10/02/2006

Fla. deputies fired in growing scandal

By Michael A. Scarcella 
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Copyright 2006 Sarasota Herald-Tribune Co.
All Rights Reserved
 
MANATEE COUNTY 

Two area sheriff's deputies have been fired and another suspended, adding to the list of officers named in a police corruption probe of criminal activity at a Palmetto strip club.

Manatee County sheriff's deputies Barrett Biggs and Brian Hall were fired this week for employee misconduct for reportedly taking free drinks at the club, Cleopatra's. Deputy Daniel E. Martin was suspended without pay for 30 days.

"It's all distasteful," said Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells, addressing what he called a "behavioral investigation" that had a criminal element. "Do I think we accomplished what we had to do? Yeah. Do you like doing something like this? No."

Two former officers in Manatee were arrested in July on charges of dealing in stolen property; another deputy, Joshua Fleischer, resigned this month in connection to the investigation, which began in August 2005. In Sarasota, two deputies, Alfred Ainscoe and Ed Falcone, resigned.

State prosecutors say the criminal investigation, which includes racketeering charges, is open. Additional arrests are expected soon.

A federal investigation that spun off during the Cleopatra's police scandal is ongoing and no charges have been filed.

Authorities are investigating reports of a multinational money-laundering plot; an insurance fraud scheme rooted in reporting pricey cars as stolen; and a plan to smuggle Mexican women to the United States to work as escorts.

Wells said he doesn't anticipate additional criminal charges or reprimands against any more Manatee County deputies.

Hall and Biggs said Friday they haven't decided whether to fight their termination.

The former officers both read a Sheriff's Office memo in July 2004 that said anyone who uses their badge for free drinks and admission could be fired.

Still, Biggs and Hall say the allegations against them -- conduct unbecoming and disobedience -- are overblown.

"They've twisted a whole lot of stuff around and painted bad pictures of people who didn't deserve it," Hall said. "I think they want to wash their hands with this and be done with it. I'm still numb by the fact they took it this far."

Hall said there are numerous patrons who got free drinks at Cleopatra's because of their association with the owner and managers.

"I never went in there and showed my badge. I wasn't a regular there. I had no involvement with running that place whatsoever," said Hall, who denied working at the bar in the 3800 block of U.S. 41.

Biggs, a deputy sheriff for 10 years, said there are deputies who have done worse at the bar who are still employed. He did not get into specifics.

In interviews with investigators, Biggs denied working at the strip club, owned by Pinellas County resident Mark Sheppard, the man who is a target in the criminal investigation.

State laws prohibit law enforcement officers from working at bars.

"There is no role. I have no role at Cleopatra's. I do not work there, never have worked there," Biggs said.

Biggs, 37, said he got free drinks, but he never "badged" his way into the club.

He said nothing was ever expected from him in exchange for the drinks, and that he would never jeopardize his career by hanging out at a strip club.

Authorities say Martin, the deputy who was suspended, did nothing to make investigators believe that he worked there. Still, he got free admission.

The deputies who were arrested, Charles Elsenheimer and a cousin, Gary Harrison, have pleaded not guilty to felony charges that they bought alcohol they knew or should have known was stolen.

Authorities say Elsenheimer, 34, and Harrison, 23, bought cheap bottles of booze from a cop who posed as a ship captain.

An undercover officer reported that Elsenheimer once said he was the CEO of Cleopatra's, internal affairs reports show.

Elsenheimer's brother, George Elsenheimer, is under investigation for helping arrange the delivery of stolen alcohol to the Bradenton clubhouse of the Crazy Horse motorcycle crew, sheriff's records show.

But attorneys for the former deputies call the criminal charges bogus. Attorney Derek Byrd of Sarasota said the Cleopatra's probe was a monumental waste of taxpayer money.

Sheriff Wells defended the investigation Friday, saying the dollar amount, which was not immediately known, was "insignificant."

Wells insisted that it's a conflict for a deputy to repeatedly take free items from a place that investigators called a "breeding ground" of criminal activity.

Wells is considering an internal order preventing deputies from patronizing adult entertainment clubs, but he is unsure of the legality of such a measure.

He said he is planning to talk to attorneys about the issue -- one that's long been debated in law enforcement.

Sheriff's administrators would not talk about the pending federal investigation that spun off during the Cleopatra's probe.

At the center of that investigation is a convicted felon named John Serendensky, who also goes by the name John Vitolano.

Serendensky, who is on federal probation in New York for conspiracy charges that include money laundering and bank fraud, reportedly told an undercover officer that he wanted to report a man's classic Corvette as stolen amid an insurance fraud scheme.

Questions posed by investigators

Manatee County sheriff's investigators questioned a number of officers about their association with Cleopatra's, the strip club north of Palmetto that was raided in July amid a criminal investigation.

Here is a list of some of the prepared questions that interrogators asked the officers, according to internal affairs reports:

* Did you ever receive free lap dances or free T-shirts from Cleopatra's?

* Did you ever take law enforcement action while in the bar?

* What other bars allow you to drink for free, pour your own drinks?

* Why did you allow yourself to stay in the bar after closing?

* Did you ever see any special agents or undercover law enforcement in the bar?

* While in the bar, did you carry a concealed weapon? Why?

* How many times did you walk the dancers to their cars? 

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