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Asheville police evidence audits skimpy, suspect

BYLINE: Joel Burgessand & Jon Ostendorff

Asheville, NC

Expert: Complete inventories needed

ASHEVILLE — In more than a dozen inspections done before 2011, Asheville police gave their own evidence room management perfect marks.

Fifteen evidence room inspections from 2008-10 found 100 percent of items picked in a random sample were accounted for, according to documents obtained by the Citizen-Times through the state's open records law.

Those findings contrast sharply with recent discoveries that the Police Department has lost track of at least 27 guns as well as drugs and an undisclosed amount of cash.

They also raise questions over whether the audits were thorough and whether police might have failed to detect problems that could go back years.

“How all of a sudden are these things missing overnight?” asked Joe Latta, executive director of The International Association for Property and Evidence.

Rather than checks of a few dozen items, “departments should be doing complete inventories,” said Latta, who has taught evidence room procedures in 47 states and six Canadian provinces through the California-based nonprofit.

Each of the evidence room checks looked at about 25 items.

The recent problems with Asheville police handling of evidence have sparked a state criminal investigation and led to the city's announcement last week that Police Chief Bill Hogan would retire in May.

District Attorney Ron Moore has ordered the review of 2,200 cases to see whether some might be compromised.

Four men accused in violent crimes have been released after having their bonds lowered, including a man suspected in a 2001 rape case.

Moore, like Latta, said the three years of perfect performance in evidence room inspections means those checks were not rigorous enough and could have been manipulated by a dishonest employee.

The inspection reports obtained through a public records request show that in most cases items selected randomly came from categories including evidence, found property, drug evidence and guns.

Each item has a case and property number and description. In the last inspection of 2010, done on Dec. 20, items included 225.6 grams of marijuana, a GPS unit and Taurus 9 mm pistol.

On every report, each item had a “yes” mark after the phrase “accounted for.”

Capt. Sarah Benson, whose responsibilities include evidence, or another supervising officer signed the report along with longtime evidence room manager Lee Smith.

In a Dec. 6 inspection different from the others, Hogan conducted a “walk-through” with Benson. The chief pulled four items: 2.5 grams of crack cocaine, 200 grams of marijuana, a gun listed as an “SKS Carbine” and a Titan .25 caliber pistol, said Benson in a memo.

“No discrepancies were noted,” Benson said.

Neither the memo nor any of the reports explain the procedure for randomly selecting the items.

The Citizen-Times asked to question Benson directly about procedures but instead got statements from police and city public information officers.

Smith has not responded to messages left by phone and at his home. Police put him on paid investigative suspension for unspecified reasons Jan. 25, sparking concern from Moore, Buncombe's district attorney, that there might be problems.

Smith resigned Feb. 18.

Police spokesman Lt. Wallace Welch said Benson and before her, Capt. Daryl Fisher, in some cases would call out the case numbers and have evidence room staff retrieve the evidence for inspections.

In other cases, said city spokeswoman Dawa Hitch, “items were pulled directly from the shelf and reconciled against computer records.”

Using case numbers is a good system, Latta said, but it still raises questions, such as whether cases picked included ones that were closed as well as open cases. “More often than not, the items that have been stolen are the ones that have been adjudicated,” he said.

The system of pulling items off the shelf is not very effective, Latta and Moore said.

That is because current evidence room problems are twofold. The first is that packages and other evidence containers are missing altogether, Moore said.

That is the case with 115 containers of drugs, guns and valuables recently discovered as missing.

The second problem is that in at least one case, a container was present, but evidence was not inside.

That is what happened April 1 when an assistant district attorney and a defense attorney went to inspect the pills in the evidence room but found only wadded up tissue.

As a result, defendant Terry Lee Landrum, who was facing a possible sentence of 225 months for drug trafficking, pleaded to lesser charges and was given probation.

“Go back to the missing pills. The packages were there. The pills weren't,” Moore said.

Welch confirmed that bags were usually checked off without making sure they contained what they were supposed to.

Generally, evidence bags and containers were not opened to inspect the contents, the police spokesman said.

That was also true when evidence was destroyed, creating the opportunity for someone to steal items then later record them as destroyed, Latta said.

Evidence has become more important because of DNA and its ability to exonerate the innocent or reactivate cold cases, such as with the 2001 rape case, Latta said.

Last year, police found a DNA match taken from the victim and Andrew Grady Davis, who was convicted of running a police roadblock and drug possession in Oklahoma.

He was extradited to Asheville and placed under a $1 million bond. But because the rape kit is now in the evidence room sealed for the State Bureau of Investigation probe, Moore said he had to agree to a lower bond, which led to Davis' release.

The investigation includes an audit of the evidence room's high-risk items. The contract for that audit has not been signed, but this month the City Council agreed to pay Blueline Systems & Services $175,000 for the full inspection. Hogan said the cost will be covered by drug seizure money.

Key events

Jan. 25: William Lee Smith, the Asheville Police Department's longtime evidence room manager, is placed on paid investigative suspension for unspecified reasons.

Feb. 18: Smith resigns.

Feb. 24: District Attorney Ron Moore sends a letter to police requesting an audit of all weapons, drugs and money in the department's evidence room after being briefed on the circumstances surrounding Smith's departure.

Feb. 26: Ross Robinson, a former major with the department and an instructor with the N.C. Justice Academy, begins a random audit at Chief Bill Hogan's direction.

March 6: Robinson says in a letter to Hogan that so far he had attempted to locate 807 items and couldn't find 161 (20 percent).

April 5: Robinson sends a report to Hogan detailing the findings of his audit. Of 1,097 items he audited, Robinson couldn't find 27 guns, 54 containers of drugs and 34 packets of money and valuables.

April 5: Moore meets with APD officials and a representative of the State Bureau of Investigation and learns for the first time of serious problems uncovered by the partial audit. The district attorney orders the evidence room sealed and an independent audit of its contents.

April 6: Moore relates his concerns and actions in a letter to Buncombe County defense attorneys.

April 8: Hogan sends a letter to Moore updating the status of Robinson's partial audit. With the letter Hogan provides a copy of Robinson's report along with the officer's March 6 letter detailing his earlier findings.

April 11: Moore releases Hogan's letter and the audit report to defense attorneys.

April 18: The city announces Hogan will retire in May.

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