Houston Chronicle, www.chron.com
BYLINE: ROMA KHANNA,
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People with criminal history gained property room access, documents show
For months, if not years, before some 30 guns disappeared from the Houston Police Department, people with criminal backgrounds had access to supposedly secure places, including HPD's own property room, according to internal police documents obtained by the Houston Chronicle.
Lax practices allowed temporary employees and people completing court-ordered community service to access sensitive areas. That created an environment ripe for theft, particularly for a contractor already charged with aggravated robbery and for unattended telephone repairmen, who police say swiped some of the guns, according to the documents.
Even before the guns vanished, one repairman had been accused of pilfering from City Hall.
HPD for months has refused to release details on how the guns disappeared. But according to records from HPD's internal investigation, officers concluded more than a year ago who had taken guns and that at least some had ended up back on the streets.
As a result, HPD fired one civilian supervisor May 9, and another retired weeks ago rather than face a continuing investigation. No one has been charged in the gun thefts.
An HPD official told the Chronicle last week that security at the property room has since been heightened.
"We feel all the holes in security have been closed and the property room is safe," said Craig Ferrell, HPD's general counsel. Ferrell declined to elaborate on HPD's investigation because of possible litigation. "Next year our new ($13.8 million) property room will come online with the latest security and property controls."
Over six months starting in October 2006, HPD officials discovered that the firearms had gone missing. Police Chief Harold Hurtt publicly acknowledged the loss in April 2007. Since then, HPD has offered scant details.
But records generated during the investigation and obtained by the Chronicle show that HPD employees suspected the telephone contractors almost immediately. After employees discovered an Uzi was missing in March 2007, Allen Baquet, the manager fired May 9, suggested to Hurtt that they investigate the contractors working for Houston-based DC Services.
"This is the third weapon discovered missing from the property room since late October," Baquet wrote in a letter dated March 27, 2007. "The dates coincide quite closely with dates that telephone personnel were in the property room working on lines."
Rene Gonzalez, owner of DC Services, said he offered to cooperate with HPD but never heard back. He said he does not believe repairmen took the guns.
"Whenever I have worked at the Police Department, I have been escorted," he said. "My own internal investigation confirmed that they (the repairmen) were escorted."
Captured in the act
On May 16, 2007, police set up a sting at another police facility where some of the same contractors worked on more phone lines.
Video cameras captured two suspects in the act. They pinched trivial items: a backpack, a model space shuttle, a bag of peanut M&Ms. When confronted, they confessed and admitted taking items from other work sites, including a camcorder from the Police Academy.
Jose Germeko Stelly pleaded guilty to theft, served four days in jail and paid a $100 fine. Travis Sentel Stelly, his brother, also pleaded guilty to theft and served 30 days in jail. Both had criminal backgrounds.
Jose Germeko Stelly acknowledged to the Chronicle last week his involvement in the May 16 theft. Travis Sentel Stelly did not return calls.
Neither faced charges in the gun thefts. But according to statements they made while in custody more than one year ago, they offered details about their work in the property room. They blamed a co-worker for taking the guns.
He has not been charged. But police found a Houston Fire Department coat and boots in his home, and city workers accused the same man of stealing a "Roto-Rooter" from City Hall.
"On the first day that I worked there," Travis Sentel Stelly told police, "he told me he had just gotten two handguns from inside of the property room. The guns were not in anything other than the tool bag. (He) told me he had left the bags the guns had been in on the shelf."
He said they also talked about selling the guns.
A couple of days after working in the property room, Travis Sentel Stelly told police, he and the co-worker went to someone named "Nacho's" house.
"(He) gave a gun to Nacho," his statement says. "They talked about trading it for drugs."
Too much access
The contractors account for only some of the missing guns, according to the documents. Records also show guns were taken by a temporary employee, Mark Anthony Wright, allowed unfettered access to the property room even as he was awaiting trial on aggravated robbery charges.
"Wright subsequently stole numerous weapons from the property room and sold or otherwise distributed the weapons on the black market," HPD documents say.
Wright got five years of probation in the aggravated robbery but was not charged in the gun theft. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Ultimately, police held responsible two property room supervisors. Ronald Cobb, a retired officer who rejoined HPD as a civilian manager, faced a demotion or other discipline when he opted to retire in March, his attorney, Bob Thomas, said.
Internal investigators accused Baquet, a longtime civilian employee who once worked in the chief's office, of failing to immediately take additional precautions after a first gun was found missing in October 2006.
But lawyers for the men point to systemic shortcomings: the lack of cameras monitoring the gun bins and the access granted people who had not undergone background checks.
"To discipline a manager with an exemplary 36-year record and no culpability in an (internal) investigation is blatantly wrong," Thomas said.
Lloyd Kelley, who represents Baquet, says his client was targeted for termination and made a scapegoat because of conflicts he had with Hurtt. He said he will appeal the termination.
"The property room has always been a problem, and they sent him to a failing division in 2004 to ensure that he would fail," Kelly said. "They were so shorthanded they sent him criminals and people working off court orders."
Police protocols require that visitors in the property room be escorted, but, the lawyers said, exceptions were made.
Among those allowed in were temporary employees making up for persistent manpower shortages and people performing court-ordered community service doing custodial work. Property room supervisors did not control screening or placement, their lawyers said.
In February 2006, according to an e-mail obtained by the Chronicle, HPD terminated two temporary employees who had been working without background checks. One man had an open warrant for his arrest and the other a criminal history that included convictions for theft, assault and unlawfully carrying a weapon. Later, officials discovered that Wright, the temp who police said stole numerous guns, was awaiting trial on charges of aggravated robbery, police documents show.
Cobb and Baquet first learned that the building services division had sent people completing community service to do custodial work in February 2007 after two were spotted roaming through a warehouse. They immediately ordered the practice stopped.
"This is of great concern to us at this facility," Baquet wrote in an e-mail to lower-level supervisors and custodians. "We don't have enough personnel to be following these people around."
Poor storage practices
The gun theft is just one in a series of problems that has plagued the police property division in recent years. In August 2004, Hurtt acknowledged that slipshod storage practices led to evidence from about 8,000 cases to be jumbled together in 280 mislabled boxes. Independent investigator Michael Bromwich reported in 2005 that evidence-storage problems stretched back nearly 25 years and resulted in the destruction of evidence by rainwater, rats and poor recordkeeping.
In Cobb's statements to investigators he details failed efforts to secure a camera system for the weapons storage area.
Although money had been set aside in the 1998 HPD budget to buy the cameras, Cobb told investigators, an assistant chief believed the cost of less than $30,000 was too high. Eventually, the funding expired.
Cameras still had not been installed when the guns disappeared, though they are now.
Even one of the contractors said the property room was an easy target.
"Security was terrible," Jose Germeko Stelly said. "The whole city of Houston is kind of behind I guess. They are just now putting in cameras and things."
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