Editor’s note: The Standard-Examiner is choosing not to name the accused evidence technician because she is a private citizen and as of Friday, May 4, 2018, had not been charged with a crime. An investigation by the Weber County Attorney’s Office continues. It is the Standard-Examiner’s policy to publish names of elected and/or public officials.
OGDEN — Ripped or razored open to get at the narcotics inside, dozens of empty evidence bags lay strewn on the floor or crumpled and jammed into two bulging manila folders stashed under a desk.
Coins, pills, empty plastic baggies with drug residue inside and other evidence littered the Weber County Sheriff’s Office evidence room, greeting investigators as they began delving into the disarray Jan. 10, 2018, two days after the evidence custodian was fired.
The custodian, a civilian sheriff’s employee, is suspected of stealing drugs and cash for up to three years, and possibly dozens of criminal prosecutions have been compromised or ruined by the tampering and destruction, according to an internal investigation report.
“The integrity of the WCSO Evidence Room has been broken … and the successful prosecution of cases with evidence located in the WCSO evidence room has been affected,” said the report, obtained with a public records request.
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Based on information gathered in interviews with sheriff’s detectives, other deputies and members of the Weber County Attorney’s Office staff, the report concluded that problems in the evidence room had been worsening for three years.
The report blames the fired custodian and her supervisor, Chief Deputy Kevin Burns, who was forced to retire in early April after the sheriff’s office said he failed to adequately act on problems in the evidence room and with the custodian.
The report chronicled a host of issues, including work not being done, missing or damaged evidence, no communication or follow-up by the evidence custodian, and evidence not being sent to crime labs for testing.
“The condition of the evidence room is in total disarray,” the report said. “The room is completely unorganized. Additionally, open drugs, drug packaging, an open wallet, open money packaging, a box of spare change, miscellaneous jewelry and various open items of evidence were all lying in plain view.”
The report further faulted Burns for not reporting a torn-open drug evidence bag that another employee said Burns noticed in the evidence room on Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, the day the custodian was sent away to be drug tested.
“It is clear that a theft of methamphetamine evidence has been illegally opened and stolen from the secure evidence room,” the report said, referring to that incident. “This information is never reported by Burns” to Sheriff Terry Thompson or the other chief deputy, Klint Anderson, the report said.
“No notification was made, no attempt to preserve evidence or the crime scene, or to conduct an investigation was made,” the report said.
A BROKEN LOCK AND BUTCHER PAPER
Investigators also learned the lock on the internal secure door near the custodian’s office had been intentionally broken and the custodian had taped butcher paper over the door.
Investigators also interviewed the fired technician in February.
“I basically became addicted to meth in the evidence room,” the report quoted the custodian as saying.
The custodian said she never took meth out of the evidence room. She told the investigators she chewed the drug and never smoked or injected it.
If she opened a large bag of meth, she would keep the extra to be used later, the report said.
She became a daily user and even went to the evidence room on her days off so she could use, the report said.
In January, the sheriff’s office’s new investigations commander found eight rape kits piled on the evidence room floor, according to the report.
A review showed most of the cases were at least months old. State law requires police agencies to send rape kits to the state crime lab for processing within 30 days.
In another incident that affected a sexual assault case, investigators found an unopened envelope in the evidence room that contained a DNA “hit” notice from the FBI. That evidence matched a suspect to a 2009 assault, but the July 21, 2016, FBI letter had never made it from the evidence room to the case detective.
One detective told investigators that “all the detectives were vocal and complaining to Burns that (the custodian) was not doing her job. … collectively the detectives felt it was obvious she was on drugs and that they had voiced it and nothing changed.”
Detectives also had begun asking crime scene investigators to hold their evidence because they were worried what might happen to it otherwise, the report said.
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County prosecutors told investigators they were frustrated that evidence was not sent to the state crime lab when requested, inquiries and complaints to the sheriff’s office went unanswered and evidence went missing.
The problems resulted in dismissed criminal prosecutions, they said.
County Attorney Chris Allred said Thursday he did not have a count of how many cases have failed because of the evidence problems. He said his office sent a letter to local public defenders alerting them in general to the evidence investigation and potential problems with various cases.
“I assume we’ll find a number of cases with admitted tampering,” Allred said. “We don’t know whether these are cases that have already been adjudicated or are still out there (active).”
