The Reedley Exponent, reedleyexponent.com
BYLINE: Brianna Vaccari
Orange Cove, CA
An Orange Cove Police Department employee was arrested and admitted stealing $2,940 in drug money kept as evidence, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office reported Friday.
Marcos Puga, an evidence technician, admitted spending about $1,700 of the stolen money and could not account for $1,200 that is still missing from an evidence locker at the Orange Cove Police Department, Fresno Sheriff’s Lt. Jose Salinas said.
The missing money was part of about $10,000 seized by Orange Cove police in July. Nearly $8,000 of the seized money was not taken from the evidence locker, said Orange Cove Police Chief Marty Rivera.
Rivera said he discovered the money was missing in late August when he checked the evidence inventory for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Rivera immediately called the sheriff’s office to request a criminal investigation, he said.
Puga, 41, was arrested on suspicion of grand theft on Aug. 29 and booked into the Fresno County Jail. He was held on $10,000 bail and was released on Aug. 30 after posting a bond, according to a jail log.
Marcos Puga's brother, Jose Puga, is a police officer for Orange Cove Police Department. The brothers are not from Orange Cove, and Rivera would not say where they live.
Jose Puga was present when the drug money was seized, and he booked the cash into the evidence locker, Rivera said. Jose Puga properly booked the money as evidence and there was no wrongdoing on his part, Rivera said.
Jose Puga’s cellphone was confiscated as part of the investigation, but, Rivera said, it was a precautionary measure so the sheriff’s office could clear him. Rivera said one other cellphone was confiscated during the investigation but would not say whose it was.
“Marcos’ brother is completely innocent,” Rivera said. “I feel bad for Marcos and his family. This is the sort of thing that tears families apart.”
Marcos Puga was hired by the former police chief, Frank Steenport, and initially began working in Orange Cove as a dispatcher, Rivera said. When the police department began contracting with the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office last year for dispatch services, Marcos Puga stayed at the department and eventually became the full-time evidence technician, Rivera said.
Marcos Puga’s keys to the evidence room were taken as soon as he was placed in custody. Rivera is the only other person who had keys to the evidence room, Rivera said.
As part of the investigation, sheriff's detectives interviewed police department employees who were present when the money was booked into the evidence locker, Rivera said. Several former Orange Cove PD employees also were interviewed, the sheriff’s office said.
“Some of these people had no idea about the money, but they were interviewed anyway just because they were working that day,” Rivera said.
“Citizens have the right to know about this,” Rivera said. “The last thing I want is for them to think we’re trying to cover it up. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.”
The missing $2,940 was part of $10,658 seized by Orange Cove police when they arrested Jorge Moreno, 21, of Orange Cove on July 10, the sheriff's office said. Police also seized a gun and drugs at that time.
The Drug Enforcement Agency was investigating Moreno and called Orange Cove PD about the money on Aug. 21, the sheriff’s office said.
Rivera discovered the $2,940 was missing from the original $10,658 when he went to check the serial numbers for the DEA. That’s when he called the sheriff’s office to conduct a criminal investigation, he said.
No other evidence was missing from the evidence locker, Rivera said.
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