A police officer whose job it was to conduct drug investigations became addicted to prescription painkillers himself, under the noses of his supervisors, according to internal police documents released to Patch and the former chief of the department.
William Wilson, who retired late last year after a tumultuous 18 months leading the Southampton Town Police Department, said last week he believes the department failed officer Eric Sickles, who was a member of the now-defunct Street Crime Unit, and no one was held accountable. Suffolk County internal affairs officers investigated the matter, and the Suffolk County district attorney’s office initiated a review of more than 100 cases conducted by the Street Crime Unit while Sickles was purportedly addicted.
Sickles’ commanding officer, Lt. James Kiernan was suspended for six months — though Wilson thought he should be fired — and Sickles was suspended indefinitely. Wilson said he also thought that then-Lt. Robert Pearce, who Kiernan looped in about the situation, also should have been disciplined, but the Southampton Town Board would not entertain the notion. Instead, a board majority promoted Pearce to captain against Wilson’s wishes, and Pearce was named the new chief to replace Wilson.
Pearce did not return phone calls made starting Friday.
After an off-duty injury, Sickles began taking oxycodone for pain and to help him sleep, starting in late 2010, plus prescriptions for depression, anxiety and sleep apnea, Sickles wrote in an internal police department report. He said that in the summer of 2011 he tried to wean himself off his pain medication, but realized he could not “due to physical dependency issues.”
Kiernan told internal affairs investigators that Sickles had told him that summer he fell asleep while he was working surveillance. Kiernan, who was a sergeant at the time, said that Sickles blamed it on his sleep apnea, and he said he told Sickles to see a doctor to ensure it does not happen again.
The next red flag came in the fall, when the Street Crime Unit was being wound down and the town department was putting its narcotics enforcement resources into the East End Drug Task Force.
Wilson said he had decided before any issues arose to close up the Street Crime Unit and join the Suffolk County district attorney’s task force. “My mind was made up that we were going to go with the East End Drug Task Force,” he said. By the start of August 2011, he began scaling back the unit, until only Kiernan, the commanding officer, and Sickles, the senior member, remained.
According to documents, Kiernan reported that on Oct. 25, 2011, he received a phone message from Sickles’ wife, Erika Sickles, and when he returned her call that night she told him that Sickles had fallen asleep at the kitchen table the night before while in the middle of putting his gun away, and that he was unable to drive because he might fall asleep at the wheel. Erika Sickles states that it was odd he would bring his gun home in the first place, because he usually kept it locked up at police headquarters. Sickles himself, also stated that, as a matter of course for several years, he always left his firearm at the police department when he headed home.
Erika Sickles said in a deposition to police that when she first contacted Kiernan, he acknowledged that her husband was not acting like himself and that he saw a change in him.
When Sickles came back for his next shift, Kiernan reportedly asked him about his medications and side effects, and told Sickles that he could not work in the field, carry his gun or drive department vehicles until he sorted out his meds. Rather, he told Sickles to work in the office with him, to help clear Street Crime cases and transfer open cases to the East End Drug Task Force. Instead of working a desk, Sickles decided to take time off.
Kiernan said he told Pearce about the call and about his conversation with Sickles.
Sickles came back to work several days later with a doctor’s note stating that the medication that was making him drowsy had been discontinued. Kiernan, reportedly with Pearce’s permission, cleared Sickles to return to full duty.
Sickles stated that he was not required to take a drug test or provide additional paperwork, and that he was never advised that he could not take be taking legally prescribed drugs at work.
Pearce told internal affairs investigators that he did not think there was any other problem beside sleepiness from medications. He said he spoke directly to Sickles a week and a half after first being apprised of the situation. “I didn’t see anything that would lead me to believe he was under the influence of a narcotic,” Pearce said.
Kiernan told investigators that when Wilson returned from vacation in Florida, he informed Wilson of the situation. He said that Wilson asked if painkillers were involved, which he confirmed, and Wilson said “That could happen to anybody.”
However, Wilson told Patch that Kiernan did not tell him at that time that Sickles was using painkillers, only that there was an issue.
It wasn’t until December of 2011 that Wilson said he was told about the drugs. “When I found out, I had him into a rehab program within two hours.”
Kiernan said that after Sickles came back with a doctor’s note, he did not notice any more problems. Erika Sickles said that she had texted Kiernan over several weeks to ask about her husband’s return to work, and the guidelines, and also to express her concern that her husband’s problems were not fixed.