Allred’s office is conducting a criminal investigation into the evidence room. He said a thorough evidence audit is part of that.
‘DEER TRAILS’ THROUGH PILES OF EVIDENCE
Annual audits of the evidence room, obtained with an open records request, showed escalating problems beginning in 2015. A 2014 audit found no major problems — a small amount of marijuana was missing in one case, but the auditor concluded the drug probably had been misplaced.
Sheriff’s office auditors in 2015 found DNA evidence for a Washington Terrace homicide case stacked next to a pile of evidence that was scheduled to be destroyed.
A pair of audits the same year listed more problems, and the evidence custodian began receiving documented supervisory counseling, according to documents.
The supervisor at the time, sheriff’s office administrator Steffani Ebert, filed “coaching” notes after the custodian did not show up to work, improperly allowed unsanctioned people into the evidence room and failed to send out a blood sample for testing that was key to an injury DUI prosecution.
However, Ebert’s annual review of the custodian gave the employee a “good” rating.
A May 2015 audit by Ebert and another administrative manager noted “a great deal of clutter which could potentially lead to displacing or mixing up some of the evidence/property items.”
It also noted inventory records often did not match evidence locations and items were hard to find.
But the review concluded the custodian “processes work well” and there were no materially negative findings.
Two months later, an audit by two sheriff’s sergeants spanned five days and determined there were discrepancies in 35 percent of items audited.
One auditor wrote that the custodian “actually changed deputies’ entire evidence sheets so it made sense to her and never notified the deputy or his or her supervisor so they could come in and fix the issues.”
The audit described “disorganization, stray piles, piles of files on top of the counters that only (the custodian) knew what was in them because it was her own filing system.”
Audits of the safe and the drug locker turned up discrepancies of 30 percent and 19 percent, respectively.
A rape kit was on the floor against the safe and a wall, while a blanket and sheet related to the case eventually were found in a separate evidence bay, which was crammed with bicycles, lawn equipment, safes and stacked boxes.
“There wasn’t anywhere to walk,” an auditor wrote.
The custodian, he added, “told us to watch where we were walking because we were moving through the middle of the homicide evidence, which we had no way of knowing because it wasn’t marked as such.”
Ebert evaluated the custodian on April 21, 2016, giving her a “good” rating but noting attendance, accuracy and organizational matters.
Burns replaced Ebert as the custodian’s supervisor the next day.
2016 AUDIT WARNS OF ‘CRISIS’
An audit conducted in August 2016 by two sergeants featured scathing assessments of the evidence areas and the custodian.
“She did not know how to locate evidence files” with a new evidence software management system installed in March 2016, the audit said.
Of 219 articles of drug evidence audited, 46 percent had discrepancies. Evidence was missing in five cases and “numerous evidence files were stuffed inside a broken drawer.”
The evidence room and bay could be navigated only by weaving through “deer trails” in the mountains of evidence, the audit said.
The audit summary included this dire warning from one of the sergeants:
“Based on what I observed and previous audits I have read, I can only conclude that if we don’t get our evidence custodian some help and increase our ability to either purge existing evidence or find larger storage facilities, the sheriff’s office will face an evidentiary crisis that will affect our ability to assist in the successful prosecution of crime.”
The custodian did not receive an annual evaluation in 2017, but she was written up by Burns after not showing up for work in June.
There also was no evidence room audit in 2017. Burns asked Anderson to delay it until January 2018 because the custodian was so far behind in her work.
WHO SAW THE AUDITS?
No one higher in the chain of command apparently either saw the 2016 final audit or was aware of serious problems it listed, according to the internal investigation.
Anderson told investigators he never saw the final version of the audit.
A copy of the audit memorandum obtained by the Standard-Examiner was addressed to Anderson and copied to the attention of Burns and Capt. Brett Haycock, head of the professional standards and training unit, which conducts most annual audits.
One of the auditors told the investigators Burns did not ask him about the audit report.
“He got the feeling that Burns was dismissive of the audit’s findings,” the report said.
In an emailed response to questions, the sheriff said Friday he was chagrined that no one brought their concerns to him or Anderson.
