BYLINE: John Lowman, The Facts
West Columbia, TX
ANGLETON — A former West Columbia Police detective accused of stealing cocaine and a gun from a police station evidence locker pleaded guilty Monday to five felony charges in exchange for a one-year state jail term.
Joseph McElroy, 33, of Angleton was taken into custody Monday after the plea and will serve a full year before he starts a 10-year probation term. He could have faced up to 10 years in prison.
The former West Columbia and Clute officer pleaded guilty to one count of theft of a firearm by a public servant, two counts of tampering with physical evidence and two counts of forgery.
McElroy is accused of stealing a gun and cocaine from the police evidence room, forging signatures on two department checks totaling $700 and signing his initials in a collection book and receipt stating he returned money to someone who did not actually receive the money.
McElroy resigned May 20, 2008, when West Columbia Police Chief Michael Palmer asked him to turn over a “small amount” of cocaine listed in the department’s possession. Palmer said he asked McElroy for the cocaine during a routine check for evidence listed in the detective’s possession.
“We’re finally glad it’s come to an end,” West Columbia Police Chief Michael Palmer said of the plea deal.
Aside from the jail term and probation, McElroy must perform 200 hours of community service, and he will be reviewed to determine whether he should join Brazoria County’s STEP program for drug offenders.
Because he pleaded guilty to a felony, McElroy also is barred for life from serving as a police officer, said Tim Braaten, executive director of the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.
“We will proceed with a revocation,” Braaten said.
The revocation likely will be finalized in December, Braaten said.
McElroy worked for the West Columbia Police Department for about a year as a detective and he also has worked with the Clute Police Department. Using mostly confidential informants, McElroy made several drug arrests that since have been dismissed.
“Now he’s a convicted felon on five counts,” Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne said. “Some jail time was important because of how many cases he affected.”
McElroy’s attorney, Barry Goodwin, said his client’s crimes were due solely to a substance abuse problem.
“Part of what you have when you have a substance abuse problem is the wreckage,” Goodwin said. “The wreckage is criminal conduct. My client accepts the fact he’s going to be punished for what he did.”
Goodwin said his client likely will serve his time in protective custody because he’s a former law enforcement officer.
McElroy helped the department make many drug busts in West Columbia in 2008, and when he quit amid the allegations, it damaged the department’s reputation, Palmer said.
“It definitely set us back,” he said. “It violated the trust the public had in us.”
About a dozen cases where McElroy either led the investigation or assisted, ended up being dismissed, Yenne said.
While McElroy was indicted on allegations of misconduct in West Columbia, it was not the first time he was suspected of it.
Clute police discovered in April 2006 that McElroy signed a logbook indicating he removed cocaine and prescription narcotics from an evidence locker and the drugs never showed back up.
McElroy worked for the Clute Police Department for five years before he resigned in late 2005. No charges ever were filed against McElroy on the suspicions, Clute Police Chief Mark Wicker said.
Wicker said the sentence McElroy agreed to was a fair amount of time, considering the charges.
“He knew the circumstances when he did what he did,” Wicker said.
Since McElroy left West Columbia, Palmer said the department has recovered some of the rapport it had with residents.
“We’re back to where the citizens trust us,” Palmer said. “But we’re not back to where we want to be.”
The department also has tightened procedures for its evidence locker, updated its video system and has a new automated computer dispatch system to establish a clear chain of custody for evidence, officials have said.
When an officer violates public trust by stealing from an evidence locker, it doesn’t just hurt the reputation of the officer’s department, Yenne said.
“Police officers do good every day,” she said. “But everyone remembers a negative. We pay a price for that.”
Since McElroy’s indictment in 2008, Goodwin said his client has stopped using drugs. Serving jail time and probation will hopefully lead to his client staying clean, Goodwin said.
“All in all, it was a good disposition,” he said.
John Tompkins covers Brazoria County courts for The Facts. Contact him at (979) 849-8581.
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