By Wendy Holdren
Beckley Police Chief Tim Deems confirmed to The Register-Herald Aug. 21 that the department was undergoing an internal inventory of its evidence holding room to determine if anything was missing.
The following day, Deems confirmed that some prescription medication was unaccounted for, but he would not confirm whether the items were misplaced, misfiled or stolen.
He noted that Capt. Jeff Shumate and evidence technician Gabriella Brown were the only two Beckley Police employees with access to the evidence holding room. The investigation was initiated after Brown took a sudden medical leave of absence Aug. 17.
Along with Deems’ announcement, Raleigh County Prosecuting Attorney Kristen Keller confirmed that any drug-related cases involving evidence housed in the property room at the BPD in the past 15 months would be dismissed.
She estimated that hundreds of cases would be affected because once evidence control is compromised, the prosecutor’s office has no choice but to dismiss all drug cases for that time frame.
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin announced Aug. 24 that the Drug Enforcement Agency Tactical Diversion Squad would take over the criminal investigation of the Beckley Police Department, while the department continued with an internal investigation.
No mention was made about the missing evidence or the ongoing investigations during the next scheduled meeting of the Beckley Common Council Aug. 28; however, Councilman Cedric Robertson, a retired officer who worked 32 years at BPD, commented after the meeting that during his police tenure, a retired or former police officer was always in charge of the evidence room.
He said hearing the news that evidence control had been compromised was “a tough pill to swallow,” but “the legal system will play out.”
During the next Common Council meeting Sept. 11, Councilman Ron Booker suggested the BPD participate in a law enforcement accreditation program called CALEA to help re-establish credibility at the department, as well as promote public confidence.
Both the criminal and internal investigations continued throughout early October, when Goodwin announced Oct. 5 that criminal charges had been filed against Gabriella Brown, former evidence technician at the BPD, for obtaining a quantity of oxycodone pills by fraud.
Goodwin said when the case came to light at the end of August, pills had been submitted into the evidence room and when an officer came to collect the evidence, 22 pills were missing.
He said Brown agreed to plead guilty to a criminal information charge and added, “She admits as part of the plea agreement that she has stolen narcotics on a number of other occasions.”
“At this point, we are not foreclosing the possibility, but all indications are that she is the only person involved,” Goodwin said.
He said this provided “a wake-up call” not just for Beckley Police, but for all police departments to make sure checks and balances are in place.
The Beckley Common Council returned Nov. 27 to its discussion of applying for police accreditation, but five of seven council members voted it down.
Councilmen Booker and Robertson voted in favor of the police department moving forward with the accreditation, but after hearing hesitation from Chief Deems, other council members voted no.
The Council agreed to revisit the issue in a year, when Deems said the department will hopefully have more manpower to implement the program.
On Dec. 4 in U.S. District Court in Bluefield, Brown pleaded guilty to obtaining oxycodone by fraud or misrepresentation from the BPD evidence holding room.
She will be sentenced April 22 and faces a maximum of four years in prison, a $250,000 fine, and a year of supervised released.
Her attorney, Dwane Tinsley, said he felt pleading was in Brown’s best interest to save the time, expense and stress of a criminal trial.
U.S. District Judge David Faber set an unsecure bond of $10,000 for Brown.
— E-mail: wholdren@ register-herald.com