“Everyone that the Internal Affairs commander interviewed said that they felt that they were taking their concerns to the right person who could directly deal with the problem,” Thompson said. “My staff would be following their proper chain of command by taking concerns to Lt. Burns, as he was the immediate supervisor responsible to address any issues with evidence.”
Another sergeant told investigators she noticed the custodian began acting erratically as long ago as 2013.
The sergeant believed it “was a result of stimulants. The behavior she described was very fast talking and an excess of energy.”
The sergeant suggested the custodian be given a random drug test but was told by Haycock “if we specifically request it then it would not be random.”
Burns told investigators he had suggested the custodian be tested for drugs but was rebuffed by the county human services office. Burns said he suspected illegal drug use but felt he had to catch the custodian while she was intoxicated before he could act.
However, county Human Resources Director Sarah Swan told investigators her office had received no complaints about the custodian and no one asked that a drug test be ordered until Dec. 11, 2017.
Swan said the county’s drug testing policy is “very liberal and suspicion is all that is required to request a test.”
She told investigators if a sheriff’s deputy requested the custodian be tested, she would be required to act on it.
THE SHERIFF INTERVIEWS BURNS
Another document obtained by the Standard-Examiner was a report of Thompson’s March 22, 2018, interview of Burns during his disciplinary review.
Thompson asked Burns about the broken door and lock and the butcher paper, and said the custodian told investigators she had lost her keys to the inner secure evidence room.
Burns said he didn’t know about the lost keys or broken door and assumed the custodian put up the butcher paper to hide the messy room. He said he told the custodian to clean up the mess.
Thompson questioned Burns for not inserting a new investigations sergeant in the evidence room chain of command, even after the sergeant voiced concerns about evidence problems.
Based on findings of the investigation, drug use by the custodian “has been staring us in the face for three years,” Thompson told Burns.
Burns said that as soon as he found the custodian “high,” on Dec. 8, he “took care of it,” but the sheriff remarked it took Burns a year and a half to notice such behavior.
The sheriff also asked Burns about his 24 visits to the evidence room from Nov. 1 to Dec. 11, 2017, as recorded in the electronic room entry log. Burns never signed in on the paper visitor sheet.
In an interview Thursday, Burns said he never signed in because he knew his entry was recorded in the electronic log. Burns said he frequently visited the custodian to discuss evidence room issues
Thompson asked Burns why he entered the evidence room on the night of Dec. 29 — the same day Burns advanced from his job as the department’s investigations lieutenant to become chief deputy in charge of the corrections division. Burns said he was checking evidence on a case.
Thompson next asked Burns if he had been having a sexual relationship with the custodian. Burns said he had not.
“I’m not sure where that question came from,” Burns said in a phone interview with the Standard-Examiner. “I think they were looking for a reason why I was so incompetent. I’ve done some really good things at the sheriff’s office for 27 years. You just don’t become incompetent overnight.”
Burns added, “There was not a sexual relationship.”
“Addicts hide in plain sight every day, in all walks of life, and they fool people,” Burns said. “I got fooled by an addict. I feel bad about it and have learned from it.”
He said he never saw a copy of the 2016 audit. He said he did discuss the evidence room with Anderson after the audit and was told to get the evidence room in order and obtain more training for the custodian.
Burns said he was singled out in the internal investigation for political reasons. He said factions in the sheriff’s office favored Matthew Bell to succeed Thompson in this year’s sheriff’s race.
“They are stacking this investigation in order to crush me,” Burns said. “I am not this incompetent buffoon they’re saying I am.”
Thompson said he had trusted and had confidence in Burns and in 2017 talked to him about helping prepare Burns to run for sheriff. He said the evidence fiasco was “out of character” for Burns.
The evidence room, Thompson said, “is protected where very few staff (are) given access, only the Evidence Custodian and the Custodian’s supervisor. No other personnel have access, including myself. There is no need for employees to enter.”
Burns faces sheriff’s Sgt. David MacInnes and Perry Police Chief Ryan Arbon in the June 26 Republican Party primary election for sheriff. Bell and Troy Arrowsmith, an Ogden police officer, were ousted at the recent county GOP convention.
Editor’s note: The original records request given to the Standard-Examiner redacted some detail about the evidence room investigation. During the routine course of processing the records, the redactions disappeared. The Standard-Examiner chose to include some of the the redacted material in the reporting.