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Probe into theft of 1,400 Oxycodone pills from Palm Beach County Clerk’s evidence room ends with no arrests

The Palm Beach Post, palmbeachpost.com
BYLINE: Daphne Duret, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Link to Article

Palm Beach County, FL

Prosecutors have closed an investigation into the theft of pain pills from the Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller’s evidence vault, saying the office’s poor monitoring makes it difficult to prove which of three evidence clerks stole more than 1,400 Oxycodone pills taken as evidence in three criminal cases.

Clerk Sharon Bock on Monday released a memo dated Friday from Assistant State Attorney Michael Dutko, along with a report from an investigation which began in July and an internal audit outlining sweeping changes to the clerk’s evidence department responsible for storing and maintaining evidence in criminal cases.

The memo ends the criminal probe that began in July after two of the three clerks in the evidence department reported to a supervisor that they had discovered more than 1,000 Oxycodone pills missing from an evidence box in a drug case a day after the third employee in their division, Renee Hawkins, was seen suspiciously accessing the box.

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Hawkins on June 29 outside the Palm Beach C0unty Courthouse, where they found two Oxycontin pills as well as some other powerful narcotics in her purse. Investigators failed to link Hawkins to the Oxycodone pills to the ones stolen from the evidence box, but Hawkins was fired and now still faces charges criminal drug possession charges.

An internal audit of the more than 175,000 pieces of evidence stored in the clerk’s evidence vaults uncovered pills missing from two other cases, for a total theft of more than 1,400 pills. Dutko wrote that in all three cases, there wasn’t enough evidence for prosecutors to prove who stole the pills — an assertion he attributed to “the failure of the clerk’s office to adequately monitor access to it’s evidence vaults.”

Dutko said a lack of video cameras in the evidence room, as well as a failure of all three evidence clerks to properly sign in and out of the evidence room made it impossible to conclude who had taken the pills or even when they were taken.

An investigative report from Det. Peter Zampini shows that one of the other two employees, when she allegedly discovered that Hawkins had accessed the evidence box, looked in the box herself but signed Hawkins’ initials to the log. Asked why she did it, Zampini wrote that the other clerk said that she did so because she was “extremely angry” with Hawkins for not initialing the box when she accessed it a day earlier.

Hawkins - who investigators said slurred her speech, had dilated pupils and showed other signs of drug use during her interview with them - said the other clerk had once held up the bag of pills and told her “Hey Renee, look, I guess I’ll never have any pain again.” Dutko found no evidence to support the claim. But Hawkins had the case gone to trial could have potentially used the allegation along with the poor record keeping to create reasonable doubt.

Even though Hawkins failed to follow office procedure regarding signing into the evidence vault and initialing the evidence box she allegedly accessed, Dutko said “it cannot be shown that her failure to do so supports a finding of guilt, since it appears that the failure to follow policy was widespread as it relates to access to evidence rooms and exhibits in evidence.”

Bock on Monday took exception to Dutko’s use of the word “widespread,” calling it an exaggeration in characterizing a department of three people. Bock said she doesn’t believe prosecutors would have been able to prove a case against Hawkins even if the record keeping was perfect and there was no guarantee that a video camera would have ensured a conviction either.

“But we do agree that there were lapses here concerning our policies, and that is something we take very seriously,” Bock said.

So seriously, Bock said, her office has gone to great lengths to protect themselves against a repeat occurrence. The entire three-member evidence clerk team has been replaced, and now there is a full-time supervisor assigned to them — a position that Bock said she cut when she was forced to lay off 120 employees in 2009.

That same year, Bock said, she asked the county to pay for video cameras in the evidence room, a request they denied. Bock said she didn’t press the issue until July, and now there are cameras installed.

Bock said her office hopes that those changes, along with other measures including more training, random drug screening, enhanced policies for evidence handling will collectively be an effective deterrent. The two other employees working in the evidence room at the time of the thefts have been reassigned to other areas. They were placed on administrative leave with pay during the investigation, but Bock on Monday said they will have to pay the money back because their actions were revealed to have violated company policy.

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