The APD's longtime evidence and property manager, Lee Smith, resigned on Feb. 18, after 21 years with the department. Personnel records obtained by Xpress show that Smith was placed under investigative suspension on Jan. 25. When asked if there was any relation between Smith's departure and the investigation, Welch replied that "at this time it's difficult to speculate, we're exploring all avenues related to this incident."
District Attorney Ron Moore tells Xpress that he asked for a full audit of drugs, guns and money in late February after Smith's departure.
"There wasn't any concern in particular, but after [Smith] left, I had a meeting with [APD Chief Bill Hogan] and sent a follow-up letter saying we needed an audit," Moore tells Xpress.
On Friday, April 1, Moore says, Assistant District Attorney Chris Hess and the defense attorney for Terry Landrum, facing drug trafficking and firearms charges from 2009, went to examine the evidence, "they discovered that the two pill containers contained a crumpled tissue but neither contained a single pill," according to a memo Moore later sent to local attorneys. Most of the charges against Landrum, who would have faced a mandatory minimum sentence of almost 19 years in prison if convicted, were dropped, though Moore noted there were other issues with the case as well.
Money, a gun, a bag with three and a half Oxycodone tablets and Landrum's cell phone all remained in the evidence room. The missing tablets have an estimated street value of $20,000.
"I thought we were having a full audit of guns, drugs and money," Moore says. "I find out on Tuesday that there was a [earlier] random audit that had turned up some problems. I was surprised to learn it was random, and I was surprised that for a week or so, the APD had been aware of some areas of concern that audit had shown, and no one had told me."
At that point, Moore says, he called for SBI to shut the property room down and begin an investigation, along with an audit prioritizing evidence for upcoming APD cases.
According to Lt. Wally Welch, the investigation began within the police department, and the SBI and the District Attorney's office were notified when it was clear evidence was missing.
"We requested their assistance in this matter and are following up on their recommendations," Welch tells Xpress. "This is becoming a criminal matter and the SBI is taking over the investigation." Welch added that it's difficult say more than the department's official statement (see below).
But North Carolina Department of Justice spokesperson Jennifer Canada agrees with Moore, asserting the request came from his office.
"I can't tell you much, but I can confirm that the SBI is investigating the Asheville Police Department at the request of the Buncombe County DA," Canada tells Xpress. "The request came from the DA, the SBI received that request yesterday [Tuesday, April 5]."
Welch also says that, at Hogan's direction, the APD cannot publicly confirm if the missing evidence was drugs, or what kind. Canada, also, says she can't confirm the nature of the missing evidence.
"We're not even commenting on the nature of the investigation," Canada says. "All I can confirm is that the SBI is investigating."
In the official statement, Hogan promises "seamless cooperation" with the investigation: "A third party audit is forthcoming and evidence will be opened, examined and compared against logs to identify if this was an isolated case or if other evidence was compromised. ... The police department takes this issue very seriously. We are taking immediate corrective action to make sure all vulnerabilities are addressed."
Right now, Moore says, the SBI is trying to find a person to carry out the audit, "and APD is not to have any involvement in it," Moore says.
Asked if he believed the missing evidence was an isolated incident, Moore replies "I have no idea, I hope it is, but what are the odds we plucked the one bag out of however many thousands of pieces they've got. I don't know."
Hogan's full statement is below.
— David Forbes, senior news reporter
The Asheville police department is fully cooperating with the District Attorney’s office and the State Bureau of Investigation to address a matter related to evidence located in the property room in the Asheville police department.
An instance of missing evidence related to a criminal drug offense prompted the investigation. A third party audit is forthcoming and evidence will be opened, examined and compared against logs to identify if this was an isolated case or if other evidence was compromised. The property room has been sealed and outside auditors will complete an inventory to verify and ensure the integrity of evidence.
The police department takes this issue very seriously. We are taking immediate corrective action to make sure all vulnerabilities are addressed.
As a department, we pride ourselves on integrity and professionalism. Above all we know the public trust is essential to our work. For that very reason there will be seamless cooperation with the SBI and the District Attorney’s office to ensure timely review and resolution of this issue.
In the interim, the men and women of the Asheville police department remain committed to providing the highest level of service to the community.
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