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Billings Police employee charged with stealing drugs from evidence locker

Billings Gazette,

Billings, MT

2016-04-15_charged with stealing drugs from evidence locker_01
Coby James Lewis, 25, pleaded not guilty Friday to felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs and misdemeanor theft. Gazette Staff

A former Billings Police Department employee with access to police evidence was charged Friday after allegedly stealing drugs from a police evidence locker.

Coby James Lewis, 25, pleaded not guilty Friday to one felony count of criminal possession of dangerous drugs and a misdemeanor charge of theft. He appeared before Yellowstone County District Court Judge Mary Jane Knisely, who continued Lewis' bond at $5,000. Knisely also ordered Lewis to use a drug patch.

When Lewis was employed with Billings Police in November 2014, a syringe with suspected liquid methamphetamine and two other evidence items were logged as destroyed on Nov. 18, 2014, according to court documents.

A supervisor at the police evidence building became suspicious because the items were not recorded as being transferred to be destroyed.

The supervisor contacted both Lewis and a second technician who purportedly logged the destroyed evidence. That technician said he was not at the evidence facility on the day the items were logged.

The supervisor informed both Lewis and a second technician that they should try to locate the missing evidence.

The second technician said he could not find oxycodone pills from the case. The supervisor was confused, because the destroyed items did not list any pills. She checked the evidence log and it showed the label on the pill container was switched the day before from "drugs" to "DVD."

The supervisor found that of the original 29 oxycodone pills turned into evidence, 26 were missing. She then contacted senior Billings Police management.

Further investigation revealed that Lewis was in the evidence locker while the power strip for the evidence locker surveillance system was turned off.

Police officials reviewed the surveillance footage. First, Lewis entered with an envelope, which he filed and then left. The surveillance then went black for five minutes. Later again on surveillance, he entered a second time, again with an envelope and allegedly took the missing items. He allegedly returned a third time to the evidence cage, empty-handed and left with something in his mouth.

Management then reviewed the afternoon after the evidence was discovered missing. Surveillance was powered off for about 50 minutes that afternoon.

Beyond these two blackout periods, there is no missing footage from the evidence locker, court documents state.

When interviewed by Billing Police senior management, Lewis denied making changes to the computer log and denied signing into his computer as a different technician. During the investigation, it was discovered the other technician's password was written on a tablet on his desk. Lewis denied stealing the pills.

Senior Deputy County Attorney Brett Linneweber said the missing drugs were from an 2012 accidental overdose case and did not affect any ongoing criminal investigations.

Linneweber said Billings Police did a thorough internal investigation before criminal charges were filed and delayed Lewis being charged. Linneweber said it took time to make sure there were no other instances of theft.

"They caught it the day after it happened," Linneweber said. "It shows the auditing procedures for the police department are very thorough."

This was the second occurrence of drug evidence theft to affect law enforcement agencies in Yellowstone County, the first coming out of the Montana State Crime Lab.

Steve Brester is suspected of stealing prescription medications from lab evidence between September 2014 to June 2015. He was fired in June 2015. Brester spent about nine months working for the lab before an internal audit discovered evidence had gone missing. Charges are still pending in that case.

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