Missing in action

The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating the disappearance of 397 tablets of oxycodone, a prescription pain medication, from the Asheville Police Department’s property room. The APD estimated the missing tablets’ street value at $20,000.

Longtime evidence-and-property manager Lee Smith resigned Feb. 18 after 21 years with the department. He was placed under investigative suspension on Jan. 25, personnel records show. Asked if there was any connection between Smith’s departure and the investigation, Lt. Wally Welch replied, “At this time, it’s difficult to speculate; we’re exploring all avenues related to this incident.”

What prompted the probe is in dispute: The SBI says the District Attorney’s Office requested it; the APD says it began as an internal investigation.

District Attorney Ron Moore says he asked the APD for a full audit of drugs, guns and money in late February. “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 reveals.

Hogan says his department did conduct a partial audit in accordance with its accreditation standards, having a third party (former APD Maj. Ross Robinson) check 10 percent of the evidence room's contents.

Meanwhile, on April 1, Assistant District Attorney Chris Hess went to examine the evidence against Terry Landrum (who’s facing 2009 drug-trafficking and firearms charges), accompanied by Landrum’s attorney. “They discovered that the two pill containers contained a crumpled tissue, but neither contained a single pill,” Moore noted in an April 6 memo to local attorneys. Most of the charges against Landrum, who would have faced a mandatory minimum sentence of almost 19 years if convicted, were subsequently dropped, though Moore said there were also other problems with the case.

And on April 5, Moore says he learned that “A random audit had turned up some problems. … 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, says Moore, he asked the SBI to shut down the property room, investigate and have a third party conduct a full audit, starting with evidence for upcoming cases.

According to Hogan, Moore hadn't been notified because the APD didn’t receive the audit report until April 8. As for the "areas of concern," Hogan says some other pieces of evidence were misplaced or missing, but without any evidence of tampering. Only two department members are authorized to access the property room.

Jennifer Canada of the N.C. Department of Justice backed up Moore, saying, “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.”

Right now, says Moore, the SBI is trying to find someone to carry out the full audit, “and APD is not to have any involvement in it.” The DA says his office has "a couple thousand" current felony cases involving the APD. Those cases, notes Hogan, won’t proceed until it's clear their evidence is secure.

"It's regrettable under the best of circumstances that you have evidence missing, because it causes us to look for who could have done this," notes Hogan. "The unfortunate thing is that we have a lot of good men and women in this Police Department — honest, dedicated, professional people, and we trust them to handle evidence. The whole business of police work is being able to trust employees. The fatal flaw is, we're all human beings."

Asked if he believes the missing evidence was an isolated incident, Moore replied: “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.”

— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at dforbes@mountainx.com.

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