MANATEE -- Since taking office in January, State Attorney Ed Brodsky has ushered in changes that have put more focus on areas of crime plaguing Manatee and Sarasota counties.
When Brodsky was running for office, he saw a need for some focus on crimes that were either under reported or received little attention. Among his campaign promises was to bring attention to fraud against the elderly, animal cruelty and more resources to fight violent crime.
To meet those promises, Brodsky has implemented three teams of prosecutors who will be involved with investigations, offer investigative and legal training, keep track of repeat offenders and inform judges of their patterns.
Brodsky has appointed leaders in his office to three new teams: a special prosecution unit for violent crimes and divisions for white collar crimes and animal cruelty cases.
And he's already seeing results from the first two divisions he formed.
The newest of the three teams Brodsky has created is a special prosecution unit in response to recent Bradenton shootings that left a 4-year-old seriously injured and just a week later left a father dead.
"You have a beautiful kid, very handsome boy, and I was just devastated to read about how that boy was hurt," Brodsky said. "I can't imagine being at a football game and witnessing someone being gunned down."
In response, Brodsky wants to take a more proactive approach and is designating Assistant State Attorney Brian Iten special intake chief for investigations into high profile violent crime.
"Brian is going to respond to any and all crime scenes, to be there and assist with search warrants, arrest warrants, any of things they need so they can conduct a proper investigation," Brodsky said.
The new unit is made up of a half-dozen prosecutors, three each in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Iten says he is enthused at this new appointment and hopes to brings his years of courtroom experience to the crime scene.
"I have a heightened appreciation for what judges and juries expect," Iten said. "We can build solid cases and secure convictions."
With this new position, Iten will be on call to respond to major crime scenes, primarily in Manatee County, although he says he envisions some contact with Sarasota County as defendants often cross county lines.
Iten says the three violent crime prosecutors in Manatee County will report to him. Iten's duties will include providing law enforcement with what they need to effectively investigate, including providing training.
"Access to a prosecutor is always helpful to a police officer to do legal research," Iten said. "I am going to be more active in providing instruction in the areas of search and seizure and interviews and interrogation."
The new unit was announced to law enforcement earlier this week at the Manatee County Law Enforcement Council meeting. Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells, council chair, says the unit will help build better communication.
"He is going to be with us from the beginning," Wells said. "We will be a team out there working these crimes together and knowing that what we get is what he needs."
Wells added everyone's goal is to build a strong case that will hold up in court.
"We applaud State Attorney Brodsky for adopting this program and bringing it to Manatee County and allow everyone coming together to be a true team," Wells said.
As part of the changes, more aggressive approaches will be seen in the courtroom as well. Brodsky says he wants judges to have as much information about repeat offenders as possible before they decide on setting bail.
"It doesn't do our community any good if they are arrested and within eight or 10 hours they are back on the streets," Brodsky said.
White collar crime
The idea for the White Collar Crime and Animal Cruelty divisions came during Brodsky's tenure as Chief Assistant State Attorney. Brodsky recalled one biweekly supervisor meeting in which he says everyone around the table discussed the cases they were working on.
"As we went around the table, they were all white collar crime cases," Brodsky said. "That was kind of eye opening for me."
At the time, Brodsky had started campaigning, which he said gave him an opportunity to speak with a lot of people in the county. He realized there was a need to enhance the district's white collar crime prosecution. Soon he began to lay the groundwork for a new division.
"Lisa Chitarro I think took the reins and has done a phenomenal job in that area," Brodsky said. "What you see here is a lot of effort she has put into implementing networking among organizations, sharing of information, sharing of intelligence, partnering with all of the law enforcement community and the other agencies that work with elderly."
Two Assistant State Attorneys have been assigned to the new division, Lisa Chittaro in Manatee County and Erica Quartermaine in Sarasota County.
Since the office has begun to partner with law enforcement, it has already gone after several cases and is partnering with federal officials on other cases.
Since the new division has been implemented Judy Paul, the former manager of a Longboat Key condo association, was convicted of stealing more than $200,000 of the association's funds. Paul, 49, could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison for grand theft in excess of $100,000 and scheming to defraud more than $50,000.
The condo association's board members went to the prosecutor's office with their findings and were pleased with the way Brodsky's office handled the case. The association's board has since tightened controls of all of its accounts.
Peter Martin, president of Cactus Sky Communications, a marketing firm in Bradenton, was also recently a victim of white collar crime. His former bookkeeper, Annique Newton, is charged with scheming to defraud his company after allegedly helping herself to more than $17,000.
In addition to the financial strain the theft has put on the company, Martin said he felt betrayed by someone he had come to trust.
Martin said he knows of others who claim to have been victimized by Newton but did nothing.
"If she stole from you, and you didn't prosecute her, then you are just as wrong as she is," Martin said. "Because then it allows her to go back out there and do it to someone like me."
Martin is grateful for the district's efforts with the White Collar Crime Division. To him, while white collar crime is not violent, it is still a serious crime.
Chittaro said it is the kind of crime that preys on people's trust.
"You are in a position to trust, and so it's easy to do," Chittaro said.
This district is not the first to create a White Collar Crime Division, other SAO offices in the state have specialty units.
Chittaro says that the statistics for white collar crime could be higher than anyone knows in Sarasota and Bradenton because of the large elderly population.
"The elderly are targeted just like children, animals and the disabled. They are easy targets," Chittaro said. "You don't need a weapon, all you just need is kindness and trust and then you can basically take anything you want from them."
The elderly population doesn't always report that they have been victims because they are embarrassed or felt they should have known better. Perpetrators also tend to take advantage of elderly people who are very ill or who have impaired mental faculties, according to the FBI's financial crimes section.
Based on the most recent U.S. Census data, people ages 65 and older make up nearly 24 percent of the population in Manatee County. In comparison, people 65 and over make up slightly more than 18 percent of the statewide population.
Animal cruelty cases
Brodsky decided to create the animal cruelty division because he believes that people who are cruel to animals also have a tendency to be cruel to people.
Animals "are part of that vulnerable group in society," Chittaro said. "We already had a division for child abuse so it was only natural for us to do one for the elderly and the animals."
There is a great deal of science that proves that people who hurt animals later move on to hurt people, Brodsky said.
"There really is no place for people harming animals," Brodsky added.
The first felony case the division handled was a Sarasota man who, after being fired for coming to work drunk, broke into John's Automotive and beat the owner's mastiff mix, Ashton, to death.
Kevin Joseph Koscielniak, 52, was sentenced to 14 years in prison with five years probation. While the sentence for felony animal cruelty is just five years, prosecutors were able to combine an armed robbery charge to increase Koscielniak's sentence for beating the dog to death.
Brodsky wants to make it clear there is zero tolerance for any type of violence in this district.
"We are not going to tolerate any sort of violence in our community," Brodsky said.
Jessica De Leon, law enforcement reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7049. You can follow her on Twitter @JDeLeon1012.