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Missing evidence prompted review of county Forensics, Crime labs

Lorain County Printing and Publishing Co., The Chronicle-Telegram,
BYLINE: Brad Dicken,
Lorain County, OH

Emmanuel G. de Leon shows the secure storage facility where drugs, guns, various weapons and seized drugs could cause problems with cases. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

ELYRIA — The review that led to the impending closure of the Lorain County Forensics Laboratory was prompted when a bag of prescription drugs a county judge had ordered destroyed went missing.

General Division Court Administrator Tim Lubbe said the final decision to shutter the Forensics Lab, where probationers are drug tested, was ultimately a financial one and not connected to the missing pills, which were later recovered and destroyed.

Lubbe said an internal probe traced the disappearance of the pills to Emmanuel de Leon, who oversaw the Forensics Lab as well as the county’s Crime Lab, which is operated by the county commissioners to test evidence, including drug,s seized during criminal investigations.

De Leon also served as the chief deputy in the county’s Adult Probation Department, a position he resigned from in a letter dated Thursday that cited the closure of the Forensics Lab as the reason for his departure. De Leon will be laid off from his job as director of the Forensics Lab on Jan. 31, the same day two other workers in the lab also will lose their jobs, Lubbe said.

According to a letter scheduling a disciplinary hearing that was sent to de Leon on Jan. 15, he was accused of misconduct not only in connection with the pills, but also for two guns and a police scanner that disappeared from the Probation Department’s evidence room in the old Lorain County Courthouse.

That hearing, which had been scheduled for Tuesday, never took place because de Leon resigned, Lubbe said. De Leon and his attorney did not return messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Destruction orders

The decision to destroy the pills came last fall after Chief Probation Officer Beth Cwalina inquired about a large amount of evidence that had been seized by the county’s probation officers over the years, Lubbe said.

Administrative Judge James Burge said that it became apparent to the General Division judges, who oversee the Probation Department, that probation officers had been seizing items that they probably shouldn’t have been taking. If there was evidence of a crime, such as drug or weapons possession, Burge said, probation officers should have been turning that evidence over to a police officer.

That policy was changed roughly six months ago, according to Burge and Lubbe. And although a new policy hasn’t been put into writing, the probation officers have been told not to seize anything.

“We collect nothing, and if we do it’s going to go to a cop,” Burge said.

The policy change left open the question of what to do with years of accumulated seized items and Burge ordered the evidence destroyed.

In an Oct. 28 court order, Burge ordered the destruction of 169 pieces of evidence ranging from weaponry such as guns, swords, crossbows and daggers to drugs and drug paraphernalia. Also ordered destroyed were more unusual items such as a vibrator, fingernail clippers and a lanyard with two keys.

Missing evidence

Also slated for destruction was a “misc. ziplock (sic) bag of random prescription medication.”

Lubbe said that as the items were being inventoried for destruction in the days that followed Burge’s order, Cwalina noticed that the bag of prescription drugs was missing.

He said de Leon was on vacation at the time and so Cwalina talked to other probation officers who had been involved in rounding up the old evidence for destruction. Those officers told her to talk to de Leon, Lubbe said.

When de Leon was contacted, he twice denied knowing where the drugs were, Lubbe said.

But days later, he said, de Leon came in while still on vacation and produced the medication and offered up an explanation.

“His decision to take the drugs was so that he could use them as a baseline (in drug tests), or as a standard, as he called it,” Lubbe said.

Lubbe said de Leon told him he was trying to save the county money it would have spent buying drugs from a pharmacy to use as standards in lab work.

“I don’t have any evidence that he committed a crime,” Lubbe said.

Still, the issue prompted Lubbe to place de Leon on paid administrative leave Nov. 21.

But Lorain County Administrator Jim Cordes said that created a problem for both the Forensics Lab and the Crime Lab. He said de Leon is the only person working for the county who could certify the results of the lab work.

So the county set de Leon up in an office in the Lorain County Administration Building where he has spent the past two months reviewing the results of the tests and certifying them.

Meanwhile, the destruction of old evidence continued, with Burge issuing two more orders to that effect in November.

Lubbe said that in December the internal reviews determined that two guns, a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol and a .22-caliber gun of undetermined make, were missing, as was a police scanner.

“The foregoing items were logged into your custody and there is no evidence of their destruction,” Lubbe wrote in the Jan. 15 letter to de Leon.

Although not mentioned in the letter, Lubbe said a few other items, including at least one BB gun, also can’t be located.

Exactly what happened to the guns, scanner and other items is unclear, Lubbe said. He said it’s possible the weapons were destroyed under separate court orders in individual cases.

Lubbe also noted that the old courthouse has been burglarized several times in recent months, although there’s nothing to suggest that the evidence room was entered. He said during the most recent break-in, which took place over the holidays, two computers were stolen.

