July 23, 2018
An ex-convict raided the Amite Police Department's evidence room this year and carted off a smorgasbord of prescription pills, heroin and other narcotics, internal police records show — a burglary that exposed glaring security lapses at a small-town police department that has drawn mounting attention from federal authorities.
The brazen heist affected nearly three dozen criminal cases, according to records obtained by The Advocate, many involving seizures of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs that had been processed at the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab and returned to the Amite Police Department.
Several other items, including weapons and counterfeit money, were stolen after the burglar broke a window and pried open a dead-bolted door without drawing the attention of police.
The break-in happened in May but was not made public by the Police Department. Several parish officials, including Scott Perrilloux, the Tangipahoa Parish district attorney, were not aware of the burglary until the newspaper asked them for comment.
"We did not know this had happened," Perrilloux said Tuesday.
Asked about the break-in's potential impact on pending cases, Perrilloux said it was too early to tell. "Obviously, there could be problems," he said. "We're trying to figure it out."
The evidence room is in an ancillary facility less than a mile from the Amite Police Department. Police Chief Jerry Trabona said the burglary did not trip the building's alarm because "somebody with the city turned the electricity off, and we didn't know it had been turned off."
He said the stolen drugs had been housed there "awaiting trial," adding he did not know yet know whether the relevant cases could still be prosecuted.
"That's a good question," Trabona said, noting that none of the stolen drugs had been recovered.
The burglary is the latest setback for an elected police chief who increasingly has found himself at the center of controversy, including a federal vote-buying investigation in which Trabona was subpoenaed.
The FBI has questioned a host of politicos and public servants in Tangipahoa Parish, including Allen Ordeneaux, a former police officer who has accused Trabona of a long list of improprieties, including mismanaging the Police Department's evidence storage.
The police chief declined to comment on the federal inquiry, citing advice from his attorney. "I don't want to talk about that," Trabona said.
Tangipahoa Parish also has been a central focus in the federal government's investigation of a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration task force accused of dealing drugs, shaking down suspects and stealing cash during federal drug raids. That investigation has resulted in the indictment of four former members of the task force, all of whom worked in law enforcement in Tangipahoa Parish.
In Amite, security at the evidence room was so lax that police have not even determined exactly when the break-in occurred. The building is not regularly monitored by police and lacks security cameras, said Ordeneaux, the former officer.
Perrilloux, the district attorney, said the police chief "should have brought in an outside agency" to investigate the case.
"I am puzzled by this offsite, unmanned evidence building," he told The Advocate. "Certainly there should have been some security system, some cameras, something."
Trabona said evidence is stored at the otherwise vacant building because the Police Department has no more room for it at its Oak Street office. "We had to put the evidence somewhere," the chief said, "and that was as good of a place as any."
After discovering the burglary, police quickly focused their investigation on Joshua J. Ross, a former inmate who had achieved trusty status before his release from custody earlier this year.
Ross, 34, of Amite, has been booked on 103 counts in connection with the burglary, including drug possession, theft and obstruction of justice. He has served time in state prison for theft and drug possession.
The burglary appears to have been motivated by Ross' drug abuse and not a broader scheme to damage evidence in pending criminal cases.
Court records show Ross was released in early May with the condition that he check into a substance abuse treatment center. But by May 24, a state district judge signed an order for him to be picked up again after he allegedly left the program before completing treatment.
While working as a trusty, Ross had been allowed to help transport drugs to the Police Department's evidence room and therefore knew where they were stored, Ordeneaux said. He also knew the electricity to the building was frequently cut off.
The evidence room was the only part of the facility that was damaged in the burglary. Trabona estimated that it took about an hour and a half to pry open the metal-frame evidence room door.
Police questioned an informant in late May who told them he had seen Ross with a white sack containing "numerous brown envelopes with 'State Police' written on them," according to the police reports.
The informant, Dustin J. Cox, 35, of Hammond, also took investigators to a remote burn site near the Tangipahoa River, where he said Ross torched some of the stolen evidence.
An investigative police report shows the burn pile contained pieces of evidence bags, "burned knives, (a) burned cellphone, evidence bag locks, crack pipes, a Taser prong and several other items."
"Dustin said he witnessed Joshua throw numerous envelopes into the fire," the report says. "Dustin said Joshua didn't throw any of the narcotics away but instead planned on keeping them to use."
Cox was not initially arrested, but Trabona said investigators were looking to take him into custody on Tuesday after Ross pointed the finger back at Cox, alleging he participated in the burglary of the evidence room.