Herald News (Passaic County, NJ)
Passaic County, NJ
Sheriff's veteran admits narcotics theft, possession
A 20-year veteran of the Passaic County Sheriff's Department who resigned his seat on the Haledon Borough Council earlier this year pleaded guilty Thursday to stealing large amounts of cocaine from the evidence vault he oversaw. DL , 40, pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Jose Linares to taking and selling 5 kilograms or more of narcotics mostly cocaine, as part of a conspiracy. AS said he received at least $250,000 from the sales, which the court is requiring him to forfeit.
The plea agreement he signed with federal prosecutors said more than 90 pounds of the drug are missing and discusses his role in a conspiracy that resulted in these drugs ending up back on the street. The crime also, federal officials said, compromised a federal prosecution in another drug-related case.
"This is a disturbing crime on several levels, not the least of which is the fact that AS was a ranking law enforcement officer and elected local official while he was doing this," said acting U.S. Attorney Ralph J. Marra Jr. "He was also conspiring with numerous other individuals. We will continue an aggressive investigation and prosecution of the matter," he said.
In the plea agreement, AS stipulated that he conspired to distribute 43 kilograms of a substance containing cocaine and more than 700 grams of heroin. Authorities did not assign a street value to the narcotics. Prosecutors would not name AS's co-conspirators, or whether they also work in law enforcement.
Passaic County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Jay W. McCann said the investigation is continuing, and that he expected more people to be charged.
Michael Drewniak, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said that the stolen narcotics included 8.4 kilograms of cocaine related to another federal case. Because AS stole the evidence, Drewniak said, prosecutors in that case are pursuing a lesser charge. "It's safe to say this case was seriously compromised by Mr. AS's criminal actions," Drewniak said.
AS, who had been suspended without pay from his $111,618 job before his arrest in March, was terminated within hours of his conviction, a spokesman for the Sheriff's Department said.
As commanding officer of the department's evidence bureau, AS had 24-hour access to the vault in Wayne where drugs seized during federal, state and local investigations are stored.
The tall and stocky AS answered yes to a series of questions in court, admitting that he conspired to steal large quantities of cocaine and arranged for its delivery to co-conspirators for distribution in Passaic County and elsewhere, beginning in August 2007. Before stealing the drugs, he admitted falsely listing the evidence as ready for destruction at the next available drug burn.
AS's duties included periodically scheduling drug burns after appeals of criminal cases had been exhausted, authorities said. AS admitted he carried out the thefts after normal operating hours, replacing the cocaine with sugar and resealing the evidence bags with a heat sealer to cover up the crime. The stolen drugs were then stashed at a prearranged location in Haledon for his cohorts to pick up, he said.
After the hearing, Miles Feinstein, AS's attorney, called his client an excellent law enforcement officer, council-man, son and father. "He was living the American dream and all of a sudden there were some personal things, which will come out at sentencing, and he became a different individual," Feinstein said.
Feinstein declined to detail the personal factors that drove AS to his crime, saying they would be presented at the sentencing on March 10. Reached by phone later Thursday, Sheriff Jerry Speziale said AS's plea marked a sad day for law enforcement. "There is no excuse for violating the public trust," Speziale said. "I applaud the Internal Affairs Division of the Passaic County Sheriff's Department for routing out one of our corrupt members."
The case against AS became public in February, the day after he resigned his council seat, citing personal reasons. The next day, a Sheriff's Department spokesman confirmed AS was the subject of an internal affairs investigation that involved missing evidence.
Passaic County authorities arrested him in March on charges of official misconduct, theft, tampering with evidence and possession of a controlled dangerous substance with intent to distribute. They later referred the case to federal authorities for prosecution and have continued to assist in the ongoing investigation.
In March, the Sheriff's Department reported that a GPS unit, power tools and hardware items missing from the evidence vault prompted an audit of the vault's inventory. The audit led to the discovery that narcotics had been replaced with sugar.
Since then, the evidence room has been equipped with additional cameras and surveillance technology. Better ac-counting protocols and spot-checking personnel with random "integrity tests" through Internal Affairs have also been enacted, Speziale said. "The combination of it all is what helps cut those incidents down," Speziale said. The sheriff added that no other department members are suspected of being involved in the drug conspiracy.
Soon after his arrest in March, Passaic County Prosecutors expected AS to appear before a grand jury.
In September, however, Passaic County Prosecutor James Avigliano confirmed that the FBI had joined the investigation.
AS joined the Sheriff's Department in July 1988, according to Passaic County payroll records, and had 19 years and eight months vested in the state pension system, according to state Division of Pensions and Benefits Tom Bell. Had he not been suspended, AS would have been eligible for retirement in July, according to the division's Web site. The state Board of Pensions and Benefits will review the nature of AS's conviction after he is sentenced, said spokesman Tom Bell. AS could lose some or all of his benefits as a result of that review, Bell said.
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