen of the allegations were sustained, including discourtesy, insubordination, conduct unbecoming, conflict of interest and attempted forgery. In one case, Sheriff Bob White kept him suspended, with pay, for more than a year - meaning Gattuso collected nearly $48,000 for no work - and then returned him to the road, with a badge and a .40-caliber Glock, to enforce the laws of Florida.
Gattuso remains employed by Sheriff White today. So do others with extensive records of careless job performance.
Deputy Andrew Izrailov has been accused of 22 policy violations; 10 of those allegations were confirmed by internal-affairs investigators. He once failed to check out a domestic battery complaint in which the suspect had a gun.
Deputy Stephen Cryoskie has been investigated for nearly 40 policy violations. Close to 30 of those allegations were confirmed, many of them for failure to submit reports or evidence in a timely manner. Izrailov has been suspended without pay at least three times; Cryoskie, at least seven times.
Still, a St. Petersburg Times analysis of the agency's disciplinary database found no other current deputy with a tale of misconduct as intriguing as Gattuso's.
And that database never mentions the case of the sinking Pathfinder.
- - -
Just before 2 a.m. on Sept. 24, 2005, a Tarpon Springs police officer was running radar on U.S. 19 when he saw two vehicles enter Anderson Park, which was closed. He followed. As he approached the entrance, a silver Chevrolet Cobalt pulled out. At least two people were inside, but the officer didn't get a good look at them. He continued toward the boat ramp and saw the Pathfinder sinking.
After a tow truck pulled it to shore, the officer checked for evidence. He found only a stuffed animal and an empty blue purse. Besides windows broken by firefighters, there were no obvious signs of forced entry.
About 6:50 a.m., the officer spoke to Gattuso by phone. He sounded "disoriented and possibly intoxicated," according to a report. Gattuso said he had been with friends just after midnight, talking with his wife on a cell phone. She was driving the Pathfinder, he said, and she'd had too much to drink. He told her to pull over and then he drove to retrieve her, leaving the Pathfinder behind.
The officer asked where they had left the Pathfinder. Gattuso said he wasn't sure.
"This seemed extremely odd," the officer wrote in his report.
The officer asked Gattuso if he knew anyone with a Chevrolet Cobalt, the kind of vehicle seen leaving the park.
No, Gattuso said.
The officer asked to speak with Gattuso's wife, but Gattuso said she was sleeping and refused to wake her up.
"This seemed very strange," the officer wrote.
- - -
Robert Scott Gattuso declined multiple interview requests from the St. Petersburg Times. He was born 44 years ago in Philadelphia. He earned letters in high-school football and baseball. He has worked as a disc jockey and a gas-station manager. He likes to joke, though his humor is sometimes misunderstood. Most of his friends are fellow cops. Nine years ago in a charity football game against the Cobras of Hudson High, he threw two touchdown passes in a 32-16 loss.
Gattuso joined the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in 1988, after getting out of the Air Force, and in August 1990, Sheriff Jim Gillum named him Courteous Deputy of the Month.
Then the complaints began rolling in. He was counseled for failing to pursue a call for service when the caller hung up on him. He was suspended for threatening to arrest a traffic court clerk who wouldn't give him a document. In the presence of a citizen, he played a tape of a man relieving himself.
On Dec. 19, 1995, after 21 complaints and investigations, Sheriff Lee Cannon fired Gattuso.
"Based on the totality of the incidents involved, the disregard shown the PCSO and the citizens it serves and the disciplinary history of Dep. Robert Gattuso, a violation of Incompetence is applicable," an internal-affairs document said at the time.
But it was not so simple.
Gattuso was a detective in the Economic Crimes Unit, which had been under scrutiny by Cannon for flaws in the way it handled evidence. In addition to Gattuso's firing, the investigation led to the demotion of his supervisor, Sgt. Oonagh Guenkel. Many believed it was a plot to discredit Guenkel, who would later try to unseat Cannon as sheriff.
Gattuso appealed the firing to the agency's Career Service Appeals Board, and in February 1996, members voted to reinstate him. Gattuso was jubilant.
"I'm looking forward to going back to work," he said at the time.
- - -
In 2005 in Pinellas County, 4,195 vehicles were reported stolen. One was a silver Nissan Pathfinder with the license tag G2SO. The case was closed in March after nearly 18 months of investigation. The detectives concluded there had been no theft.
The detectives were James Wright of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office and Norm Proper of the Florida Division of Insurance Fraud. They saw holes in Gattuso's story. They wanted to talk to his wife.
But on Nov. 4, when Wright tried to find her at work, he was told she was out for a medical procedure. At her home, when Wright went to see her husband, she was nowhere in sight.
Months passed, and she and Gattuso separated. On June 27, 2006, she sat down with the detectives to talk about her husband's scuttled Pathfinder.
"Okay," Proper said, according to a transcript. "In his statement, of course, he says that you were out drinking that night and everything else. You were not?"
"No," she said.
"You were home?"
"Okay," he said. "You didn't leave it in the parking lot somewhere?"
"No," she said.
"Okay. You didn't leave the keys in it?"
"Why was your purse still in the car?"
"Because that was part of it," she said. "You - you - you leave it. That was part of the whole plan."
"That was staged?" Proper said.
"Uh-huh," she said.
Later in the interview, she said her husband began shopping for a new Chevrolet Avalanche before the Pathfinder disappeared.
"About three months before," she said, "maybe two months before the Avalanche was bought, he started calling me at night, telling me that he was looking at Avalanches at the Chevy dealership, did I like them; he liked them, the Avalanches. What color would I like? And explaining to me that he could get a new truck and that he would just dump the old one. And he would just put it in the water somewhere and make it disappear where they would never find it. ... After a while he decided that the Avalanche was what he wanted, that that would be a good car and we went down and purchased one. And at that point whenever he would leave in the Pathfinder, he would roll the window down and - and make, like, the facial expression like something was swimming."
