Saturday, March 19, 2005
Evidence-Room Supervisor Claims Cover-Up; APD Chief Says Not True
By T.J. Wilham
Journal Staff Writer
In the wake of recent news coverage of problems at APD's evidence unit, the department's top brass invited a Journal reporter and photographer to tour the evidence room on Friday.
Chief Public Safety Officer Nick Bakas and Police Chief Gilbert Gallegos said in an interview Thursday, when extending the invitation, that they wanted to be "transparent" and had nothing to hide.
During Friday's tour, acting Sgt. Cynthia Orr was reluctant to answer some questions. Following the tour, she asked her supervisor, Capt. Larry Sonntag, if she could speak openly.
He told her the department wanted them to be open and honest.
She invited a reporter into her office and agreed to be tape recorded.
"This is probably going to end my career," she said.
Orr sat down, took a deep breath, and began to talk.
The sergeant who directly oversaw the Albuquerque police evidence room said Friday that Chief Gilbert Gallegos lied to the public, covered up reported wrongdoings and failed to act despite repeated warnings of evidence theft.
Sgt. Cynthia Orr said Gallegos didn't ask for an outside criminal investigation of the evidence room until six months after she told him of the thefts and other problems, and after the media got a hold of an anonymous e-mail claiming a cover-up.
At the time, in August 2003, Orr was an investigator who conducted inspections of various units for the department. She was put into the evidence room in December. She said Friday was her last day because she had requested a transfer back to her previous position.
"The only reason I am saying something is because I have had enough," Orr said Friday. "If it is a career-ender, it is a career-ender, but I have had enough. This chief and his deputy chiefs have covered it (problems in the evidence room) up. They have lied about it. They have misled the public."
Gallegos denied that he has misled the public or tried to cover anything up.
"When you are trying to hide something you don't ask for an independent review," Gallegos said. "We have been very up front and open about all of this."
The evidence room has had problems for years. Gallegos said he inherited those problems and has moved to address them.
Others inside the department have disagreed, according to memos obtained by the Journal.
Investigation 'a joke'
Orr said that, in August 2003, she identified two people she believed were stealing in the evidence room, but Gallegos allowed them to continue to work there. She contended that enabled them to destroy evidence that would have proven their guilt.
Orr said she doesn't know why the chief didn't act but said he frequently had lunch with one of the two. "What that infers or means ... I don't know."
As for the chief's action to bring in an outside inspector, it "was all a joke," Orr said.
Gallegos said he never had a friendship with one of the accused or had lunch with her.
He also said he has acted on many of Orr's recommendations.
Orr said she made her first reports to the chief as a detective assigned to the inspections and accreditation division. Her assignment was to conduct surprise inspections on Albuquerque police units to see if they followed guidelines.
She said she discovered problems in the evidence room during one of her inspections in July 2003. A few weeks later, she reported her findings to the chief, including that she discovered thefts from the evidence room.
The thefts occurred when property went to auction. She noticed that the list of property taken out of the evidence room was longer than the list of property the auctioneer received.
"The chief could have responded immediately the day I went up to him and said you have a theft problem. We should have brought a team down here and shut them down and had everyone removed administrative and immediately start(ed) an audit," Orr said.
"Am I implicating the chief is assisting to do this coverup? Absolutely. Do I know this is a dangerous accusation to make? Absolutely. But I know this is something that needs to be done."
'Why are we hiding this?'
Seven months later, in March 2004, an anonymous memo surfaced claiming that guns, weapons, drugs and cash had been missing from the evidence room and that the administration was conducting a coverup.
Orr said the memo outlined facts she had been telling the chief for months but she was not the author of the memo.
She also said that the day before the memo surfaced, Gallegos told her a criminal investigation would not be conducted.
After the memo was reported in the Journal, Gallegos had a news conference announcing that he had asked the Attorney General's Office to investigate the allegations.
He also announced that he had hired a company to conduct an independent forensic audit of the evidence room.
