A Maryland sheriff who made the decision to fire and criminally charge one of his own deputies following an investigation into allegations that he raped a woman held in custody in a Kohl’s parking lot spoke to Fox News Digital about how law enforcement has been forced to "lower our standards" in hiring in the post-defund-police era.
Steven Victor Abreu, 30, was fired from the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office and charged with second-degree rape, fourth-degree sexual offense, second-degree assault, false imprisonment, sexual contact while a person is in law enforcement custody and three counts of misconduct in office following an internal investigation into an alleged October incident involving a 27-year-old victim identified in the affidavit only as "JA."
Since Abreu's arrest, Wicomico County Sheriff Mike Lewis said an additional six to seven victims have come forward.
The charges range in degree of severity from women who Abreu allegedly spoke to inappropriately during traffic stops and exchanged phone numbers with to one encounter involving Abreu having sexual intercourse with a woman.
Lewis said Abreu first interacted with that woman while she was intoxicated at the scene of a car accident and later had sexual intercourse with her inside a marked sheriff’s office vehicle in the parking lot of her apartment complex. That incident, as are the others, remains under investigation, and Lewis said additional charges may be forthcoming.
"You're talking about a uniformed deputy wearing a badge with a gun, with body armor. I don't care if she consented or not. It is not consensual intercourse," Lewis said. "It was not just wrong. It was not just a violation of policy procedure. It is a criminal act. And he will be charged accordingly."
With 36 years of law enforcement experience, including the past 10 years as elected sheriff, Lewis detailed to Fox News Digital how agencies are suffering severe staffing shortages, forcing them to lower hiring standards.
"I've always loved this profession like no other. But right now, our rank and file, we are demoralized," Lewis said. "Because Maryland lawmakers have practically legislated us out of a job, no one wants to come into Maryland law enforcement anymore. Our rank and files are shrinking all over the nation. It's not just Mike Lewis of Wicomico County. It's every sheriff in this nation."
"It's very difficult to recruit good quality candidates," he said. "So what do we find ourselves doing? Hiring people that didn't wow us during the interview. But we need warm bodies on patrol still in these vacancies that we have within our agencies. And inevitably, what does that do? It lowers our standards. This is how individuals are able to get through the cracks."
Abreu had been employed by the Wicomico County Sheriff’s Office for less than a year. He completed 26 weeks of training at the academy and another 10 weeks of ride-alongs with a supervisor before beginning solo patrols Aug. 25.
"We are scraping the bottom of the barrel to get, first of all, to get any interested candidates in being a sheriff's deputy today because we've been so demonized," Lewis told Fox News Digital. "Then when we do get someone interested in this job. It's very difficult for them to pass through the process."
"He didn't wow anybody, and we didn't select him the first time, but he came back," Lewis said of Abreu. "He showed us that he really wanted to be a deputy. He passed everything, but he didn't wow us. But guess what he had that most applicants don't? He was a minority. And I'm always looking for greater diversity within the rank and file in my office because I'm under the gun like any chief or any sheriff to hire more diversity."
The sheriff said Abreu ultimately passed a full written test, a physical agility test, a polygraph examination, a psychological examination and an interview with a board made up of seasoned commanders within Lewis' office.
However, a law enforcement source who spoke to Fox News Digital argued that Abreu should have been fired a month before the Kohl's lot alleged rape after manipulating his body camera during a traffic stop with a different woman.
The source said the woman complained to the sheriff’s office about Abreu after the deputy first allegedly made provocative remarks during a traffic stop. The woman, according to the source, called her boyfriend on the way home as the deputy followed her back to the house. The boyfriend came outside and nearly got into a fistfight with Abreu, the source added.
The deputy was found to have categorized the body camera footage of the alleged inappropriate exchange during the traffic stop incorrectly as training so that the footage captured would remain saved for a shorter amount of time, the source explained. Abreu was then reportedly disciplined and docked four days or about $800 out of his leave bank.
The source added that a captain allegedly remarked that he wouldn’t fire Abreu then because he felt that the deputy would "straighten out" and that the department was short on manpower "because no one wants to be a cop anymore." The source added that police administrators were neglectful and derelict in their duty to stop this "predator."
Lewis admitted Abreu did manipulate his body camera during that incident and received disciplinary action.
But that woman texted Abreu after the traffic stop, sent him "suggestive photos" of herself, and asked to ride along with him in his sheriff’s vehicle before she was caught by her enraged boyfriend, Lewis said. The woman ultimately did not want to testify and was not considered a credible witness, according to the sheriff, so the deputy got a warning.
