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Sheriff: Guns, drugs, money unaccounted for in Newport police storage; criminal investigations backlogged

When the Washington County Sheriff’s Office agreed to provide investigative help to the understaffed Newport Police Department, it discovered major problems within the department: Guns, drugs and money logged into police storage are missing, both dangerous and sensitive evidence was not handled properly and other property is unaccounted for.

The police department’s property and evidence storage areas were a mess complicated by sloppy record-keeping. According to Sheriff Bill Hutton, property cannot be tracked in more than 1,100 cases. Some of the storage practices could jeopardize potential sexual assault cases and posed public safety concerns. Property shelves were moldy, some items were not in protected areas and security of the property room was “practically non-existent.”

Hutton said the condition of the department’s property room violates basic principles of property room management. There are chain of custody concerns, he said, and the potential that future criminal cases could be affected.

“This shouldn’t be that difficult to do it properly, given the size and number of cases that they have,” Hutton told the Bulletin. He did not pin the problems on wrongdoing, and said none of the patrol officers had the responsibility of managing the property storage.

It took sheriff’s office staff more than 60 hours to sort through the storage areas after they showed up to assist with investigations in mid-September.

Among the most serious concerns, detailed by Hutton in a memo sent to Newport City Administrator Deb Hill and obtained by the Bulletin:

  • Fourteen guns that had once been checked into police storage are unaccounted for. They might have been collected as part of criminal investigations, or turned in by residents who either did not want the weapons anymore or needed them stored somewhere safe. A 15th gun was missing until the sheriff’s office found it in an area of City Hall accessible to the public.
  • Bags of sexual assault evidence were not stored properly, destroying their evidentiary value.
  • Cash that had either been turned in to police or collected through investigations cannot be traced.
  • Drugs also aren’t accounted for.
  • Items from a dismantled methamphetamine lab were kept in an unsecure area.

“I cannot begin to describe the danger of storing potentially hazardous material in a city facility,” Hutton wrote. “This issue is being dealt with immediately.”

Problems outlined in the memo date to 2009 and in some instances earlier, Hutton said.

Curt Montgomery, who was police chief from early 2010 until his retirement this fall, told the Bulletin he was surprised by the sheriff’s conclusions, particularly that evidence cannot be located.

“I don’t even know what he’s talking about,” Montgomery said. “As far as I know, everything should be accounted for.”

The Newport City Council will may seek a third-party investigation as early as Thursday.

Other problems

The memo summarized the first 30 days of the city’s contract with the sheriff’s office for short-term administrative, investigative and patrol assistance through the end of the year. In addition to serious deficiencies in how property was handled, Hutton reported that criminal investigations had piled up in recent months. The department was down to five officers, including an investigator, and scrambled to fill patrol shifts and complete other tasks after Montgomery left Sept. 30.

Hutton said the incomplete investigations included an “extremely alarming” criminal sexual conduct and child pornography case reported in April but not investigated until the sheriff’s office arrived.

Hutton said the sheriff’s office was told the department did not have time to do follow-up on the criminal sexual conduct case.

Newport police investigator Scott Freemyer could not be reached for comment. He had been pulled from investigations to patrol duty due to the officer shortage and Montgomery’s retirement.

“He was in a tough spot,” Hutton said of Freemyer.

The criminal sexual conduct report is now an active case and sheriff’s investigators obtained an admission from the adult suspect and recovered child pornography, Hutton said, though there are no criminal charges yet.

The report also noted that the department had incomplete police training requirements and a lack of consensus about who was responsible for training documentation.

Hutton said the sheriff’s office has discussed the situation it encountered with some of the Newport police officers. The officers are trying to provide quality service, Hutton said, but it was apparent not all procedures were being followed, particularly with property handling, logging and storage.

“This is not a condemnation of the officers,” Hutton said. “This is just calling out or calling attention to some of the issues (that) existed.”

No active cases affected; future cases unclear

Hutton said there are no active investigations in Newport that involve missing evidence. However, he acknowledged that other cases which are inactive could be jeopardized by the evidence storage practices should they be re-opened.

The sexual assault kits are in that category, Hutton said. The kits contain evidence that was analyzed by the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and then returned to the police department. They are supposed to be stored in a freezer to protect their evidentiary value but were just placed in the storage room, Hutton said. There was a freezer, but it was frosted over and unusable.

Safety concerns were exposed in the sheriff’s office review.

For instance, the department held onto what’s believed to be remnants of a meth lab busted in 2012, storing them in a barrel at the department’s secondary storage area. Montgomery said that storage area was at the city’s public works building.

Hutton said there is no reason the department should have held onto that property. There is no criminal case pending.

Found on top of the meth lab barrel was evidence from a fatal stabbing at Bailey Nurseries in 2014. Prosecution of that murder case was suspended indefinitely after the suspect was committed to a state hospital as mentally ill and dangerous.

Sheriff’s office staff concluded there were 1,138 cases in which property was logged into a records management system but there is no documentation for how it was disposed. Those cases could range from someone notifying police of a found backpack on the street to a criminal case such as a theft or assault.

“Certainly many shortcomings were discovered and it’s our job to get the policies in place and to make this better,” Hill said, later adding: “The report was disturbing.”

Had the sheriff’s office not been asked to provide law enforcement assistance, it’s not clear if or when the property room problems would have been reported. Nobody beyond Newport police would have reason to know of the property room conditions, Hutton said, because departments are not required to submit property or evidence audits for outside review. Adding to the insular nature of police evidence rooms is that fact that one law enforcement agency does not have access to another’s property.

‘A total surprise’

Newport Mayor Tim Geraghty said the memo’s details were “a total surprise to me.” He said he is glad the sheriff’s office discovered the problems and corrections can be made.

“It’s definitely not a good thing and I’m not happy about it,” Geraghty said.

The memo comes as the divided Newport council debates whether to retain a city police department, sign a multi-year contract with the sheriff’s office or explore a contract or merger with neighboring agencies in Cottage Grove or St. Paul Park.

Geraghty said the problems support his position that the department needs the strong leadership and supervision of the sheriff’s office.

“It doesn’t bode well for the department, obviously, but I’m not sure how much weight it will (have) on the final decision,” Geraghty said.

Council member Dan Lund, who says he is undecided on the department’s future, said he considers the problems highlighted by Hutton to be separate from the decision about policing in the city. Lund said the council needs more information about the recent findings.

“We need to investigate and figure out what the heck happened and who’s responsible,” he said.

Council member Bill Sumner said he did not want to discuss details of Hutton’s memo because it is likely to be the subject of additional investigation.

Council members Tracy Rahm and Tom Ingemann could not be reached for comment.

The sheriff’s office has closed out or handled 38 criminal investigations since September, and the property areas were cleaned and organized. Now, only sheriff’s office staff, not Newport officers, have access to logged property and evidence. Hutton, who is the city’s chief law enforcement officer during the short-term contract, said restricting access to evidence was done to protect the chain of custody.

Security has been beefed up, Hutton said. No longer is a key to the property intake area hanging in the squad room next to a key to the chief’s office, where the evidence room key was kept.

The police department has been scrutinized previously. Last year, all five patrol officers were the subject of an internal investigation; one was disciplined for improper use of break time.

Hutton said the police department has strong support in the community, with residents complimenting officers for their personal approach and strong patrol work.

But when asked if residents who have made emotional pleas in support of the police department didn’t have the full picture of its operations, Hutton replied: “I can’t argue with that.”

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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