Orr said the audit was a "joke," and did not do a thorough job.
As for the AG's investigation, Orr said she doubts any indictments will be handed down.
"The AG's investigation is hindered in my opinion because they (police officials) left them (two accused employees) in here for six months," Orr said. They were removed from the unit early last year.
"Records got destroyed. They are just gone. The system got altered. Things are just missing. I told him (Gallegos) they are altering the records, get them out. Get them out. Get them out."
As months went by, Orr said no one ever started an actual inventory of the evidence room despite her repeated recommendations. It didn't start until December 2004, nine months after the anonymous memo surfaced and after she volunteered to take the position at the evidence room to try to fix things up.
Now that an inventory is being done, Orr said things are getting better and the people who work there are working long hours.
Orr said employees filled out police reports whenever they came across evidence that was untagged or unaccounted for. She said she was later told not to send the reports to the records division by a deputy chief because "they didn't want it to become public record that things are missing."
"But my conscience got over me and I sent them down. I asked them 'why are we hiding this?' I told them we needed to contact the D.A. and tell them what was happening with the evidence."
Those reports were later obtained by the Journal.
Orr said another problem in the evidence room was that officers under unrelated criminal investigations for such things as DUI or domestic violence were allowed to work in the evidence room.
"I told them (the administration) it was ludicrous," she said. "Why would you put someone who is under criminal investigation in a position where they can oversee the evidence in their own criminal case?
"It took months and months and pleading and pleading and documentation after documentation saying you don't do this. You don't. You don't do this."
Gallegos said that when someone was under investigation, rather than simply letting them have a paid vacation, he wanted to put them to work.
The practice of putting them in the evidence room has stopped.
'Trying to shut me up'
Orr isn't the only police officer who has spoken up in recent weeks about problems in the evidence room.
Last week, an attorney representing Capt. Marie Miranda, who oversaw the evidence room from April 2004 to February 2005, wrote to the chief claiming that hundreds of pieces of drug evidence were destroyed in a recent methamphetamine leak.
The letter also said Miranda had previously reported problems to the chief and others in the command structure.
Miranda was Orr's supervisor in the evidence room until she was transferred in February. She has since been placed on administrative leave.
Gallegos said the department is investigating her for possible violations of Standard Operating Procedures.
Orr defended Miranda, saying Miranda had tried to clean up the mess in the evidence room and told Gallegos of the problems.
Since Miranda's letter, five city councilors have said they want to look into problems at the evidence room.
Ron Paiz, another captain who had opened an internal affairs investigation into the evidence room and into several high-ranking members of the department, had the internal affairs unit removed from his authority.
Orr said she was concerned about fallout from her comments.
"Do I think I am going to be retaliated against? Absolutely," she said. "They have been trying to shut me up for months because I desperately want the criminal investigation to succeed, and it is not going well. The AG has said that the indictments they would have had, should have had are not going to be there and they are attributing it to that six months' window they had to destroy things."
"Things are getting better now because it is in front of the public. It is the only time the department reacts. Yeah, we allowed this to go on and it is a crying shame and shame on us, but we owe it to the DA's office, the victims and the public some accountability."
'We had no proof'
Gallegos said he couldn't immediately remove the employees who were suspected of stealing from the evidence room because it would have been premature. Those employees were transferred out just before the AG started the criminal investigation.
The two have since been fired for unrelated issues.
Gallegos also said the AG is investigating whether those employees destroyed documents that would have implicated them. The chief said those employees did have their access restricted to certain areas of the evidence room.
"There were strong indications that they were involved, but we had no proof," Gallegos said. "You can't arbitrarily transfer somebody just because you think they are doing something wrong."
The chief said he didn't know anything about Orr's claims of being ordered not to file police reports. He said Orr got involved with the evidence situation when he ordered her to do the surprise audit and then he acted on her recommendations.
He also said that it took a while to get the inventory started because the computer technology wasn't in place to get it going.