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Detective in child killing admits error

The New Port Richey officer says she didn't intentionally lie, but her misstatements were used by the defense to pressure the State Attorney's Office.

By CARY DAVIS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 21, 2001


NEW PORT RICHEY -- A New Port Richey police detective's misstatements might have contributed to the plea deal that got child killer Jim Curtis a 13-year prison term rather than a possible death sentence.

In a letter last month to the State Attorney's Office, Curtis' lawyer alleged that New Port Richey Detective Jackie Pehote knowingly committed perjury on at least two occasions in the case.

Defense attorney Bob Attridge asked prosecutors to investigate Pehote and charge her with perjury, a third-degree felony. If they opted not to, Attridge said, he would call on another law enforcement agency to open an inquiry into the detective's actions, according to a copy of the Feb. 7 letter obtained Tuesday by the Times.

Until last week, the State Attorney's Office was seeking the death penalty against Curtis, 26, who had been charged with first-degree murder. But on Friday, Curtis entered into an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to manslaughter and accept a prison term of 13.8 years.

"I think (prosecutors) took the high road in resolving this case rather than proceeding with these issues regarding the arresting detective," Attridge said Tuesday.

Pehote acknowledged making a misstatement during a hearing in January, but "I didn't intentionally or maliciously lie about anything I said in court," she told the Times Tuesday.

Her supervisor, Capt. Darryl Garman, said Pehote is a "capable, intelligent officer." She has not been disciplined as a result of her actions in the Curtis case, and "this doesn't shake my confidence in her one bit," Garman said.

Assistant State Attorney Mike Halkitis, the lead prosecutor on the case, could not be reached for comment.

Curtis, in an interview with the Times at the county jail in Land O'Lakes on Sunday, maintained his innocence and said his family urged him not to make the plea deal.

"I didn't want to take the plea, but I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in prison," Curtis said. "I figure I'll do (the) years and get out someday.

"The state couldn't put Pehote on the stand," Curtis said. "That's why they gave me the deal."

Curtis also mused about the possibility of withdrawing his plea. It's not clear whether that option is available.

Pehote played a key role in the investigation into the death last September of the foster child Curtis and his wife, Jennifer, planned to adopt. An assistant medical examiner concluded that the 3-year-old, Alex Boucher, died of asphyxiation after Curtis wrapped him in a blanket Sept. 25. Prosecutors say Curtis was angry with Alex because the boy had soiled his pants.

But the authorities didn't come up with the asphyxiation theory until Curtis told them about the blanket in a Sept. 29 interview. Attridge has said repeatedly that his client only told police about the blanket because Pehote threatened to charge Jennifer Curtis with first-degree murder.

At a Jan. 4 hearing, Pehote denied ever threatening to arrest Jennifer Curtis.

"Did you ever tell her that she would be placed under arrest for first-degree murder?" Attridge asked Pehote at the hearing.

"No, I never did," Pehote replied.

Pehote now acknowledges her testimony was wrong.

"When I reviewed the videotape (of the daylong interview session), I realized that I did tell her that," Pehote said Tuesday. Asked why she misspoke at the hearing, Pehote replied: "I just forgot. I was very stressed. (Attridge) was badgering me."

She said she called the State Attorney's Office as soon as she realized her mistake. She said she intended to set the record straight in her deposition, which never took place.

Attridge, in his letter to prosecutors, also alleged that Pehote perjured herself by testifying at the same January hearing that she never told Jim and Jennifer Curtis that they couldn't leave the state during the investigation. Testifying months earlier before the grand jury, Pehote said just the opposite: "I told them that I was still doing a criminal investigation and that he couldn't go to back to Maine until I was complete -- had completed it."

Both of Pehote's alleged perjurious statements are crucial to the case, Attridge said in his letter, because they relate to the defense lawyer's contention that Jim Curtis was improperly coerced into cooperating with police.

Before Friday's plea, Attridge was gearing up to ask a judge to throw out Curtis' statement about the blanket, a request that, if granted, would have weakened the prosecution's case. Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Marie Hansen testified that she would not have reasonably concluded that Alex's fatal wounds were caused by being wrapped in the blanket without information supplied by law enforcement.

Attridge said in his letter that he didn't think prosecutors could call Pehote as a witness because of her credibility problems. "Calling her as a state witness in the future will only complicate this matter," he wrote. "Any conviction obtained by the use of Det. Pehote's testimony will be forever tainted and subject to attack."

Pehote has been an officer with the New Port Richey Police Department since 1988, Garman said. She became a detective in 1998, and this was the first time she had been in charge of a murder investigation.

On Tuesday, she was nominated by her supervisors for an officer of the year award, "in part for her work in this case," Garman said.

"To put this much time into a case and intentionally sabotage it -- that's highly unlikely," Garman said. "Did she make a mistake? It's possible. But we're all human."

Curtis, in his interview with the Times, blamed Pehote for his situation.

"Everything that's happened to me is because of her," he said. "That's why I got indicted. That's why I lost my wife. That's why I got this deal."

Curtis will be formally sentenced by Circuit Judge William Webb on Friday morning.

- Cary Davis covers courts in west Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6236 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 6236. His e-mail address is cbdavis@sptimes.com.

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