Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Inspector Hired as Reformer Dismissed | Steve Uebelacker Was Supposed to Restore Public Confidence

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Inspector Hired as Reformer Dismissed | Steve Uebelacker Was Supposed to Restore Public Confidence

Article excerpt


NORTH PORT -- When North Port Police Chief Kevin Vespia hired Steve Uebelacker in May 2014, public confidence in the chief and his department was at an all time low.

There had been a wave of suspensions, allegations of ineffective leadership and one of Vespia's officers had just committed suicide after he was charged with sexual battery and false imprisonment stemming from an off-duty party.

Vespia's decision to hire the former Sarasota County ethics czar and Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent was widely praised. It was seen

as a way to bring stability to the embattled agency.

Uebelacker was a seasoned investigator, having worked with the Charlotte County Sheriff's Office in addition to FDLE. While a special agent, he worked on a 2006 kidnapping case in which 6-year-old Coralrose Fullwood was taken from her North Port bedroom and murdered.

In June 2011, when interim Sarasota County administrator Terry Lewis -- himself a former North Port police chief -- was looking to hire the county's first ethics coordinator, he remembered Uebelacker's skills and reputation. Uebelacker ultimately lost that job, saying at the time he left that it was because he insisted on investigating ethics complaints against the county commissioners.

"I was familiar with Mr. Uebelacker through his work with the FDLE and as a North Port reserve officer. I know his ethics and I know what type of individual he is," Vespia said when he announced Uebelacker's hiring. "I can tell you so far he's been an enormous help."

Vespia gave Uebalacker the rank of inspector. "He's conducting our IA investigations," Vespia said then. "He's also presenting training."

Last week, Vespia fired Uebelacker, citing in his termination letter that Uebelacker's "management style and philosophical differences do not fit with the organization's philosophy and vision and has proved to be detrimental to the organization."

Uebelacker must have known he was in the chief's cross hairs.

The two met Feb. 7 at the Cracker Barrel restaurant in Port Charlotte, a last ditch effort to iron out their differences.

Uebelacker later documented their conversation in a memo he sent to city officials, which chronicles alleged bad acts by the police chief, as well as things they allegedly discussed during their meeting.

Vespia responded by writing his own memo two days later -- a seven-page document -- in which he denies any wrongdoing and chronicles his own allegations against Uebelacker.

The two conflicting memos, regardless of who's right, show a Police Department and some of its leadership in turmoil.

Vespia did not respond to calls or emails from the Herald-Tribune seeking comment for this story.

Uebelacker declined to comment and referred inquiries to his attorney, Russell T. Kirshy of Port Charlotte, who also declined to comment.

Lawsuit settled

Uebelacker noted in his memo that he and Vespia discussed the arrest of 89-year-old Virginia Bland for fleeing police, an arrest Uebelacker "found to be of great concern."

Uebelacker noted that when he brought it to the attention of the officer's supervisor, Capt. Christopher Morales, the captain said, "I am not going to Monday morning quarterback my people."

Bland later settled a lawsuit she had filed against the department.

Uebelacker noted that the arresting officer had, prior to his arrest of Bland, "made a bad arrest in a counterfeit currency case and most recently arrested an individual outside of his jurisdiction."

In his counterpoint, Vespia noted that he met with and counseled the officer. …

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