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State investigates problems in Ormond police evidence room

The Daytona Beach News-Journal,
BYLINE: LYDA LONGA, Staff writer,

Ormond Beach, FL

2012-02-29_State investigates problems in Ormond_01
Corey Fontana

For more than two decades, Ormond Beach police's evidence unit was fraught with so many problems -- including "flagrant" mismanagement and thefts of cash and drugs -- that Chief Henry Osterkamp called for a state investigation.

The problems of disorganization and policy violations were so significant in the unit that it was cited as one of the reasons the Police Department failed in its recent bid at re-accreditation, Osterkamp said. The other reason was the theft of cash and heroin from the evidence room by an employee of a contracted cleaning crew that serviced police headquarters and City Hall, a report shows.

A 29-page report released by Ormond Beach police this week paints a picture of gross misconduct by former evidence technician Michael Haller, to the point where criminal behavior was suspected. Investigators found a large manila envelope filled with cash that they say Haller stashed in the ceiling of the evidence room, according to the report.

In addition, police also found a large box in a smaller room where Haller often worked that contained several envelopes with money in them, totaling $3,700, the report shows.

The former technician -- who resigned in August 2010 amid the investigation of his 22-year stint in the evidence unit -- tried to blame the secreted $3,700 on former evidence room volunteer Sam Easterbrook, Osterkamp said Tuesday.

The story of the unaccounted-for money, which police don't believe, was detailed in a note left behind by Haller: "Found this in Sam's desk when he left, knew he had some money, did not know it was this. Did not know how to tell you."

As a result of the audit and inventory of the evidence room that started in February 2010, investigators found items of evidence that had never been processed.

"The obvious implications of this situation are that cases could have gone unsolved and remain so to this day because a simple procedure was not conducted that possibly could have helped implicate a suspect and perhaps solved a criminal case," Lt. Kenny Hayes, in charge of the department's support services division, wrote in the report.

Investigators found stockpiled evidence from cases going as far back as the 1970s. The evidence included drugs, guns and biohazardous materials, the report shows.

On March 1, 2010, more than 5 tons -- or 11,320 pounds -- of drugs, guns and unclaimed property that should have been purged from the room years before, was hauled to an incinerator in Tavares for destruction, the report shows.

Also, more than $63,000 in cash was removed from the evidence room. That included $13,856 returned to banks -- the money was recovered from robberies -- and $19,559 returned to another police department. The money was from a theft reported in another jurisdiction, the report shows.

Osterkamp said that when the inventory was embarked upon two years ago, investigators had no idea how much dysfunction would be uncovered in the evidence unit, even after being warned of problems by both Haller and former evidence custodian Shannon Champion.

"It was a great shock to us," said Osterkamp, who at one time during the mid-1990s recommended several suggestions on how to overhaul the procedures in the unit. "We had no idea it was to the extreme that it was."

Haller could not be reached Tuesday.

Osterkamp said the Police Department is waiting for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to complete its investigation of the evidence room practices.

Hayes said Tuesday in an email that the FDLE will send its recommendations to the State Attorney's Office; those recommendations could call for criminal charges against Haller if probable cause is found. At this point the only target of any such charges would be Haller, who was assigned to the evidence unit in 1988, Osterkamp said.

Last week, the police chief sent out an email concerning the agency's re-accreditation status and the fact that it was not awarded because of the evidence room problems and the thefts by cleaning crew employee Corey Fontana of Holly Hill, according to arrest reports.

Fontana was convicted of grand theft and is serving an 18-month sentence in state prison. He told Ormond Beach detectives that he has a drug problem and admitted to taking $3,000 cash and heroin used for training dogs from the police evidence room, the report states. Police said Fontana also stole cash from City Hall.

Osterkamp said the fact that anyone could break into the evidence room was issue enough for the Florida Commission on Law Enforcement Accreditation to not award the re-accreditation.

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