Are guns, cash missing from the Atwater police evidence room? State launches probe

An Atwater Police Department vehicle turns onto Bellevue Road in Atwater, Calif., on Friday, March 30, 2018.
An Atwater Police Department vehicle turns onto Bellevue Road in Atwater, Calif., on Friday, March 30, 2018.

The state Justice Department is investigating whether evidence collected in criminal cases may have disappeared from the Atwater Police Department, the Merced Sun-Star has learned.

The Merced County District Attorney’s Office sent a letter on July 26 to defense attorneys who work in the area saying “there have been security issues with evidence” stored by the Atwater Police Department.

“It is possible there is missing evidence,” District Attorney Larry Morse II said in the letter. “This is currently under investigation.”

Two sources with knowledge of the issue confirmed investigators believe the potentially missing evidence includes multiple guns, a large amount of cash and potentially other evidence with high dollar value, including drugs.

In an interview Thursday, Morse said the size of the problem remained unclear, but confirmed that the state Attorney General’s Office has agreed to put together a team to investigate the matter. He said the potentially missing evidence may be exculpatory, meaning it could be favorable to defendants.

“It’s far too early for us to have any idea. We don’t know what the scope or the scale of this is,” he said.

Morse said his office is required to alert defense attorneys to any potential problems with evidence. He declined to comment on the investigation and what evidence could be missing.

“Prosecutors have to be able to account for evidence all the way from where it’s collected at a crime scene to when it’s presented in court,” he said.

Defense attorneys react

Merced County criminal defense attorneys said the issue was troubling but also said it was too early to know whether the missing-evidence probe would delay any ongoing cases.

“We’re still evaluating how to deal with this,” Public Defender David Elgin said Thursday. “It certainly raises serious concerns about the integrity of evidence and that could have ramifications for every Atwater Police Department case.”

Elgin said his office will need to look at each case individually to determine whether problems exist, a process that may take a long time depending on the scope of the issue.

“One of the problems we have right now is that there’s no date range for when these potential problems occurred,” Elgin said.

Attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum declined to comment on the Atwater investigation directly but said evidence collection and preservation is “critical” in any criminal case.

“One of the first things we always look at is all the evidence in a case to see how it would affect potential liability,” Tenenbaum said. “There are times when we find irregularities and that can have an impact on the case against our clients.”

Audit started ball rolling

Potential discrepancies with the evidence came to light earlier this year when Interim City Manager Art de Werk took over and began an audit of all the city’s services. De Werk had a controversial three months as the city leader, which also included him placing Police Chief Samuel Joseph on paid administrative leave in January. Joseph remained on leave Thursday.

De Werk asked the Merced County Sheriff’s Office to review the department, including evidence storage practices. Deputies discovered “documented evidence that was missing,” Sheriff Vern Warnke said Thursday. The sheriff, citing a need to protect the investigation, declined to comment on specifics.

Warnke said it’s too early to know whether the evidence was lost through “bad record keeping.”

“DOJ is leading this and we’ll get to the bottom of this,” Warnke said Thursday.

Interim City Manager Lori Waterman said she could not say whether the discrepancies in the evidence locker had anything to do with Joseph being placed on leave. “It’s still an ongoing personnel investigation,” she said of Joseph.

Reached for comment Thursday, Joseph referred all questions to his attorney, Michael Rains, who could not be reached for comment.

Councilmember Brian Raymond said former Interim Police Chief Armando Echevarria began the effort to clean up policies surrounding the evidence locker and the process was shored up by Interim Police Chief Drew Bessinger.

“It’s one of many issues we’re dealing with and it’s very troubling,” Raymond said on Thursday.

Bessinger issued a statement about the evidence locker, saying he’s working with the Department of Justice, Warnke and Morse to “investigate inconsistencies discovered during a spot audit.”

“We are currently in contact with other agencies that have the resources and expertise to assist us in addressing and remedying any issue we discover,” he said.