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Former cop faces felony charges

Pinellas Park Beacon, tbnweekly.com
BYLINE: JULIANA A. TORRES
Link to Article

Pinellas Park, FL

2011-02-02_INT_Former cop faces felony charges_01
Bradley Serata

PINELLAS PARK – Former Pinellas Park police Officer Bradley Serata stood on the opposite end of a mug shot photo at the Pinellas County Jail Jan. 25, accused of a felony.

The Ninth Circuit State Attorney’s Office charged Serata, 29, with official misconduct, a third-degree felony, for failing to turn in evidence pertinent to cases in which he had investigated.

Serata resigned from his position Oct. 14, after his police department supervisor began investigating discrepancies in police reports he submitted.

The missing evidence included drugs, some of which was found stashed in his police cruiser after Serata left the department, and a revolver that Serata turned back into the department when he was asked about it in November. Other evidence was less consequential: DVDs of surveillance from a crime scene or written statements from witnesses or victims from cases that weren’t prosecuted in court.

Department spokesman Sgt. Tracey Schofield said while it made sense for young or new officers to get behind in paperwork, or make mistakes in filing it, Serata’s discrepancies added up to more than mere negligence.

“This was intent,” he said. “When you take the gun home and you keep it at your house, that’s clearly criminal intent. He planned on keeping that gun.”

The Pinellas Park Police Department eventually conducted an internal audit of police investigations assigned to Serata, going as far back as July 2009. Starting in October of that year, the department discovered a total of 27 reports that had evidence listed in the report, but never turned into the Pinellas County Sheriffs Office, which stores evidence on behalf of the Pinellas Park Police Department, said department spokesman Capt. Sandy Forseth.

In 11 of those cases, only surveillance DVDs and witness statements were missing. But 16 other cases involved other types of missing evidence, including marijuana, crack cocaine, prescription pills, pawn slips, a belt and the revolver.

“Our assumption is he was just throwing this stuff away,” Forseth said. “But some of it, you never know. He quit before we could get into it.”

Schofield reported that some of the drugs were found in Serata’s police cruiser. In some cases, Serata turned in some of the evidence he had listed, but not all of it, which didn’t make a lot of sense, Schofield said.

Serata had been lucky that the missing evidence of his cases went unnoticed, Schofield said.

“The reality of most law enforcement cases is that we make a lot of arrests and put a lot of evidence away,” Schofield said. “But very few, less than 2 percent, of any of those cases go to trial. It’s very rare.”

More often, cases are dropped, or the suspect pleads out of a trial. Some drugs seized by police can’t be tied to a specific charge, but should be submitted as evidence or to be destroyed anyway. Reports like those have low priority and discrepancies within them aren’t likely to be noticed, Schofield said.

But Serata’s actions caught up with him when one of his cases headed to trial. Early in October, the state attorney’s office was preparing for trial of a shoplifting and drug possession case, for which Serata was the arresting and investigating officer. Serata had completed a police report April 20 that listed several items of evidence, including a written witness statement, a DVD surveillance video, a green pill believed to be Vicodin, and a metal pill bottle.

The state attorney’s office needed the green pill to be lab tested in order to proceed with prosecution. They requested the evidence from the sheriff’s office.

The agency’s property office said they didn’t have any evidence associated with the case in question.

The state attorney’s office had first tried to contact Serata directly, sending two letters alerting him that his case was going to trial, requiring Serata to send the evidence to be tested. When he hadn’t responded, a third letter was sent through the records department Oct. 12, and forwarded to his supervisor, Sgt. Eric Leshick.

When Leshick questioned him, Serata said he didn’t remember the April shoplifting case, but would try to find the missing evidence.

He unexpectedly turned in his resignation to Pinellas Park Police Chief Dorene Thomas two days later. By that time, Leshick had checked several of Serata’s more recently submitted police reports and found problems with missing evidence.

Schofield said he gave Leshick credit for following his instincts to further investigate Serata’s handling of evidence when he started acting oddly in regards to the shoplifting case.

“He did a good job following up on it,” Schofield said. “If it wasn’t for his diligence, we might not have caught it so soon.”

Leshick continued his investigation after Serata resigned. In one 2009 case, he discovered a .357 revolver was missing. Serata had seized the gun during a traffic stop Dec. 27, 2009 and arrested the driver, a convicted felon, for carrying a concealed firearm.

Leshick contacted Serata Nov. 23 to ask him about the gun. Serata said he still had it. He brought it to the station and turned it over to Leshick.

He told his former employers that he had put the gun into a black bag within the trunk of his cruiser and forgot about it, later tossing the black bag into a closet in his home where it sat forgotten, Forseth said.

The turned-in gun was the clincher in the investigation, Schofield said. Aside from that, dozens of Serata’s reports were falsified.

“When we sign the bottom of a police report, we are swearing under oath that the information is true,” Schofield said, expressing disappointment that Serata had given the Pinellas Park Police department a “black eye.”

“You wouldn’t expect that an officer is lying,” he said.

Department officials met with the State Attorney’s Office in December to decide if Serata’s reported actions warranted criminal prosecution. He was eventually charged with official misconduct, a felony under Florida statutes.

The Pinellas Park Police Department first hired Serata in Feb. 15, 2006. The new police officer had worked in patrol.

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