She stated in her deposition that over the next month she was troubled by the question of how no one at work was seeing what she sees. “All I kept saying was, ‘how can I see the problem and his boss who sees him at work every day (and more than me) isn’t doing anything about it?’” she said.
When Sickles returned with his doctor’s note, his new assignment was with police officer Jane Harrigan, from the Community Response Unit. Harrigan told investigators that she saw no indication that Sickles’ work was affected, though she said that some days he seemed tired and quiet, which he blamed on sleep apnea. She admitted that she found it odd that while everyone was being taken out of Street Crime, she was verbally assigned to work with Sickles. She said she was still under the purview of the Community Response Unit, but also answered to Kiernan.
“I knew something was going on, I just couldn’t put my finger on it,” Harrigan said. “There were certain red flags to me, but I never felt that I was in jeopardy, he was in jeopardy, or the public was in jeopardy.”
Kiernan said they were assigned together because Sickles was without a partner.
Questions were raised about whether Sickles was being permitted to work in the field while not being allowed to drive or carry a gun.
Sickles said he was always armed during his shift, and that locking his gun up before he went home was not new for him. Concerning driving, he said he did in fact take turns driving, but Harrigan drove when needs dictated, such as when they had to use a marked police car. He said Harrigan picked him up at home before his shift a few times, but it was because of car trouble — not because he was not allowed to drive himself to work.
Harrigan stated in an internal department report that Sickles was not allowed to drive and his vehicle stayed at headquarters. She told internal affairs investigators that Kiernan and Pearce never said to her that Sickles could not drive.
Harrigan said she took a vacation when she returned she was assigned back to the Community Response Unit, and Sickles was sent to the patrol division.
Sgt. Susan Ralph, who was in charge of the patrol squad Sickles was supposed to work in, told investigators that Kiernan warned her that Sickles had a pill problem and that she should keep an eye on him. She stated in an internal police department report that Kiernan told her that he had Harrigan drive Sickles around during his tours of duty because he was not allowed to drive.
Kiernan only acknowledged that he told Ralph to keep on eye on Sickles because he had been drowsy at work.
Ultimately, Sickles never worked a day in her squad, Ralph said.
Ralph said that toward the end of November she witnessed Sickles arrive at police headquarters looking ashen gray, sweating and talking fast.
Kevin Gwinn, a patrol officer with the detective division, told investigators that he noticed a change in Sickles in mid to late November. “He appeared drowsy all the time, he couldn’t focus, even his speech appeared slurred at times,” said Gwinn, who also serves as vice president of the Southampton Town Patrolman’s Benevolent Association.
Gwinn said he contacted Kiernan on his cellphone during the first week of December to say he believed Sickles had a substance abuse problem. Kiernan told investigators that he told Gwinn this is a months-old situation that had been addressed, but Gwinn told him that is not the case.
Kiernan said he called Wilson to tell him the situation he thought was resolved, was not.
To confront Sickles, Kiernan and Gwinn invited him to Kiernan’s house the following day.
“We danced around for an hour and a half with this until Kevin put to him, “If you had to stop your medications right now today, could you?’ And he said, ‘No, I can’t, I need help,’” Kiernan told investigators. “And our jaws hit the floor. I was completely shocked, but we remained calm though. I said, ‘OK, look, you’re gonna get help, don’t worry about it. We’re gonna see to that, you’re gonna get help.’”
Kiernan said they told Sickles he cannot go back to work. “That was the first time I ever thought that one of my guys was a drug addict, and I couldn’t believe it,” Kiernan said. “I was — I didn’t know what to do, except to help him. I said, ‘Whatever it takes, this is what we’re going to do.’”
Wilson said that when Kiernan told him about the conversation, he immediately made calls to get Sickles help and put him on leave.
According to Town Board resolutions and minutes, Kiernan became a Southampton Town police officer in 1997 and was promoted to sergeant in 2005. He was promoted to lieutenant by Town Board resolution on Oct. 11, 2011. In a June 23, 2011, email to the members of the board recommending Kiernan, Wilson wrote, “Sgt. Kiernan is in his 14th year of service with the department and has done an excellent job as the head of the street crimes unit for the past several years. Sgt. Kiernan is a team player as well as an asset to the department. Sgt. Kiernan is also an FBI national academy graduate.”
Wilson said Thursday that at the time of his recommendation, nothing had come to light about Kiernan that would make him think he did not deserve the promotion.
