Toddler death investigators have history of discipline problems

BROOKSVILLE –
A man was pulled from his job by a group of uniformed deputies with guns and hauled to jail in November.

A victim in a home invasion singled him out from a booklet of photographs.

The man, who was working in Dade City the day the crime happened 40 miles away in Spring Hill, spent his birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day behind bars.

George Loydgren was the lead detective for the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office in the case.

The victim at first didn’t finger the suspect. Loydgren went back to him a second time and got a different result.

Transcripts from sworn testimony showed Loydgren’s explanation for the victim’s change of heart was that he had better lighting the second time he saw the photos.

The prosecutor dropped all charges after the arrested man had spent more than three months in jail.

In February 2008, Loydgren was given a written reprimand by Sheriff Richard Nugent and suspended for three days after he wrecked his patrol vehicle during a car chase along a lime rock road.

Nugent said he ignored the safety of the public when he engaged the suspect in a pursuit.

“Your indifference to our training and policy reviews as it relates to pursuits is obvious,” the sheriff wrote.

In March, Loydgren was issued a verbal reprimand. He had failed to inform his supervisor in a timely manner he had contacted the victims in an assigned criminal case, according to a sheriff’s report.

Loydgren, who joined the sheriff’s office in 2005, retired from the New York Police Department in 2003. He had worked there for 18 years. He said during a sworn deposition that he was a detective and worked terrorism cases prior to his retirement.

In November 2004, Sgt. Curtis Turney, who is Loydgren’s supervisor, failed to document his involvement in a murder investigation. He was a detective at the time.

His negligence led to a mistrial. It also led to unflattering newspaper reports that painted the sheriff’s office in a negative light, according to a report.

An internal investigation concluded Turney was at fault and his performance was declared unsatisfactory.

On Sept. 11, 2009, both men handled the interrogations of Breanna Underwood and David Alan McBurnett Jr. The latter was charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse in connection with the beating death of 1-year-old Hunter Lee Morris.

McBurnett’s attorney, Ellis Faught, accused both men of unethical tactics during their interviews. He got them both to admit during sworn depositions that they had lied to both suspects.

They manipulated and deceived to get Underwood to lay all the blame on her boyfriend, Faught said.

They did so because it’s a common practice, they said.

Confession by deception

Faught is a Brandon criminal attorney who was hired by McBurnett’s grandmother.

His client was eligible to be sentenced as a youthful offender. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter and received a two-year sentence with much of that credited for time already served. He is expected to be assigned to a boot camp program and will be released sometime this year, his parents said.

His attorney said McBurnett never hit his girlfriend’s child.

Underwood told detectives the same during the first few hours of her interrogation. It wasn’t until after they told her McBurnett had ratted her out that she changed her story.

Records show McBurnett never told detectives Underwood had struck or injured her son. Loydgren and Turney testified later they had made it up.

No one else has corroborated Underwood’s claims that McBurnett ever hit the child. That includes Underwood’s mother, who said the only abuse she saw done to the boy was at the hands of her daughter.

Witnesses and social workers involved in the case have said Underwood was the main culprit in her son’s death, according to court records.

Underwood has not been charged.

Faught said when he received the transcripts of the interviews one Friday afternoon earlier this year, he expected to read them at a leisurely pace during the weekend.

He couldn’t put them down. After he was done, it took a while for him to digest what he had read.

“I was so perturbed,” Faught said. “I just could not believe what was taking place … It gave me the impetus to do what I thought needed to be done.

“I was a little bit disgusted with what they were doing with this 19-year-old kid,” he continued. “Detective Loydgren and Sgt. Turney both out and out admitted they were lying. Had that (case) made it to trial, I would’ve asked them in front of the jury, ‘You’re a liar, aren’t you?'”

Their interrogation tactics weren’t all that bothered Faught. He also thinks they failed to follow up on leads and ignored the findings from the Florida Department of Children and Families, which verified Underwood’s direct involvement with the death of her son.

“My experiences through the years have shown me once law enforcement has a target or made an arrest, it’s up to the defense attorney to show the investigation has not been complete,” said Faught. “Many times, (police) look no further.”

Peyton Hyslop is a former county judge. He is now a Brooksville defense attorney.

He said the sheriff’s office often stops short of the necessary requirements in evidence gathering.

“That’s usually the way it is,” said Hyslop. “The depth of investigating in most cases is not very deep.”

Hyslop said the interrogation strategies used by Loydgren and Turney in the McBurnett case were “pretty outlandish.”

He’s dealt with Loydgren before.

A defendant he represented in a drug case had his charges thrown out because Loydgren “went beyond the legally allowed boundaries” during his interviews with the suspect, Hyslop said.

Prosecutors, DCF say detectives did nothing unethical or illegal

Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee is a former police detective and FBI agent. He teaches police interrogation classes at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute.

He said Loydgren and Turney used common and acceptable strategies during their interviews with Underwood and McBurnett.

“Deception is perfectly allowable and often used in police interviews,” Barbee said. “That is a standard interview technique.”

He said the only instances when interrogations cross the legal line is when detectives use fake props – including photographs or videos – or when they go beyond the “shock the conscious” standard to get an innocent person to confess.

The latter often applies to torture techniques.

American Civil Liberties Union of Florida spokeswoman Elsie Morales said lying during an interrogation is a “very common tactic” used by police and sheriff’s departments.

Bill D’Aiuto, a DCF administrator in Wildwood, said his office has a “great relationship” with the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office. He thinks the detectives did a solid job in the McBurnett case with what little information they had.

“It can be difficult to determine a perpetrator,” D’Aiuto said. “We had two adults who were giving different versions of the story. They were responding to law enforcement one way and (another) way to us. I guess you could say the case was unique in that way.”

Pete Magrino is the prosecutor who handles most homicide cases in the Fifth Judicial Circuit of Florida, which includes Hernando County.

He prosecuted McBurnett and agreed to the plea agreement. He also said the case remains open and more arrests are possible.

He said he understood Faught’s displeasure with the way the case was handled, but after reviewing the audio recordings of the interviews with McBurnett and Underwood, Magrino did not find anything “improper or unethical” done by the detectives.

He said the attitudes and aggressiveness shown by Loydgren and Turney the morning of the arrests were understandable given the circumstances. A toddler was on life support and the two people who knew what had happened were being tight-lipped.

The boy was taken off his ventilator Sept. 12.

The initial interview of all suspects is critical, said Magrino.

If they are dismissed before any charges are filed, they can go home and collaborate on a story. That is why there was so much urgency on the part of the detectives that morning, he said.

“The bottom line is that law enforcement must try to get to the bottom of a case,” he said. “They were talking to people involved in a friggin’ homicide.”

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.

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