Coins, porn seized in probe

The Register-Guard, registerguard.com
BYLINE: Jack Moran, The Register-Guard

Eugene, OR

The criminal investigation into three Eugene Police Department property control employees continues

A criminal investigation of three Eugene Police Department employees appears to be deepening after detectives seized potentially incriminating items that two of the workers allegedly had kept in their desks and lockers at the department’s property control warehouse, where officials earlier this year acknowledged major oversight problems existed.

Newly filed court documents state that detectives found bags containing various coins and jewelry while searching the contents of property control specialist Melody Runey’s cubicle and locker. The coins and jewelry initially had been seized by Eugene police and taken to the warehouse — where evidence and property obtained by investigators is stored — in connection with several unrelated cases.

Fellow property control specialist Melvin Blank, meanwhile, allegedly kept several dozen DVDs containing pornography in his work space. Investigators are looking into the possibility that Blank used a police-owned computer to copy porn onto blank discs while at work, and are trying to determine whether he improperly removed any commercially produced pornographic DVDs from the evidence vault, according to an affidavit filed in Lane County Circuit Court by Oregon State Police Detective Elijah Chambers.

Runey and a third property control worker, administrative specialist Christine Chudzik, are being investigated for evidence tampering in a 2011 incident in which they allegedly could not locate a phone in the warehouse that a detective had sought while investigating a property crime case.

Runey, Blank and Chudzik have not been charged with any crimes, but were placed on paid administrative leave in March at the criminal investigation’s outset. All three are civilian employees of the police department.

They could not be reached Monday for comment on the allegations, which Chambers detailed in the sworn statement that he wrote in support of a search warrant.

Chambers wrote that he believed evidence of official misconduct, theft and evidence tampering would be found in the contents of the employees’ work areas. Lane County Circuit Judge Jodie Mooney authorized a search on June 28.

Eugene police announced in March that they had asked state police to handle the criminal investigation. Seven months earlier, an auditor hired by the city had reported a laundry list of problems at the property control unit.

The question of potential criminal conduct involving Runey, Blank and Chudzik arose after Eugene police began work to upgrade their property control systems in light of the audit’s findings. The auditor noted in a report that police could not locate 1,116 items that had been taken to the warehouse. The list included guns, drugs, money and jewelry.

It was not clear Monday if any of the items seized during the search of items from the employees’ cubicles and lockers had been previously listed as missing.

Chambers wrote that Eugene police Sgt. Lisa Barrong had bagged and boxed up the contents of Blank, Runey and Chudzik’s cubicles in March. State police detectives subsequently inventoried the boxes and bags, along with office lockers used by the three employees, according to the affidavit.

From Runey’s locker and work space, detectives seized five bags containing an unspecified number of coins and jewelry that appear to be tied to investigations handled by Eugene police between 2004 and 2010, and another bag that contained miscellaneous jewelry, a necklace with a gold chain, two rings, four compact discs and two camera memory cards, according to a list attached to Chambers’ affidavit and filed in court.

State police detectives seized 42 “commercial pornography” DVDs as well as additional videotapes and recordable DVDs from Blank’s locker and work space, according to the list.

Chambers wrote that detectives have not determined if any of the commercial DVDs found in Blank’s work space had been taken from the evidence vault, but said that three DVDs that contained recopied pornography were the same type that Eugene police use to store digital evidence. Blank had access to an office computer that is used to copy contents of one DVD onto another disk, the affidavit states.

There is no documentation included with the affidavit to suggest detectives seized anything from Chudzik’s cubicle or locker.

As property control specialists, Blank and Runey were responsible for purging items in the warehouse that no longer held value as evidence. Blank dealt with firearms, while Runey handled coins, jewelry and items that could be sold at auctions, Chambers wrote in the affidavit.

Chudzik’s job involved front-desk contacts with the public and coordinating the release of purged items back to known property owners, the affidavit states.

Chambers wrote that Barrong told him she had seen “several items within Blank, Runey and Chudzik’s cubicle work areas which she knew came from the secured evidence vault and were being used for personal gain,” including bottles of plant fertilizer that Runey had used to help grow various plants around the office. Runey had also decorated her cubicle with antique coins and toys from the evidence vault, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit also details an August 2011 incident in which Eugene police Detective Julie Smith had tried to serve a search warrant at the warehouse in order to obtain a cell phone that she needed for a property crime investigation. Chudzik initially directed Smith to a cart that contained a phone that matched the make and model being sought by Smith, who later learned it wasn’t the item she was seeking, Chambers wrote.

Smith then confronted Runey, Chudzik and former warehouse employee Randi Zimmer, and was told that “they had accidentally destroyed the phone listed in the warrant. She was further told they were not sure the phone was destroyed and after receiving the request found a phone they thought was the right one and attempted to pass it off as” the phone Smith had needed, the affidavit states.

Smith later found the correct phone while going through “a box of old cell phones” at the warehouse, according to the affidavit.

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