On April 19, 2012, Wilson wrote to the Town Board that he believed Kiernan’s probationary appointment as a lieutenant be terminated, and he be returned to the rank of sergeant.
One week later, Wilson placed Kiernan on administrative leave, pending the outcome of an investigation.
The the same time, on April 26, 2012, Christopher McPartland, the division chief of investigations for the Suffolk County district attorney’s office, wrote to Wilson and Southampton Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato, stating that his office has learned of allegations that a “police officer with a known drug addiction was permitted to function on active duty.”
On May 4, 2012, during a hastily scheduled special meeting, the Town Board voted 4-0 to suspend Kiernan.
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Wilson told Patch Thursday that he wanted Kiernan suspended earlier, but it did not happen until he forced the Town Board’s hand by placing Kiernan on administrative leave.
Wilson leveled 32 departmental charges against Kiernan, four of which Kiernan would eventually plead guilty to in a deal that docked him 73 days pay, but allowed his return to work.
In a stipulation of settlement approved by the Town Board Oct. 23, 2012, Kiernan pleaded guilty to charges that he failed to act for 18 hours after Sickles’ wife called to report that there was a problem and she and her family were in danger; that he failed to adjust Sickles’ work schedule to reflect his time off; that, rather than securing Sickles’ weapon himself, he allowed Sickles to have access to it in the Street Crime office locker; and that he gave a false statement when he told Suffolk internal affairs investigators that he did not know who Sickles and Harrington reported to when they were assigned together.
Kiernan was reinstated effective Nov. 1, 2012, and kept his rank.
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“Wilson wanted him fired, brought these charges, and at the end of the day he returned as a lieutenant. So that tells you about the validity and substance of these charges,” said Ray Perini, who is Kiernan’s attorney, as well as the attorney for the Southampton Town Police Superior Officers Association, a union for the department’s top brass.
Wilson said that just because he signed off on the deal between Kiernan and the town’s labor attorney, does not mean he felt the charges were not warranted and that there were not enough reasons to terminate Kiernan’s employment. “Ultimately, the town board is the one that assigns penalty, not the chief of police,” he said.
“Southampton Town politics has its tentacles wrapped so firmly around that police department,” it’s impossible to take unbiased action concerning certain employees, Wilson said.
Citing the fact that Kiernan was a member of the Southampton Town Republican Committee, Wilson had asked the town’s ethics board to direct Councilman Chris Nuzzi and Councilwoman Christine Scalera, the Republicans on the board, to recuse themselves from decisions concerning Kiernan — but his request was to no avail.
Perini accused Wilson of smearing Kiernan now, because he did not have any success ousting Kiernan while chief. “Wilson has a vendetta and he is doing what he could not do through due process or a DA’s investigation,” he said.
Perini added, “Southampton town lost his serves, a dedicated cop, for six months, on charges that didn’t bear out.”
Wilson denied that he is speaking out now for any other reason than the public good.
“I do not have any vendetta and I am not grinding any form of an ax with the police department,” Wilson said.
In the middle of Kiernan’s suspension, Sickles, who was already out of work to get treatment, was suspended by the Town Board July 10. Departmental charges accused Sickles of working under the influence of a controlled substance between January 2010 and December 2011, sleeping on duty and failing to be fit for duty.
Just days after Kiernan's suspension, detectives with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota's Government Corruption Bureau subpoenaed the Southampton Town clerk's office and seized boxes of police documents said to contain details of "every confidential personnel police investigation from the police department from the years 1990-2009."
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The seizure came following allegations that documents were shredded just before Wilson assumed his post in 2011.
A couple weeks after executing the subpoena at Town Hall, Spota announced that two convicts who has been the subject of Street Crimes Unit cases would have their sentences vacated and be released from prison. The move came after his office began reviewing more than 100 cases involving a Street Crime Unit officer whose credibility was called into question, according to Spota.
- RELATED: DA: Southampton Cop's Drugs Cases Tossed Out
In February, another man released from prison sued the Southampton Town Police Department, accusing Sickles of planting drugs on him and searching him without a warrant, among other allegations. Attorney Jeltje DeJong, of Devitt Spellman Barrett, reportedly told Newsday that the police "acted in accordance with the law" and said that in Opoku's case and others, the jury will find in favor of the town and police.
It is unclear where the district attorney’s review stands. In an email Monday, spokesman Robert Clifford said, “We decline to characterize the status of the investigation including the custody of relevant documents.”