Mountain Xpress, mountainx.com
BYLINE: David Forbes
William Lee Smith, the former evidence room manager, showing citizens around the room in 2009.
Former Asheville Police Department evidence room manager William Lee Smith has pleaded guilty to a federal charge for embezzling $10-30,000 in drugs from the evidence room, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
According to the indictment, Smith "surreptitiously opened envelopes containing controlled substances after their return from the SBI lab, where they had been analyzed. Smith then removed some or all of the controlled substances, then resealed the envelopes with a new layer of tape, carefully re-applied directly over the layer of tape that the SBI chemist had used to seal the envelope, with the chemist’s signature or initials."
Smith, who oversaw the evidence room for 20 years, faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines for the one charge of federal program fraud he pleaded guilty to. The charges are federal because the APD received over $10,000 in federal funding during the year before he left the APD in 2011. Smith is currently out on bond.
The announcement does not mention the fate of the firearms and money also found missing from the evidence room in early 2011. In the wake of the news, then-APD Chief Bill Hogan resigned and a major controversy erupted. District Attorney Ron Moore refused to release an audit of the evidence room and, along with the city of Asheville, faced a lawsuit from a coalition of local media, including Xpress.
In the announcement, Moore praised the work of the FBI and the State Bureau of Investigation, as well as Mike Wright, who conducted the audit. Since that time, the APD has hired a new manager, and claims it has overhauled its evidence room practices.
The full announcement is below:
ASHEVILLE, N.C. – A criminal bill of information was filed on Tuesday, March 26, 2013, in U.S. District Court charging the former Property Evidence Technician with the Asheville Police Department (“APD”) with embezzling between $10,000 and $30,000 of controlled substances from the police department’s evidence room, announced Anne M. Tompkins, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina.
William Ledessie Smith, III, 49, of Spartanburg, S.C., pleaded guilty today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dennis Howell to a federal charge stemming from a joint federal and state investigation into the misappropriation of property from APD’s evidence room.
Roger A. Coe, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Charlotte Division and Greg McLeod, Director of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (NC SBI), join U.S. Attorney Tompkins in making today’s announcement.
According to the criminal bill of information, the filed plea agreement, and statements made at today’s plea hearing, up until April 2011 Smith was a civilian employed for over twenty years by APD as the police department’s Property Evidence Technician. In that capacity, Smith oversaw APD’s evidence room and had access to items including cash, firearms and controlled substances, which were stored in the room as evidence. According to the charging document and today’s plea hearing, Smith surreptitiously opened envelopes containing controlled substances after their return from the SBI lab, where they had been analyzed. Smith then removed some or all of the controlled substances, then resealed the envelopes with a new layer of tape, carefully re-applied directly over the layer of tape that the SBI chemist had used to seal the envelope, with the chemist’s signature or initials.
An analysis by the FBI lab revealed that in many instances, Smith’s fingerprints were found on the underside, or sticky side, of the new tape layer. Filed documents indicate that Smith embezzled between $10,000 and $30,000 of controlled substances from the police department’s evidence room.
“Mr. Smith betrayed the trust placed in him by the Asheville Police Department and the citizens of Buncombe County,” said U.S. Attorney Tompkins. “Instead of fulfilling his duties and safeguarding the evidence room, Mr. Smith pilfered controlled substances and, in the process, compromised the integrity and good name of the Asheville Police Department. My office will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to root out public corruption and prosecute those who abuse their positions of trust for their own benefit.”
“Not only did Mr. Smith treat items inside the Asheville Police Department’s evidence room as his own property, he put countless criminal cases in jeopardy. The success of this case was due in great part to our strong relationship with the SBI. We look forward to continuing our partnership with the SBI to see that corrupt public officials are brought to justice,” said Roger Coe, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Charlotte Division of the FBI.
“I’m proud of our SBI agents’ excellent work in this case, which once again demonstrates our strong partnership with federal prosecutors in rooting out public corruption,” said SBI Director Greg McLeod.
Smith pleaded guilty to one count of federal program fraud. As the criminal information alleges, federal jurisdiction is based on the fact that the Asheville Police Department received over $10,000 in federal funds in the one year period that includes April 1, 2011. At sentencing, Smith faces a maximum term of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. He has also agreed to pay restitution, the amount of which will be determined by the Court at sentencing. The defendant has been released on bond and a sentencing hearing has not been set yet.
The investigation into Smith was handled by the SBI and FBI. U.S. Attorney Tompkins also thanked the Asheville Police Department and the Buncombe County District Attorney’s Office for their invaluable assistance with the investigation.
Buncombe County District Attorney Ronald L. Moore stated, “I appreciate the hard work and diligence of the SBI, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. I also want to thank Mike Wright, the owner of Blueline Systems and Services, who conducted a meticulous audit of APD’s evidence room.”
The prosecution is handled by Richard Edwards, of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Asheville.
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