The review

The alleged mishandling of the pills convinced the county’s judges that they needed to review their policies and procedures to better determine how the Forensics Lab — and by extension, the Crime Lab — was being operated, Lubbe said.

“There was a concern that we were not fully apprised of processes and we wanted to make sure at the end of the day that we were doing our best to maintain the public trust,” he said.

Both the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which operates the state’s crime lab, and the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy were brought in to evaluate the two county labs, which share staff and space in the basement of the old county courthouse.

Lubbe said he’s not aware of any written BCI recommendations, but the Pharmacy Board completed a four-page report that concluded “there is a lack of security and accountability of dangerous drugs used in this lab.”

The report suggested that the labs update their comprehensive evidence logs, as well as completing drug purchase and chain of custody records. It also made reference to the missing pills.

“Due to the incident with Group 7 Item #9 on journal entry, baggie of pills for destruction, this facility must have better security of keys,” the report said.

Despite the problems, Lubbe and Burge both said it was the cost of administering the drug tests that led the judges to close down the Forensics Lab, which conducted 48,760 tests in 2013.

In a Jan. 8 letter to Lubbe, Cwalina wrote that the Forensics Lab was charging $10 to administer the tests, which provide extensive analysis of urine specimens, including the level of illegal drugs in a probationer’s system.

Burge said that level of detail is unnecessary for judges when determining whether someone has violated the terms of his probation by using drugs illegally.

“To me, it’s drunk, drunker or drunkest,” Burge said. “To me, if I’ve told you not to drink, I don’t care what your alcohol level was and the same with drugs.”

The lab analysis also took days to produce results, Cwalina wrote, something that put Lorain County out of step with other probation departments, where the standard practice is to use instant tests. She wrote the cost for the instant urine tests will be $2.46 each.

Cwalina also wrote that while probationers are supposed to pay for their tests, many of them cannot afford it and the Probation Department ends up picking up the tab.

The shift to instant tests is expected to save the courts roughly $200,000 per year, Lubbe said.

He said the changes mean that the Probation Department will only need two people, rather than the current five at the Forensics Lab, to handle drug testing. The two employees who will remain will be responsible for monitoring probationers as they take the tests.

The decision has set off a scramble among other probation departments and agencies in the county who paid the Forensics Lab to conduct drug testing for them. Cwalina noted in her letter that the requests for those tests dropped off last year.

County Juvenile Court Administrator Jody Barilla said juvenile probation officers and judges like the more detailed testing because it gives them a better understanding of what a juvenile probationer is doing.

She said the Juvenile Court didn’t learn the Forensics Lab was closing until last week.

“Obviously, it was very short notice that we were given about the closing,” Barilla said. “We are trying to figure out what we’re going to do as an alternative.”

Crime Lab’s future

The closure of the Forensics Lab has also left the future of the Crime Lab in doubt.

Cordes said he and the commissioners have largely taken a hands-off approach to the lab over the years, leaving the day-to-day operation in de Leon’s hands. He said de Leon, who county records showed earned $63,498.72 in 2013, was a court employee and only received a portion of his salary from the commissioners.

Cordes said he will ask the commissioners to approve a measure today that would see them hire de Leon at a reduced salary to continue to run the Crime Lab for at least another month while the lab is restructured.

“I’ve got to keep the lab open, and I can’t keep the lab open without (de Leon),” he said.

Cordes said he didn’t know the full details of the allegations against de Leon and couldn’t see taking any disciplinary action against de Leon for something he may have done while he was working for the courts.

“As of right now these are unfounded allegations because they haven’t been vetted through any disciplinary process that I’m aware of,” he said.

The bigger issue, Cordes said, is how to fund the Crime Lab without the Probation Department sharing the cost of lab employees.

County Budget Director Lisa Hobart said it cost $249,340 to run the Crime Lab in 2013, but a joint levy that funds both the Crime Lab and the Lorain County Drug Task Force brought in only $153,701 for the lab last year. Combined with another $18,240 in miscellaneous revenue, the Crime Lab brought in a total of $171,944, she said.

Hobart said the commissioners have been supplementing the cost of operating the Crime Lab with carryover money. The lab had a carryover of $429,283 from 2013 into 2014.

But Cordes said that money will only last for so long now that the commissioners will be responsible for paying the full cost of the lab and its workers.

The commissioners will consider whether to approve putting an additional levy to fund the Crime Lab on the May ballot during their meeting today.

County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he’s received several concerned calls from local law enforcement agencies worried that the Crime Lab would close along with the Forensics Lab. The Crime Lab is widely credited with avoiding delays in cases that would come from sending drug evidence to BCI’s Reynoldsburg lab for testing.

Will said he while he was aware of some inconsistencies at the Forensics Lab, he hadn’t heard the allegations of missing drugs and guns.

“I will be making inquiries,” he said.

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