The source also argued to Fox News Digital that Abreu should have never made it out of the academy.
Between January and June, an instructor at the Eastern Shore Criminal Justice Academy documented how Abreu inappropriately cupped and groped a female’s breasts during a training exercise on holds. Recruits are instructed per protocol when searching a female to always use the back of the hands — never the palms.
Lewis said he had no prior knowledge of that incident, but after inquiring with the academy, the sheriff was informed it happened during a training class and Abreu learned how to perform frisks correctly.
The source added that about a month before his arrest, Abreu was docked days for letting a janitor friend at a hotel allegedly known to be embedded with drugs drive around the parking lot in his marked cruiser with lights and sirens on. Lewis confirmed Abreu was disciplined, but the sheriff claimed the lights and sirens had been off.
The source also took issue with Lewis’ initial on-camera interview with a local news outlet in which the sheriff condemned Abreu’s actions as a "black on everyone who wears the uniform" but also claimed there had been "no red flags whatsoever" regarding the since-fired deputy. The source accuses Lewis and other administrators of a cover-up, noting how no outside agency has been brought in to investigate to avoid a potential conflict of interest.
Lewis, however, has defended his decision to handle the investigation in-house, noting how the Maryland State Police, where he formerly served before running as elected sheriff, is also suffering severe staffing shortages.
"They are hemorrhaging. They are bleeding like we all are for personnel," Lewis said of Maryland State Police. "So I thought, I'm not going to farm this case out. This is cut and dry. So we immediately start investigating this. We charged his deputy with multiple charges that we thought were applicable that night. I notify the local press. We do the interview and what happens? Multiple more victims are coming forward."
Abreu's alleged abuse of the badge went unchecked until a 27-year-old woman was interviewed on-camera by detectives on Oct. 30 and was "visibly upset and shaking as she spoke" about meeting a friend in the parking lot of a Kohl’s department stores days earlier on Oct. 26 when at between 1 and 1:30 a.m. a marked sheriff’s office vehicle pulled up behind her vehicle and a deputy exited in "full uniform," according to the arrest affidavit.
Abreu allegedly told "JA" and her male friend that they could not be there when the business was not open.
The woman said the deputy had a brief conversation with the friend and released him before coming over to her vehicle and identifying himself by name. The deputy allegedly requested that the woman write down her phone number and information in a notebook he removed from his uniform vest pocket and instructed her to get out of the vehicle so that he could check for illegal substances.
According to the affidavit, the woman says she complied, and Abreu proceed to "frisk her."
"She stated that he used his hands to grab her breasts and then grabbed her buttocks. She stated that he then told her to get back into her vehicle, which she did," according to the probable cause statement. "She said that he then leaned into the open driver's side window keeping his flashlight on and in his right hand. She said he then moved his left hand under her pants and penetrated her vagina with his fingers. She stated that he then began touching her breasts, under her clothing, with his left hand."
"JA stated that she did not consent to any of the sexual acts. She stated that she did not feel free to leave and was fearful of what would happen if she did try to run away or fight him," the affidavit says. "JA said that her friend called her to check on her, and she told Abreu it was her babysitter and that she had kids at home waiting for her, and she was late, hoping he would end the assault and let her leave. She stated that he wrote his phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to her before he let her go."
The woman says Abreu later called and texted her messages of a sexual nature, but she did not respond, deleted the messages and blocked his number. Just two days after the alleged parking lot assault, she was on a wireless call with her fiancé when the same deputy pulled her over while she was traveling home from her place of employment.
"She stated that he reached into the vehicle and grabbed her face in the area of her jawline with his hand. She stated that he forcefully moved her face and looked at her neck," according to the affidavit. "She said he commented on marks that he had seen on her neck during the first assault no longer being visible. She said that he then let her go and told her that he would see her again and that she was not to tell anyone about their interactions."
Fearful Abreu would come after her again, the woman's fiancé drove her to and from work the next day.
When he came to pick her up, the fiancé observed a marked sheriff's office vehicle with its lights on in the parking lot of the woman's job. He recorded the department vehicle, which then moved to a nearby gas station.
The source said Abreu previously applied to the Salisbury Police Department, but his application was terminated.
"Cops hate one individual worst thing to a criminal and that's a dirty cop," Lewis said. "And the fact that this dirty cop has betrayed our trust, he's tarnished our badge, he's tarnished our uniform, our profession. We are going to dig holes where we've never dug them before. We're going to dig up every nook and cranny on this guy. And I'm confident that my investigators will and have done one incredible job interviewing potential victims in this case."
Neither an attorney nor representative for Abreu were available for comment on this report.