September 15, 2022
ditor's note:This article has been updated to reflect that one person who was tied to the investigation has been cleared of any wrongdoing. Another person remains on paid leave, and it has now been confirmed that they also are tied to the investigation.
ONTARIO — Bringing Ontario Police Department's room up-to-date with best industry practices has been an undertaking that stretches back more than a year. And, even though tens of thousands of items could take a couple of years to purge, the final security update is expected to be in place in the near future. The new tracking software was said to be about a month out during a tour of the new space on Aug. 31.
"Think of it as puzzle pieces of improvement," said Lt. Jason Cooper, who has been on special assignment to get the evidence room organized since interim chief Steve Bartol's last day in mid-May.
'Chain of custody'
Cooper and Chief Michael Iwai walked through the major changes which have happened in the intake room.
The new system "creates a chain of custody," Cooper explained. He showed how after evidence is properly bagged, boxed or tagged, it gets put into a locker. Once it's in there, a button is pushed by the officer. After that, the only way to open that locker is on the other side of the intake cage where the evidence is stored.
"This allows the evidence tech or Cooper to ensure that the documentation correctly matches the evidence," Iwai said. "It's a stop gap."
From there, Cooper — and eventually a full-time evidence technician, which has been approved for the 2022-23 budget cycle — will input the items into the new software system. As that is not yet in place, Cooper is currently doing that manually.
"Manual intake is more arduous for Lt. Cooper," Iwai explained. "To get that done, he has to take all of it over to the Police Department, enter it into the Justice report management system and bring it back and store it."
He will verify that items are properly packaged and labeled, as well as verify evidence documentation associated with the report management system.
More variety of sizes
"One challenge that the new system helped us with was more variety of size," Cooper explained.
He pointed out how the older lockers that stored evidence in the intake area were mostly all the same small size, with the exception of a couple taller ones. Also, because they are like gym lockers, it made it easier to misplace a key. With the new system, Cooper said, officers don't have to worry about a code or key.
And sometimes, items in the evidence room might actually be property held for safekeeping that aren't accepted at the Malheur County Jail. Cooper said this could be something bulky, such as a large backpack.
The new intake lockers also have a refrigerated unit with several differently sized lockers, which enables them to safely store blood and urine samples.
New shelving components from Space Savers, which also include a variety of sizes, have been installed where evidence is stored after it leaves intake. Those shelving components are floor-to-ceiling shelves. They are on a rail-like tracking system under the floor that enables them to be easily moved, as well as expanded or collapsed to help maximize space.
Packaging, labeling and purging
When evidence comes in, everything gets packaged and labeled. Firearms get secured with cables as part of a "render safe procedure," Cooper explained. Items that are too bulky to fit into a box or a bag, such as a chainsaw, will get a manilla tag, instead.
When it comes to purging items, the District Attorney is the only one who can OK the release of items after cases have gone through adjudication, according to Iwai. From there, Ontario Police can then purge the items "in accordance with state law," the chief said.
However, because of everyone doing so much with so little resources, thousands of items remain to be purged.
Part of their process to modernize the system at the Ontario Police Department's evidence room is going through the report management system and looking for items that could be old enough to have gone through adjudication but were never purged. From there, they will initiate contact with the DA to start the process to be able to destroy that evidence.
Iwai in June told the Ontario City Council to let the investigation into missing evidence being conducted by Oregon State Police to play out. He further said, as they went through infrastructure upgrades, it could exceed funding earmarked for the department in the current fiscal year.
OSP investigation is now complete
In the first half of that 2021, $900 in cash was found to be missing, and a subsequent audit in July of 2021 turned up potentially more missing items.
An investigation by Oregon State Police began in August of 2021 and was recently turned over to Malheur County District Attorney's Office. District Attorney David Goldthorpe in a phone interview on Friday said he did not file any charges; rather, he forwarded the investigation to the Oregon Department of Justice.
Former Ontario Police Department Evidence Technician David Worth has been cleared in the investigation into missing evidence from the evidence room. That investigation began in August of 2021. Almost a year later, in July, Malheur County District Attorney told the Argus Observer he had not seen anything from OSP at that time and the police chief told the council he was still waiting for direction from the DA on what to do about officers on paid administrative leave.
At the Ontario City Council meeting on Sept. 13, Chief Michael Iwai provided the most recent update regarding full-time equivalent members on paid leave. He stated that after the council sought information at its last meeting in July, he had provided that to them by email in August, but there had since been a change.
"On Sept. 9, however, David Worth resigned as the evidence technician and he was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing, but he resigned."
As such, the chief said that job position would be posted shortly.
In October of 2021, the newspaper confirmed that there are two police officers — one full-time and one part-time — on paid administrative leave. Then-City Manager Adam Brown would never confirm whether the officers' leave was connected to the missing evidence, but stated that one of them had been on leave since May.
When the newspaper spoke with District Attorney David Goldthorpe, he mentioned that he had forwarded the case to the state due to a conflict of interest with "the suspect." He said over the years he has "worked on several major cases with the suspect as well as attended public events together."
Goldthorpe neither mentioned any other suspects nor that anyone had been cleared in the case. As such, the newspaper believed that was because it may not have been tied to the case, after all. Prior to the 2022-23 budget year, there was only one half-time evidence technician. For the current fiscal year, however, the council budgeted to add a full-time evidence technician.
On Thursday, the newspaper confirmed that there is still one person who remains on paid administrative leave which is pending the outcome of the investigation, now in the hands of the Oregon Department of Justice. Justin Zysk, Human Resources manager, assistant to the city manager and manager of the airport confirmed on Thursday that Tuesday was the first time anyone's name tied to the missing evidence investigation had been mentioned in a public meeting that he could recall since he had started back in January.
Should DOJ decide to file charges, the Grand Jury will be conducted in Malheur County as it is a local case. However, if charges are filed, staff from the DOJ will be the ones managing the case.