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ASHEVILLE — For nearly three years, Carolina Public Press and other local news organizations have sought a 2011 audit of the Asheville Police Department evidence room revealing the extent of missing guns, drugs and money. The fallout of the missing evidence rocked the local criminal justice system, causing a major scandal.
For years, local media also clashed, even in court, with District Attorney Ron Moore, who repeatedly refused to release the audit. But after the June 17 sentencing of former APD evidence room manager Lee Smith, Moore kept his promise and today released the audit to the public. Journalists from three local media outlets gathered in the courthouse today and copied portions of the massive audit and asked Moore questions about its contents for nearly an hour.
Smith, the evidence room manager for 20 years, was suspended in 2011 after he tested positive on a drug test. He pled guilty to stealing drugs — mostly prescription painkillers and marijuana — from the evidence room in March 2013.
The audit reveals an evidence room in deep disarray when it was shut down for the audit in 2011, with haphazard records, a failure to destroy items after cases were cleared, two separate software systems that weren’t well understood, a lack of space and a failure to properly organize the space.
“The facility would have been difficult for an APD supervisor to audit,” auditor Mike Wright noted in the summary report for the 15-volume set of tomes comprising his assessment.
An initial audit of the evidence room by a former APD officer couldn’t find nearly a fifth of the items it sought. However, Wright later managed to find many of those missing items, which were mislabeled or stored incorrectly. For example, about $31,000 in cash that couldn’t be located by Wright was later found to have been forfeited to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Moore himself acknowledged that due to the sheer amount of information it had to track and the different records systems used, the audit and the matters it dealt with were “confusing as hell.”
However, Moore noted the audit’s assessment of missing guns, drugs and money was far less than originally thought, and the evidence shows the misconduct “was confined to this case” and no remaining cases were compromised. Moore estimates about 50 cases, mostly low-level drug charges, were dismissed due to the issues with the evidence room caused by Smith’s theft.
“The other stuff was bad record-keeping, bad computer entries and sloppiness in how things were kept and categorized,” he said. “There’s all kinds of issues everywhere you look in this thing.”
A long road to the public view
The audit was commissioned by Asheville City Council in April 2011 at Moore’s request and cost $175,000 in seized drug money. Blueline Systems and Services, an Asheville-based firm headed by Wright, a former Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office investigator, conducted the extensive inventory of the evidence room’s holdings.
Blueline completed the audit in January 2012 and delivered it to Moore. In July, Wright briefed an open session of Asheville City Council on what he’d learned.
Due to constraints of time and budget and the sheer number of items in the space, rather than auditing every single item, Wright focused on dealing with high value ones — guns, drugs and money— and according to the audit summary, scanned and manually entered 35,822 items.
In his presentation to Council, Wright described an evidence room with massive problems with items poorly organized and hard to find and a broken filing system for basic records, prompting then-Mayor Terry Bellamy to say, “This situation was horrendous.”
Meanwhile, Moore rebuffed media requests to see the audit, insisting that the information in it could impede the investigation and potential prosecution of whomever stole from the evidence room. Only after a conviction and sentencing in the case, Moore said, would he release the document.
In June 2012, Carolina Public Press, along with the Citizen-Times, Mountain Xpress, WCQS and WLOS, jointly filed a lawsuit to prompt the audit’s release. The suit targeted Moore and the city of Asheville and argued that the document was a public record. Buncombe County Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts dismissed the complaints without further comment.
Deep disorder in old evidence room
Wright’s audit lists no less than 20 major areas where the evidence room had significant issues, ranging from record-keeping and storage. In many cases, items were entered as destroyed when they remained in the evidence room. While a 2011 audit by former APD commander Ross Robinson was unable to find 115 missing items, Wright’s team was later able to locate 82 of these.
From the items listed under the computer system the APD was using since 2005, 729 drug items including paraphernalia, 62 gun items including holsters and ammunition, and 48 cash items totaling $8,872 were missing. Additionally, 13 cash items with a value of $4,375 were released supposedly to the Clerk of Court but were never recorded by the clerk.
The lack of clear distinctions between different types of related evidence such as guns and ammunition or drugs and paraphernalia was one of the many issues Wright cited.
Last year, the APD hired Tim Scapin as the new evidence manager. He has instituted a series of safeguards intended to thwart any similar attempts to steal evidence in the APD’s new evidence room.
Moore also criticized the APD’s previous system of internal audits. Rather than picking cases at random and then searching for the relevant items, they would pick an item and then ask the evidence room manager to find it.
“That’s going to get you a .1000 batting average every time,” Moore said, regardless of whatever issues are actually present.
When he sentenced former evidence room manager Lee Smith, U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger said the public mistrust resulting from the missing evidence has “undermined the integrity of the criminal justice system.”
Despite the many issues the audit cites, however, Moore said Smith was able seemingly to find the evidence required for specific cases over the many years he worked there, and the district attorney had no reason to suspect that any other cases besides the ones specifically tied to the missing drug evidence Smith was responsible for were compromised.
According to evidence revealed in his plea, Smith stole drugs from cases that were already closed and slated for destruction. He was discovered after he took drugs from a case that wasn’t actually closed but instead just reclassified.
“There’s no evidence that Lee Smith stole any guns or money,” Moore said. “The evidence was that he was taking drugs out of closed cases, and that’s what we have.”
Carolina Public Press is continuing to copy sections of the audit and will release it to the public in digital format as soon as is practical.