Orlando Sentinel, orlandosentinel.com
BYLINE: Henry Pierson Curtis, Orlando Sentinel
Photo of the Windermere evidence room.
Windermere Police Department, Windermere Police Department / March 22, 2011
Evidence lockers, where guns, money and drugs are stored, were in disarray, state finds.
Guns, drugs and money routinely disappeared in recent years from the evidence locker at Windermere Police Department, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement audit has found.
The extensive, systematic loss of evidence is the latest development in a corruption scandal that has soiled Central Florida's wealthiest community since Police Chief Daniel Saylor's arrest in January on charges of blocking a child rape investigation.
"We are doing everything we can to assist the Windermere Police Department in locating the guns that are unaccounted for," FDLE Assistant Special Agent in Charge Danny Banks said Tuesday afternoon. "The extreme number of missing items is almost unheard of – we have frankly never seen anything this flagrant before."
Within hours of the audit's release Tuesday, Saylor was charged with six new felonies unrelated to the missing evidence. The charges — which include bribery of a public servant and solicitation to tamper with evidence — accuse Saylor of taking added measures to cover up the blocked rape investigation. Saylor was not re-arrested; but he must be arraigned on the new charges.
The total number of missing guns remains under investigation. But records show 43 guns were missing along with at least $3,771 in cash, small amounts of cocaine and marijuana and more than 100 pills of oxycodone, a widely abused painkiller.
The audit was done at the request of Windermere Police Chief Mike McCoy, who discovered the mess in the evidence room after he was hired last month to replace Saylor.
McCoy on Tuesday told the Orlando Sentinel that the audit is another step in rebuilding the police department's reputation.
"Some officers have already decided to leave and I am quite pleased with the quality of the applicant pool we're starting to see," he said. "The next step is to rebuild the esprit de corps that gives the town the professional, reliable service they can count on."
In a letter to McCoy dated Monday, FDLE Special Agent in Charge Joyce Dawley said that her agency's audit uncovered major problems with how Windermere police handle evidence, and that FDLE investigators found several items of evidence that "cannot be accounted for" at this time.
"Problems involving basic documentation, storage facilities, and security of sensitive evidence have led to a lack of accountability," Dawley wrote.
All items seized by police agencies are supposed to be bagged, tagged and catalogued in locked storage as evidence until destroyed or returned by court order.
Earlier this month, Windermere officials acknowledged that town records in general were poorly stored and organized. Three personnel files, for instance, disappeared last year from the former police chief's locked office.
Neither Saylor nor his lawyer, Mark NeJame of Orlando, could be reached for comment Tuesday.
Agents conducting the audit concluded Windermere police did not follow basic procedures for storing, documenting and securing evidence. Besides discovering missing items, the agents found more than 150 pieces of evidence including a semi-automatic machine pistol and four more guns in the evidence locker without any paperwork linking them to a crime, record show.
Records were so shoddy that in double-checking their audit, FDLE contacted the Orange County Sheriff's Office and found Windermere turned over about 20 of the 43 missing guns for destruction without any paperwork.
That leaves about 20 missing guns that may be on the street.
"This report shows the complete lack of oversight, accountability and management of our former police chief," Windermere Mayor Gary Bruhn said after reading FDLE's description of the record-keeping nightmare.
The biggest concern is that someone in the police department stole the guns, sold them on the street where they may turn up in robberies or murders.
"That's what scares me," Bruhn said. "We will never know."
FDLE is checking statewide to determine if any of the missing weapons has been recovered at crime scenes. Banks appealed for help, saying, "if anyone in the community has information on recovering some of these guns, please contact FDLE."
Windermere's evidence room is a converted closet measuring 9-feet-long by 4-feet-wide.
Somehow, officers packed it from floor to ceiling with dozens of confiscated firearms, laptops, swords, clubs, beer kegs, bongs and cartons of evidence logged in criminal cases. Unlike proper evidence vaults, Windermere did not have separate safes for storing guns, drugs and cash.
"I ordered the locks changed today," said McCoy, who is issuing just one key and restricting access to one sergeant. "I'm rendering our property and evidence room inactive for the next six months."
Winter Garden police have agreed to store evidence collected by Windermere in the next six months while the agency straightens out its operations.
While the evidence room had three keys in recent years, McCoy pointed out that anyone could climb into the evidence room by removing a hanging ceiling tile from an adjacent hallway.
If the missing items turn out to be stolen, current or former police officers would be the likely suspects as only they and one or two non-sworn employees had access to the police offices. Turnover of disgruntled officers during Saylor's tenure became so common he said he installed an electronic locking system to keep from replacing the department's key locks.
FDLE officer certification records show more than 40 officers joined and left the police department during Saylor's nine years as police chief.
Windermere police first came under scrutiny in November 2009 following Tiger Woods' crash in the nearby gated community of Isleworth. While not within Windermere's jurisdiction, two town police officers arrived first at the crash scene and one was accused later of selling photos of the golfer's damaged SUV to a celebrity website.
In May 2010, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Windermere was known throughout Central Florida law enforcement for hiring "second-chance" officers fired or forced to resign from other police agencies. Nearly half of Windermere's 24 officers, including Saylor, joined the department under those circumstances.
Since Saylor's arrest in January and subsequent firing, three other Windermere officers have resigned or been dismissed. More officers are expected to leave in coming weeks after FDLE completes its investigation of the department, according to current and former officers.
Saylor was charged on Jan. 12 with unlawful compensation for official behavior and official misconduct. He is accused of shutting down rape investigations involving two girls to help Scott Bush, 50, of Windermere, who was charged the same day with capital sexual battery of a person under 12 and sexual touching of a person under 12 years of age.
Windermere's Corruption Scandal
Jan. 12: Windermere Police Chief Daniel Saylor arrested on charges of unlawful compensation for official behavior and official misconduct related to an accused cover-up of a rape investigation of two Windermere girls.
His friend, Scott Bush of Windermere, is charged with capital sexual battery of a person under 12 and sexual touching of a person under 12 years of age.
Jan. 25: Saylor fired after the Orlando Sentinel reports he had tried to cover-up his forced resignation from the Florida Police Chiefs Association a year earlier without telling Windermere officials.
Feb. 7: Former Orlando Police Chief Mike McCoy hired to replace Saylor.
Feb. 11: Lt. Paul Conway, Saylor's top aide, resigns and promises to testify against Saylor.
Feb. 17: McCoy orders all officers to undergo new criminal background checks.
Mar. 9: Saylor accused of accepting $1,000 bribe to hire a police officer facing loss of certification, according to FDLE records.
Mar. 15: McCoy offers to re-investigate any cases residents think were mishandled by Saylor.
March 21: FDLE audit of evidence room at Windermere Police Department finds dozens of guns unaccounted for as well as cash and drugs.
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