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Southboro Police Dept.'s old drug evidence still hasn't been destroyed

Worcester Telegram & Gazette Corp., News Telegram,

Southboro, MA

Former Southboro Police Sgt. Michael Crenshaw, shown in his Millville home, brought to light the stockpiling of evidence at the Southboro police station. (T&G Staff/PAUL KAPTEYN)

SOUTHBORO — The Police Department still sits on more than 700 drug evidence items seized since the early 1990s, despite a town request this summer to destroy nearly half the stockpile — a delay due in part to the ongoing state police drug scandal and a lack of clarity by the state about the drug destruction process.

The backlog, which is unusual because many police departments regularly destroy unneeded evidence, has accumulated since at least 1992, according to public records obtained by the Telegram & Gazette.

The newspaper first reported the existence of the drug cache in late June.

Police Chief Jane Moran, 62, a department veteran under whom much of the drugs and drug paraphernalia accumulated after she was appointed in 2009, announced her retirement in early July.

Chief Moran's last scheduled day of work is Nov. 17. An interim successor, longtime former Orleans police chief Jeffrey Roy, was appointed last week to take over Nov. 18 until a new permanent chief can be found.

Chief Moran did not return a call seeking comment.

Town officials and representatives of the office of District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr. said they are waiting for the state police to issue guidelines on best practices for local police departments to get rid of old drug evidence.

While disposal of old evidence is required by state law, the law does not provide a timetable. In most cases, police officials ask their district attorney for approval, and then often obtain court orders to destroy the items, but how each local department handles the process varies widely.

"To the best of our knowledge, the state has not issued new guidelines, and therefore all new and pending requests to destroy evidence are on hold," said Joshua R. Coleman, labor counsel for the town of Southboro.

For their part, state police officials say that before they put out guidelines, they want to see the state inspector general's report — due by the end of the year or early next year — on problems at the state Department of Public Health's two former drug testing labs.

In a notorious case that crippled the state's drug lab system and scuttled hundreds of drug convictions, a former state chemist, Annie Dookhan, is facing 27 charges of evidence tampering and obstruction of justice. Ms. Dookhan could face up to five years in prison if she pleads guilty, a judge indicated last month.

Mr. Early, Worcester County's top law enforcement official, declined to be interviewed for this story.

In a written statement provided by his spokesman, Timothy J. Connolly, Mr. Early said: "The moratorium on the destruction of drug evidence remains in effect and the state police tell us they expect new regulations on the handling of drug evidence by early next year."

"We have told any police department that has contacted our office to hold off on destroying drug evidence until the new guidelines are in effect," the statement continued.

In Leicester, Police Chief James Hurley said he immediately halted his department's previously routine process of eliminating old drug evidence after being asked by the state police last summer to wait for the new guidelines.

The Worcester Police Department, however, has stuck to its traditional approach of limiting a backlog of old items by getting rid of them quarterly, with police officials from other departments witnessing the process, according to department spokeswoman Kathleen A. Daly.

The Holden police also are keeping their own system, said Police Chief George Sherrill.

When the Holden department moved into a new public safety building three years ago, all old evidence, several hundred items, was destroyed, the chief said.

Since then, items have been stored in a special evidence room that is monitored around the clock by video and audio surveillance and protected by a triple-locked, two-door security entrance. Under the department's national accreditation standards, the chief also conducts quarterly and random audits of the evidence.

Chief Sherrill said only a handful of items are on hand now. When the new state police procedures are released, "we will look into it," he said.

"We have plenty of room now. When we get enough stuff, we'll go through the disposal process," he added.

In the meantime, in Southboro, the 745 pieces of evidence continue to be stored in the evidence room at the town police station at 19 Main St., Mr. Coleman said.

Seized drugs include illegal street drugs such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana and Ecstasy, as well as prescription medications such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Xanax, and drug paraphernalia such as crack pipes, according to the 16-page list obtained by the T&G.

The security of the drugs has been questioned by a former Southboro police officer, Michael W. Crenshaw, who left the department because of a disability in 2011, and was later fired for insubordination.

Mr. Crenshaw, a frequent critic of the department, has highlighted a 2004 incident in which 14 one-gram bags of cocaine went missing from the police station after an arrest as reason to suspect that proper procedures may not have been followed over the years in cataloguing and storing the drugs.

In a recent interview, Mr. Crenshaw, of Millville, said the 2004 incident should be investigated beyond the initial report at the time by a state police sergeant that did not pinpoint a suspect or cause but recommended security improvements. He also urged the district attorney to do a full investigation of Southboro's handling of its drug evidence.

Mr. Early did not respond to questions about whether the Southboro Police Department or the town are investigating the 2004 missing evidence case. Mr. Coleman, the Southboro lawyer, said the incident was investigated and it is now closed.

Meanwhile, Mr. Crenshaw charged that law enforcement authorities are unnecessarily delaying local police departments from eliminating old evidence by using the wait for the inspector general's report and state police guidelines as excuses.

"I think it may be a little bit of a copout," he said. "You're waiting for Dookhan, but how does that affect departments destroying drug evidence?"

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