Evidence from at least 46 criminal cases has gone missing in the past decade from the Reidsville Police Department, forcing the dismissal of two cases and the resignation of a police officer.
A 2011 internal audit found missing evidence in 45 cases, including guns, ammunition, illicit drugs, a box cutter, money and counterfeit currency. The 46th case happened a year after the audit and involved a missing crack pipe.
Chief Charlie Dennis and former Chief Edd Hunt, who led the department at the time the evidence went missing, declined to comment on personnel issues related to the audit.
But city of Reidsville records show that none of the nine officers identified in the audit faced discipline in the years after the audit. The resignation came in a later case of missing evidence.
The city hired an outside consultant in February to conduct a new evidence audit. That audit has not been completed.
And now Chief Dennis has asked the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the missing evidence, a spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Justice said last week.
Dennis confirmed his July 5 request but would not disclose why he sought the SBI's help. It wasn't clear whether the 2011 or 2013 audits prompted his request, or something else.
The 2011 audit
The earlier audit began in the summer of 2010 and was conducted by Reidsville Police Capt. Wendell Neville and former Officer Guilio Dattero. The audit's findings had not been disclosed until now.
The audit initially found several hundred missing items from 132 cases. The number later was reduced to 45 when officers found that the destruction of some evidence items was documented on the evidence vault's voucher but never entered into the department’s computer system, according to the audit.
Other items ended up in the possession of officers working individual cases and were never returned to the evidence vault, according to the audit.
Hunt said misplaced, misfiled and poorly handled paperwork caused officers to lose track of certain items.
“I don’t know that I would categorize the stuff as missing,” Hunt said. “I mean, a lot of items that show up that can’t be accounted for were destroyed and the paperwork was not properly handled. Now, there was a paperwork problem.”
The Rockingham County Clerk of Courts Office destroyed many of the case files that related to the missing evidence, making it difficult to determine what impact the missing evidence had on the prosecution of cases.
But RockinghamNow found one case where a charge against a criminal defendant was dismissed because of a missing gun, according to court documents.
In 2005, Reidsville Police charged Thomas Blackwell III with possession of a firearm by a felon, a 22-caliber Rohm RG24. In 2006, Judge James Grogan dismissed the charge because the gun had been lost, according to court files.
“It got off track because of that,” Hunt said. “From the time it was misaddressed it just fouled that whole process up.”
Hunt said he believes that a mishap caused the gun to be destroyed prematurely, and that he assumes his department communicated that fact with the assistant district attorney.
Another missing gun
The audit notes a second missing gun, in a 2006 case involving Timothy Carter. The audit gives few details, although more are available in other records.
According to a police incident report, the gun in the Carter case was a .357-caliber Ruger GP100.
A court official said Carter faced charges of misdemeanor possession of a weapon on state property or a courthouse, assault by pointing a weapon, assault with a deadly weapon and a drug charge.
A judge consolidated the charges, and Carter pleaded guilty. Because district court destroys records after five years, case information was limited. It remains unclear if the missing gun had an impact on the case.
More lost evidence
Evidence turned up missing after the first audit. In 2012, the courts dismissed charges against Chuck Fain, who was a county commissioner candidate at the time.
Faint faced drug charges until the crack pipe in the case disappeared, leading to the resignation of a police officer.
At the time, the Reidsville Police Department did not call on the State Bureau of Investigation for help, according to the state DOJ.
Hunt said that after completing the audit he met with Rockingham County District Attorney Phil Berger Jr.
“[The result] was taken to him and we went through it at every juncture,” Hunt said. “He did not see an SBI investigation was necessary up to the time we met, two other times.”
Hunt said he told Berger in the summer of 2012 he still had the option of launching an investigation. Hunt and Berger both said in interviews that they didn’t see any criminal violations or intent.
“It’s certainly a judgment call, but I spoke with the SBI and they did say in the absence of some belief or information or something to show that it was criminal in nature they said, ‘We would probably decline doing it unless there’s something showing that there,” Hunt said.
However, the police department’s files suggest criminal intent in the disappearance of the guns. The department filed a police report on the lost guns, referring to the incident as a “larceny” from the evidence vault.
Hunt said the incident was not a larceny. He blamed one of his captains for mislabeling the file.
“Things are mislabeled all the time,” Hunt said.
Berger said he believes the department found most of the missing evidence since the 2011 audit.
Hunt disagrees. He said he believes the department destroyed both guns and most of the other pieces of evidence.
“If it was cut up by a metal cutting handsaw and put in the landfill, then I don’t believe that’s going to be found,” Hunt said.
Berger stands by his assertion but did not provide more information.
Hunt said with a large amount of evidence in the vault, he felt the loss didn’t add up to much.
“Out of that many cases in the 12 years I was here, I don’t think it was too bad of a record,” Hunt said. “I don’t believe as many places around, according to our legal adviser, and I asked them about it. He said, ‘I don’t believe there are too many that can withstand that test and pass it.’”
Hunt makes changes
Neil Woodcock, executive director of the N.C. Association of Property and Evidence, agreed. Losing evidence from 45 cases over 20 years is not bad, he said, adding that circumstances are different depending on the agency. All of the Reidsville cases happened between 2001 and 2009.
“In one year, if everyone is doing what they should be, no evidence should go missing,” Woodcock said. “But people are people.”
After the first audit, the Reidsville Police Department changed policies and procedures to require more regular audits and inventories. Hunt said policy changes include notifying officers if evidence didn’t return or if it went to a laboratory.
“I’m sure other things will be identified too that can be tightened up as well,” Hunt said.
Hunt said Dennis was told about the audit immediately after arriving in late 2012.
Dennis said that regardless of the 2011 audit he planned to hire an outside consultant to look at the vault again.
“Even before I came here that was already in my mind as one of the things I would try and start addressing within those first 90 days,” Dennis said. “I think it’s important to bring someone in from the outside.”
In early February, Blue Line Training Group began looking at the evidence vault.
Dennis said the group looks at policy, procedures, needed updates, and how the department conducts business.
“There’s always room for improvement,” Dennis said. “I don’t care if you go to a place that’s accredited. Policies change, new practices come around so there’s always ways to improve.”
Dennis declined to comment on the findings of the current audit until it is complete. He expects the group to finish in a few months.
“I think it’s important that we have integrity of our system and we owe that to our victims, to the people who are accused of crimes – to ensure the integrity of our evidence room,” Dennis said.
Contact Danielle Battaglia at 349-4331, Ext. 29, or email@example.com