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Ex-Bentonville evidence officer decertified

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock)

Bentonville, AR

EAST CAMDEN - A fired Bentonville Police Department evidence officer and crime scene investigator lost her state-issued certification Thursday.

At a meeting here, the Arkansas Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training determined that Michelle Margaret Smith should be barred from working as a police officer in the state because of poorly organized evidence belonging to 330 separate cases in Bentonville and what her former chief, James Allen, called "bizarre" behavior.

After the commission handed down its decision, Smith sat quietly and shook her head, looking stunned.

Smith's attorney, William Putman of Fayetteville, argued that a malfunctioning computer system and a reaction to the combination of a certain antibiotic medication combined with doctor-prescribed steroid injections caused both her diminished job performance and what he called her "manic" emotional state.

When it came time for Smith to testify, she described her love of crime scene work and said her problems were behind her.

"I'm great," she told the commission. "I'm mentally and physically better." Smith said the days when she would sweat through her clothes and the nights she would sweat through her sheets - all for no clear reason - were behind her.

Also gone were her violent dreams.

Allen said of that time in Smith's life: "It was just baffling to us what was occurring. It was not the same Michelle Smith we had known for years." Allen hired Smith from the Jonesboro Police Department in 2005. She had worked there nearly seven years with no issues.

But in late 2008, after repeated exposure to methamphetamine-making chemicals that required she get medical treatment, something changed.

The evidence room began to fall into disarray. After Smith's personal problems worsened - her parents moved in with her for a time to help, she said - her supervisors learned that she had stopped taking evidence to the Arkansas Crime Laboratory in Little Rock. They found other evidence - 18 cases' worth - in a taped-shut dehumidifier box in the main property room. Smith also failed to separate out drugs, guns and cash for storage in a more-secure room outside the main police headquarters.

Allen said the chain of custody was not compromised, so the mishandled evidence ultimately did not jeopardize any criminal cases. But it took "hundreds of hours" to find that out, he said.

Bentonville police Lt. Jon Simpson said Smith also failed to properly store evidence she collected at crime scenes, including bullet fragments from an officer-involved shooting.

Allen fired Smith on April 13.

At the hearing Thursday, Smith and her doctor, William McCollum, said they felt sure that the combination of the antibiotic Levaquin and steroid injections to help her recover from methamphetamine-related chemical exposures were at the core of her problems and would not be repeated.

McCollum said he saw no issues with Smith performing the duties necessary to be a police officer.

Smith said she would not seek a job in another property room if allowed to keep her certification, but she would like to work as a crime scene investigator again.

"I love crime scene [investigation]," she said.

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