It was a tense scene last night during the Asheville City Council meeting as District Attorney Ron Moore criticized the leadership of the Asheville Police Department for the handling of its evidence room. APD Chief Bill Hogan, meanwhile, said the problems were due to one individual who “betrayed the trust.” Council approved $175,000 to conduct a full audit.
The State Bureau of Investigation shut down the APD’s evidence room April 6, following the discovery April 1 by Assistant District Attorney Chris Hess and a defense attorney that 397 tablets of Oxycodone, a prescription pain reliever, were missing. A partial audit, completed April 8, revealed 115 items, including guns, drugs and money, missing.
Moore spoke to Council, endorsing the choice of of a company headed by Mike Wright, formerly an analyst with the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office, to carry out the audit, and had harsh words for the conduct of the APD’s leadership, asserting they should have informed him of evidence problems in early March, when the initial stages of the partial audit discovered missing items.
“I did not find out there wasn’t a full audit being done until last Tuesday,” Moore said. “I’m not prepared to point the finger at any one person. More than one person had access to the property room, so we don’t know where the SBI investigation will go. It is crucial that information be turned over to my office on a timely basis. When there are items missing from the property room, we need to know. I’ve had two grand juries since March 1, where APD officers came and indicted people based on items they assumed were in the evidence room, while some people within the department were aware there were problems.”
“I am absolutely dependent on what’s in the property room,” Moore continued. “I’ve had to bite my tongue and unsecure some bonds in the last day or two. I have to disclose everything I know to the lawyers.”
Moore has delayed trials relying on APD evidence. The full audit will include a new inventory database as well as close examination of the 13,889 “critical items” (i.e. guns, drugs and money) in the evidence room.
Hogan, meanwhile, said the problems were due to “one individual that has betrayed the trust; they lost their moral compass and it’s something they shouldn’t have done. We have officers who we trust to handle evidence every day.”
Though Hogan didn’t specify which individual he was referring to, longtime evidence room manager Lee Smith left the APD suddenly in February, after he was placed under investigative suspension the previous month.
The city is looking at using drug seizure money to fund the audit, and Hogan noted that Wright is ready “to move very, very quickly.” Future audits, Hogan said, will now involve more careful examination of evidence and outside witnesses for its destruction.
Mayor Terry Bellamy emphasized that “our rank and file are trying to get the bad guys and do the best they can to address integrity within the community. Changes should be made, and will be made.”
“This was not a problem created by the rank-and-file officers of the Asheville Police Department” Moore replied.
— David Forbes, senior news reporter