EAST PATCHOGUE, N.Y. - A Suffolk County mail courier who operated a male stripper business on the side forged dozens of realistic-looking deputy sheriff's badges and ID cards and gave them to acquaintances, the Suffolk Sheriff's Department said yesterday.

Peter Mistretta, 54, of East Patchogue, told investigators the badges and ID cards were part of his dancers' costumes, said Michael Sharkey, chief of staff to Sheriff Vincent DeMarco. But the badges and ID cards looked like the real thing, he said.

"You wouldn't be able to tell the difference," Sharkey said. "They were very realistic ID cards."

Mistretta was arrested last month for forgery and cocaine possession, Sharkey said. He is due back in court Nov. 17.

During a 10-month investigation, investigators seized 20 fake sheriff's deputy badges and 25 phony deputy's identification cards, at least one of which identified Mistretta as a deputy sheriff, Sharkey said. Five shields and ID cards included the shield numbers of active-duty deputy sheriffs, he said.

Investigators believe Mistretta distributed cards and badges to "business associates," Sharkey said. It is not clear whether Mistretta sold them, he said.

Mistretta, a 37-year county employee, pleaded not guilty Sept. 26 to criminal possession of a controlled substance, a felony, and multiple counts of possession of a forged instrument, a felony. He was released on $25,000 bail, said his attorney, Frederick Stern of New York)" id="PLGEO100101022030856">Islip.

Stern said the investigation was "riddled with problems and riddled with errors, riddled with defects." He declined to elaborate.

Mistretta used a Shreveport, La., company, NIC Law Enforcement Supply, to make at least some of the badges and cards, Sharkey said. The forgeries came to light when NIC called Suffolk authorities seeking permission to make copies of deputy badges and ID cards, he said. NIC officials told Suffolk authorities the order was placed by Mistretta, he said. Mistretta told investigators in December that he used the cards for a business, U.S. Male Music Productions, Sharkey said. "At that time, he said he was canceling the order for the badges," he said.

In July, a Vermont" id="PLGEO100104800000000">Vermont state trooper told Suffolk authorities that a driver pulled over in a traffic stop displayed a fake Suffolk sheriff's ID, which was traced to Mistretta, Sharkey said.

Mistretta was arrested Sept. 25 while making a delivery to the county warrant squad in Central Islip" id="PLGEO1001001023806750NY">Central Islip, Sharkey said. He had 5 grams of cocaine in his possession at the time, Sharkey said.

Mistretta has been suspended 30 days without pay by the county, which is seeking to terminate his employment, said Dan Aug, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Levy.