By RICHARD LIEBSON, ERIK SHILLING, SHAWN COHEN and LEE HIGGINS
Mount Pleasant Police Chief Brian Fanelli, accused Thursday of possessing child pornography, told federal investigators his alleged habit began when he was researching material for school classes he was teaching about the dangers of sexual abuse, according to papers filed in U.S. District Court in White Plains.
“But shortly thereafter (Fanelli) began viewing child pornography for personal interest,” the 10-page complaint says.
Fanelli was freed on $50,000 bond after appearing in federal court on child-pornography charges late Thursday, hours after federal agents raided his Mahopac home and seized computers alleged to contain more than 120 files of children as young as 7 engaging in sex acts.
The complaint describes graphic, sometimes incestuous sexual activities so disturbing that The Journal News has chosen not to post the documents on lohud.com. Fanelli is accused of downloading the files to his computer and sharing them with others, including undercover federal agents.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara called the case “disturbing and sad,” saying the police chief is accused of breaking a law “designed to protect the youngest and most vulnerable of our population from vile exploitation.”
Fanelli, whose wife was in the courtroom, did not enter a plea to a charge of possession of child pornography. The crime is alleged to have occurred between October and January, during which time he was elevated to chief.
A longtime digital whiz at the department, Fanelli, who has two grown children, was well-liked among other officers and heavily involved with the community. He taught fifth-graders at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish school in Shrub Oak, where he spoke to hundreds of students yearly about the dangers of sexual abuse, according to a letter posted on the parish’s website.
Shortly after 4 p.m., he was led into the courtroom by U.S. marshals. Pouring himself a glass of water, he accidentally spilled some on the defense table and laughed with his lawyer, federal defender Susanne Brody, as she brought him towels to clean it up.
Fanelli told U.S. Magistrate Lisa Margaret Smith that he takes Lipitor and another prescription medication but that they did not affect his ability to understand the proceedings.
“I am quite clear,” he told the judge.
Before adjourning the case until Feb. 19, Smith told the chief that he could not use computers or cellphones and could not be in the presence of minors without supervision. He is to be monitored electronically and can leave his home only for medical appointments, visits to his lawyer, church services and for work.
If convicted, Fanelli faces up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $250,000.
Town Supervisor Joan Maybury called the news “very disturbing” and said Fanelli has been suspended with pay in accordance with his contract. She said she most likely will appoint one of the department’s two lieutenants as acting chief.
U.S. Homeland Security agents notified Maybury of Fanelli’s arrest about 12:15 p.m., telling her that he would be charged with trafficking in child pornography, she said. Maybury said agents turned Fanelli’s gun and badge over to Mount Pleasant police and that a federal technician was inspecting the computer in his office.
No one was home Thursday afternoon at Fanelli’s raised ranch on Archer Road in Mahopac Falls, a quiet neighborhood of single-family homes near the Westchester border.
About 8:30 a.m. Thursday, neighbors saw a group of cars and vans pull up in front of Fanelli’s house. At least two agents wore helmets and SWAT gear, though Fanelli was arrested without incident, neighbors said.
Sgt. Eric Anttila of Mount Pleasant police had no comment; other officers said they were shocked by the news.
“I’m still trying to get information myself,” Lt. Robert Miliambro said.
The arrest was disturbing to town residents, though several said they weren’t surprised a police chief had been implicated.
“You hear so many things today — look at how many officials are caught with their hand in the cookie jar,” said John Mangeri, who has lived in Mount Pleasant for 15 years.
Dennis Adisson, 50, a White Plains resident who works in a school in Mount Pleasant, said that as a police chief, Fanelli should know better.
“It’s sad, it’s embarrassing, it’s sickening,” he said. “It’s all of those things wrapped in one.”
Fanelli, 54, a native of Valhalla, was hired by the town in November 1981. He rose to the rank of lieutenant before being appointed chief in November, just the sixth police chief in the town’s history. Fanelli receives an annual salary of $135,518.
A member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton for decades, the church website says Fanelli spoke to around 1,000 parish schoolchildren in 2012 and again in October, warning younger children to stay safe from sexual abuse and older students to beware of “the pitfalls of social media devices, games and computer applications.”
“He has overseen numerous criminal investigations involving sexual abuse,” according to a letter on the website written by Sara Koshofer, the parish’s religious education coordinator.
Fanelli has been best known most recently for his involvement in the fatal shooting of Pace University student Danroy Henry Jr. In January 2013, a lawyer for Henry’s family accused Fanelli and former Mount Pleasant police Chief Louis Alagno of covering up crucial details of the incident.
Fanelli denied any coverup, and the Henry family’s lawsuit is ongoing in the same courthouse where Fanelli was arraigned Thursday.
“Justice for DJ,” a pro-DJ Henry Facebook page, was quick to comment on Fanelli’s arrest. “Same person that lied to us the night DJ was killed, the same person that changed Ronald Beckley’s statements, the same person that promised he would get to the truth! I hope he likes his jumpsuit! The walls are crumbling!” said a post Thursday.
Fanelli, a 1977 graduate of Valhalla High School, led the department’s successful bid for state accreditation in 1998. He was instrumental in computerizing the department’s records and in 1999 introduced an email alert system to disseminate crime and emergency information to residents.
Staff writers Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, Jonathan Bandler, Terence Corcoran and Hoa Nguyen contributed to this report.