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Jul 25, 2012 11:10 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Convicted Drug Dealer Pleads Guilty In Federal Painkiller Case; Disputes Cases That Led To Officer-of-the-Year Honors

Jul 25, 2012 11:37 AM

An imprisoned felon and convicted drug dealer who recently filed a $1 million civil rights lawsuit against three Southampton Town Police officers, claiming they planted evidence on him and falsely arrested him because he was dating the daughter of one of the officers, pleaded guilty to illegally distributing painkillers last week in a federal drug case.

Craig Chillemi, a former Hampton Bays resident who was twice arrested by the department’s now-defunct undercover drug investigations team, the Street Crime Unit, and slapped with a four-year prison sentence, was arrested in April along with three others in connection with the alleged oxycodone sales network, his attorney, Neil Bruce Checkman of Manhattan, confirmed.

The attorney said he has sent a letter to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota’s office requesting that his client’s town arrests be examined in light of the recent suspensions and pending disciplinary charges against Lieutenant James Kiernan and Officer Eric Sickles, two former Street Crime Unit officers involved with arresting Mr. Chillemi. Officer Sickles was honored as one of the department’s officers of the year in 2011—for the case against Mr. Chillemi.

Mr. Chillemi is currently in prison. Mr. Checkman’s goal is to have his client’s federal prison sentence, which would in part be decided on his Southampton convictions, reduced. “The hope is that—on the basis of an inquiry that we’re asking the Suffolk County district attorney’s office to make, they may conclude that he was wrongfully convicted previously, based upon illegal and improper actions by a police officer in the Southampton Town Police [Department], and that if that was the case, then it would lower his criminal history category and he would be facing less [federal] time,” Mr. Checkman explained.

The Street Crime Unit was disbanded last year by Town Police Chief William Wilson Jr., who took over the department that year. Two convicted felons who had been arrested by Officer Sickles and Lt. Kiernan were released from prison earlier this year at the request of the Suffolk County district attorney’s office because the “credibility” of the evidence used to convict them had been called into question. The D.A.’s office is investigating more than 100 arrests made by the unit.

Officer Sickles—who was suspended by the Town Board earlier this month on a handful of disciplinary charges filed against him by Chief Wilson, mostly related to him having been high on drugs while on duty—was named Co-Officer of the Year in 2011. He also was awarded the Howard Stock Memorial Award, a prestigious honor bestowed by the Kiwanis Club of Southampton Town on its pick of the top officer among 13 law enforcement agencies in January, based on Lt. Kiernan’s recommendation.

That recommendation emphasized Officer Sickles’s work involving the arrest of Mr. Chillemi. He wrote that Officer Sickles was, in 2008, the “lead investigator on the most significant narcotics case the unit has had in terms of the status of the target in narcotics distribution in the town”—the one involving Mr. Chillemi. It goes on to say that upon learning that Mr. Chillemi had a conditional work release from state prison and was out dealing drugs after serving only a fraction of his sentence, Officer Sickles nabbed him again.

“Without wasting any time, PO Sickles began surveillance of the subject and in short time arrested him in possession of a quantity of cocaine once again. As a result of this arrest, the Corrections Department revoked his work-release status, and Southampton Town is safe once again from Chillemi’s drug trafficking,” it reads.

According to Mr. Chillemi’s recent lawsuit, Officer Sickles threatened Mr. Chillemi’s girlfriend, Tara Tully, and offered to dismiss the charges of that first town arrest if she would stop dating him—in exchange for the opportunity to date Ms. Tully himself.

Regarding the second arrest, Mr. Chillemi’s suit alleges that Officer Sickles violated the terms of his parole by driving a car, even though Ms. Tully, still his girlfriend, was the one driving at the time. The suit claims Officer Sickles used the circumstance of the unlicensed driver charge to justify a search of Mr. Chillemi’s pockets, and that the officer planted drugs on Mr. Chillemi, who claims in the lawsuit he was not in possession of any cocaine at the time Officer Sickles claimed to have found the drugs in his pocket.

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