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Evidence room containing guns, drugs, fetuses, was mismanaged

Asbury Park Press (New Jersey)
BYLINE: Sheila McLaughlin

Middletown, NJ

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash was lying around. Crack cocaine, marijuana and other drugs from criminal cases were tossed haphazardly in a metal bin.

Then, there were the two fetuses in the freezer from two sexual assault cases dating years back.

That was the chaos in the Police Department's property room last year, according to hundreds of documents filed in a civil case in Butler County Common Pleas Court.

The police property room is the epicenter for evidence in criminal cases. Items are supposed to be properly tagged and stored to protect their integrity as evidence and avoid tampering allegations. Now, the incredible mess is at the heart of a fight between the city and the officer who was docked a day's pay - about $218 - because of it. Officer Kim Robinson fought the punishment, and an independent arbitrator told the city to pay her back.

Last month, the city filed suit to overturn that decision, and in doing so exposed a secret that nearly cost the police agency its coveted national accreditation.

Robinson had run the property room for almost eight years. Yet city officials admit she was not the only one to blame for the mess.

That's why she was suspended for only one day. The union contract allowed up to a three-day suspension. "The issues with the property room go beyond the actions or inactions of Officer Robinson," City Manager Judith A. Gilleland wrote in a memo last July. "There are limitations with the facility and with the levels of staffing."

Police Chief Greg Schwarber refused to talk to the Enquirer about the property room, saying the issues are related to pending litigation.

Robinson, 45, has been an officer in Middletown for 20 years. In addition to the arbitration dispute, Robinson has filed an age and sex discrimination lawsuit. That federal suit against the city, the police department and Schwarber alleges she was improperly passed over for a promotion to sergeant.

In the suit, Robinson claims the city suspended her over problems in the property room six months after she transferred to road patrol and only after she complained about being passed over.

Robinson, who worked mostly unsupervised, had run the property room since 1999. But the problems there developed over 17 years, one police memo says. Despite the mess, documents do not indicate that any criminals went free because of lost or improperly tagged evidence. City documents also show that a $20,000 shelving system was installed last year to help fix the mess.

The problems began to surface in October 2007 after Robinson requested the transfer to patrol and a new property room officer was assigned. The mess was further detailed that December by inspectors for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. Among the problems inspectors found:

  • Guns, drugs and jewelry were sitting around in open parts of the property room when they should have been locked in more secure areas.

  • $100,000 was in a safe but should have been turned over to the city finance department.

  • $50,000 was stored randomly throughout the property room when it should have been secured.

  • Another $9,000 was found in the property room officer's desk drawer.

Based largely on these findings, the commission recommended suspending the police department's accreditation. The honor recognizes that the department meets high professional standards for policies and procedures. To some degree, it can help protect the agency against lawsuits.

In response, three Middletown officers spent the next four months sorting through more than 10,000 items in the overloaded property room. On May 8, 2008, the chief recommended disciplinary action for Robinson.

In his memo to the city manager, Schwarber cited a laundry list of serious problems:

  • Information logged into the computer on 455 items had errors. He didn't blame all those errors on Robinson, citing glitches in the computer program.

  • Missing property - "most notably a firearm which has not been located and over $7,000 in cash which was later found to have been returned to the owner but not documented."

  • A bag of cash totaling $1,224 in the safe marked "excess jail money" that wasn't properly tagged.

  • Forty-nine samples of blood and urine from criminal cases had not been disposed.

  • Two human fetuses also had not been disposed - one of which also was not even logged into the property tracking system.

  • The fetuses, from sexual assaults of girls age 12 and 14 in 2005 and 2006, provided DNA samples to link the attacks to the suspects, said Butler County Assistant Prosecutor Jennifer Muench-McElfresh. Both men pleaded guilty before their cases went to trial.

Police later delivered the remains - in two small Styrofoam containers - to the Breitenbach-McCoy-Leffler Funeral Home in Middletown."They said they had been laying around in a freezer on a shelf," funeral director John Webster said. "I gave them a proper Christian burial." Robinson did not respond to requests for comment. She's still working road patrol and making about $56,600 a year while she sues the city. The city has not calculated how much it has spent defending against the discrimination allegations and trying to overturn the arbitrator's decision.

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