According to Wright's report, Mrs. Gattuso said her husband told her it was a white-collar crime - no one would look closely and no one would care. This was ironic: Looking closely at white-collar crime was part of Gattuso's job when he was fired.
Mrs. Gattuso also said the sinking was a conspiracy between her husband and his brother, Jeffrey Gattuso, an officer at the state prison in Zephyrhills. Jeffrey Gattuso declined to comment for this story.
In addition, she said her husband told her this: "You have no idea what I've gotten away with."
- - -
Police officers handle controversy as a matter of course. They apply handcuffs and fire Tasers. They must make split-second decisions with life-and-death consequences. Complaints are inevitable. Or are they?
The Pasco County Sheriff's Office Professional Standards database holds some surprises. The version obtained by the St. Petersburg Times runs from 1975 to February 2007 and contains more than 5,000 alleged rules violations. You might think almost every deputy has at least one. This is not the case.
The Times matched the database to a roster of deputies - which does not include those in vice and narcotics because of their undercover status - and discovered that more than half had never been found responsible for a serious rules violation. Among rank-and-file road patrol deputies like Gattuso, more than half had never been investigated.
Among deputies who had been with the agency 10 years or more, nearly a quarter had never been investigated. At least eight had gone 20 years or more. Lt. Richard Moore had gone the longest: more than 29 years without a complaint. And Moore doesn't sit behind a desk all day; he still drives a patrol car.
This makes Gattuso's record - 30 alleged violations, 13 sustained by investigators - all the more startling.
Perhaps the most startling chapter unfolded in 2003. By this time he had already been suspended for getting in a crash and trying to arrest another person involved in the incident, reprimanded for doing personal chores instead of responding to an officer-involved shooting, and accused - though the allegation was not substantiated - of shooting the car window of a man visiting his ex-wife.
And on April 23, 2003, he was arrested on a felony charge of forgery. According to a complaint affidavit, Gattuso received a $372 check from State Farm Insurance that was intended for his ex-wife. The affidavit said Gattuso forged her signature and deposited the check. He said he had her permission. She said he did not.
On March 7, well before the arrest, Gattuso was placed on paid leave pending the outcome of the investigation. He remained there more than a year.
Agency records show he was paid $22.02 an hour each weekday for 8.5 hours of nonwork. In July, he notified the court that he would be flying to Las Vegas.
In August, he got a scheduled raise, to $22.57 an hour. In September, still not working, he got another one, to $23.13 an hour.
In November, he agreed to plead no contest to attempted forgery, a first-degree misdemeanor. The court withheld adjudication and put him on three months' probation.
On Jan. 8, 2004, a judge ordered his probation terminated and the case closed. Still Gattuso remained on paid leave, because now Sheriff White had to conduct his own investigation.
The suspension lasted until March 12. By then Gattuso had collected nearly $48,000 for no work since the suspension began and more than $14,000 since he entered the plea agreement.
What did the internal investigation reveal?
"It revealed that he should not have cashed that check," sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said.
Gattuso's punishment was a demotion from detective to road patrol, the loss of about 11 weeks of vacation, and a pay cut - from $23.13 to $22.02 an hour - that put him back where he was before the suspension. He returned to duty on March 15, 2004. He has been there ever since.
- - -
Here are some highlights from the insurance fraud case against Gattuso. He reported the Pathfinder stolen, but there was no sign of forced entry. Personal items of little or no obvious value to thieves had been removed. He claimed he had picked up his wife and left the Pathfinder, but he couldn't remember where. He denied knowing anyone with a Chevrolet Cobalt, the kind of vehicle seen leaving the park, but records show his brother had obtained one the month before.
His wife told authorities that Gattuso and his brother conspired to ditch the Pathfinder. Her story had details that seemed to confirm knowledge of the incident.
Activity logs from the security gate at Gattuso's apartment complex indicate that Jeffrey Gattuso showed up in his silver Chevy Cobalt at 2:19 on the morning in question, about 24 minutes after the officer saw the vehicles enter the closed park. According to Google Maps, the driving time from Anderson Park to Gattuso's complex is 23 minutes.
Nevertheless, State Farm Insurance paid Gattuso's insurance claim. And the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office closed the case without filing charges.
When asked to explain, Assistant State Attorney Bob Lewis said Andrea Gattuso's statements were inconsistent and at least partly inadmissible because of spousal privilege. He said Jeffrey Gattuso had developed a credible alibi: a woman confirmed that at the time of the incident, they were having sex in a parked car.
"If you wanted to be suspicious," Lewis said of Robert Scott Gattuso, "you could say this looks a little too convenient. How could it not be him?"
"But we can't prove it."
Sheriff Bob White refused a St. Petersburg Times interview request. His second-in-command, Col. Al Nienhuis, said the agency did not investigate the Pathfinder case.
"There's no legitimate questions that are left unanswered," he said.
And so Gattuso remains in uniform. If you call for a deputy in west Pasco County, he may be the one who shows up. He got another raise in October, to $27.11 an hour, or about $60,000 a year. He is one of the agency's highest-paid patrol deputies.
He responds to overdoses, car burglaries, domestic violence. He can take people to jail by force. He writes reports that are presumed to be reliable.
Not long from now, in a courtroom near you, during someone else's trial, Robert Scott Gattuso will take the stand as a witness for the state of Florida. He will swear to tell the truth.
Times staff members Matthew Waite, Connie Humburg and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-333-7505, ext. 3416.
[Last modified December 1, 2007, 21:30:33]