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Columbus County: Missing evidence results in 3 dropped cases

The Fayetteville Observer,
BYLINE: Deuce Niven, Correspondent

Tabor City, NC

TABOR CITY - District Attorney Rex Gore said he is dismissing criminal charges in three cases after a review of evidence lockers at the Tabor City Police Department showed cash and drugs were missing.

About $1,300 and a small amount of cocaine were missing from evidence when State Bureau of Investigation agents conducted an inventory Oct. 21 at the Police Department, Gore said.

"They uncovered several areas of concern," Gore said.

Money was missing from three cases, and cocaine was missing in two of the cases, Gore said.

Lawyers for the clients in those cases will be notified this week, and those charges will be dismissed, Gore said.

"Obviously, we have chain of custody broken if the evidence is missing," Gore said.

Chief Donald Dowless said the SBI inquiry uncovered weaknesses in the department's evidence control procedures and facilities that have been corrected.

"While doing these updates, we found out that with the evidence lockers we have, if one of the lockers below is locked, you could gain access to that one from the one above it," he said.

Mechanisms to better secure the lockers have been installed, Dowless said.

New procedures now require two supervising officers to log in all evidence, Dowless said.

Other cases will be scrutinized, although there is no indication other cases will be dismissed, Gore said.

"We will not be able to continue prosecution of those matters where evidence is missing," Gore said. "We will have to evaluate closely all cases where evidence was collected and placed in the evidence room at the Tabor City Police Department."

He said four officers have been identified as either having made the arrests or having access to the evidence.

"Let me emphasize, we do not at this time have evidence against any officer sufficient to bring criminal charges related to this event," Gore said.

Gore said cases against Rodriguez Purcha, 27, of the 500 block of Academy Street in Fair Bluff, and Batton R. Banks, 22, of Pine Circle Drive in Tabor City, are among those that will be dismissed.

Purcha was charged with possession of crack cocaine, simple possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Banks was charged with possession with intent to sell and deliver marijuana.

Gore said he did not have details on the other cases involving the missing money, but he said they involved minor drug possession charges.

Gore would not say if the inquiry that uncovered the missing evidence was still under way.

Dowless said any department employee could have accessed the evidence, without a key, just by having access to the building.

He pointed to easily accessible online videos with instruction on how to pick locks.

"An amateur can do that," Dowless said.

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