Evidence missing, but police didn’t tell

LYNNWOOD — Lynnwood police may have broken the law when they failed to tell the state auditor’s office that thousands of dollars, drugs and guns appeared to be missing from the department’s evidence room.

State auditors have no record that they were alerted to the suspected thefts as required by state law, auditor spokeswoman Mindy Chambers said Friday.

Employees in the auditor’s office learned Friday that police hadn’t notified Lynnwood’s mayor or finance office about the possible thefts and subsequent investigation by the FBI, Chambers said.

State auditors will recommend Lynnwood officials develop protocols to alert the state to known or suspected losses, she said.

“They are obligated to tell us,” Chambers said. “Ultimately it’s up to city management to be sure a system is in place to protect city assets.”

The recommendation is coming just days after FBI agents searched the home of Lynnwood deputy chief Paul Watkins as part of probe into public corruption.

Watkins, 50, is under investigation for allegedly stealing more than $14,000 in cash, several grams of cocaine and two guns seized during a 1996 robbery investigation.

Watkins earlier had told investigators he put the items in evidence lockers at the police department, but failed to fill out the proper paperwork.

The FBI apparently found some of the missing evidence, and police files, at Watkins’ home during a search early this week, documents show.

Watkins is suspected of keeping money that was supposed to be forfeited to the city of Lynnwood or returned to its original owners between October 2001 and October 2005, according to a FBI search warrant.

He has been placed on paid administrative leave. He declined comment. No charges have been filed.

City attorney Michael Ruark is handling all media questions about the case. He declined to comment, saying he was waiting for a resolution by a grand jury.

The city had received some warnings of potential problems with evidence control.

In 2005, state auditors detected “minor” problems when they examined how evidence was secured, documented and tracked, Chambers said. The audit found no identification was required for officers to check out evidence and no logbook was being kept to document what evidence was being removed.

Auditors recommended changes and suggested that at least two people verify that evidence was appropriately handled by city officials. When state auditors came back a year later, it appeared the problems had been rectified, Chambers said.

State auditors didn’t note any problems in July when they examined evidence controls for 2006, according to a state report. They weren’t told that police already had suspicions about missing evidence and Watkins.

“If there was reason to believe something was a problem it was never brought to our attention,” Chambers said. “If they told us about it we could have taken a little deeper look.”

Police Chief Steven Jensen in June asked the FBI to investigate missing police evidence that had been detected during an internal police department audit. It is unclear what prompted the examination.

FBI agents have probed the department’s record-keeping procedures and Watkins’ financial records.

A search of Watkins’ Everett-area home on Monday turned up money, police files and suspected evidence that had been reported missing for five years, documents show.

A .38-caliber handgun that had been evidence in a drug and robbery case was found in Watkins’ home, documents show. The weapon’s serial number matches the one that Lynnwood police said they have been unable to locate since Watkins checked it out from the Snohomish County Courthouse in 2002, according to an FBI search warrant filed Thursday.

Paperwork documenting the search of Watkins’ home shows that FBI agents also discovered paperwork documenting seizure and forfeiture actions in drug cases. They also found Lynnwood police evidence folders and apparent drug evidence, including pipes, some sort of powder and a scale, documents show.

In court papers, FBI agents noted the Watkins has a history of financial problems, including seeking bankruptcy protection four times since the late 1980s. Investigators seized documents related to those bankruptcies, as well as bank records and tax statements.

Evidence handling is not something police talk about much, and they were even less willing in light of Lynnwood’s problems. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office did agree to provide some details and a chance to visit its evidence storage center. They avoid advertising the building’s Everett address.

Keeping evidence safe is a process of verification, checks and balances and constantly looking for ways to tighten controls, said Danise Shields, the sheriff’s office technical services manager.

“You have to be diligent,” she said.

The most sensitive evidence — including money, drugs and guns — is kept in separate secure rooms accessible to only a handful of evidence workers, evidence control supervisor Ken Christensen said. Surveillance cameras and other devices create records of who goes in and out.

Logs of evidence are maintained by evidence technicians and duplicates are sent to the sheriff’s records division, he said.

Large amounts of cash aren’t kept at the evidence center. Instead, the money is taken within 24 hours to the sheriff’s finance office for deposit in a bank account. Little cash is kept on hand, Shields said.

Every month, Shields reviews the books on cash. She does random audits. Her work is also audited by the sheriff’s Organizational and Development Division.

Once evidence is placed in locked cabinets at the evidence center, deputies and detectives have virtually no access, Christensen said.

“I think that’s important that there is a clear separation of functions,” Shields said. “I think there needs to be a separation of who collects the evidence and who holds on to it.”

Reporter Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463 or hefley@heraldnet.com.

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