SWEETWATER -- For the past several years, random cops have had unfettered access to the Sweetwater Police Department’s evidence room. Signing a log sheet when entering or leaving wasn’t required. Cameras to record visits were broken or pointed the wrong way.
During that time, liquor bottles were mysteriously filled with only water, and tens of thousands of dollars disappeared. So did 19 weapons and 19 bicycles.
In all, 7,877 items that should have been safely tucked away in the small rectangular room down the hall from the chief’s office are missing, an audit by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found.
The audit also found:
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▪ Evidence was not logged properly or documented.
▪ There was an incomplete list of receipts and a lack of case numbers.
▪ And an internal control as simple as making certain two officers were present every time someone entered the room wasn’t enforced.
So far, there is no indication that missing evidence has harmed any prosecutions. But the findings place future cases in jeopardy, said Acting Sweetwater Police Chief Placido Diaz. And in at least one instance, Diaz said, a man who had more than $5,000 confiscated from him and has asked that it be returned isn’t getting his money back anytime soon.
“I consider the property stolen unless I find it,” Diaz said at a news conference Wednesday at City Hall. “If it’s a criminal violation, we will treat it as such. If it is an administrative violation, we will treat it as such.”
Diaz said the city has the serial numbers for most of the missing guns. And if any of them show up having been used during the commission of a crime in another city, Sweetwater can trace it through a national database.
At the same news conference, Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez said police personnel most likely removed or “stole” the property.
“No one else had access to that property,” he said.
Many details in the FDLE audit have not been made public. The agency has refused to release its findings, citing an exemption called “active intelligence.”
In this case, it’s to protect the names of people in the report who are being investigated. Someone familiar with the FDLE findings said the city and an outside law enforcement agency are investigating officers who had access to the room.
The audit, a 500-page report according to Sweetwater officials, covers mostly from 2010 through 2015, and was undertaken at Diaz’s request in early June and completed by the end of July. The information from the report made public was released by Sweetwater. The city also released a brief summary from FDLE, showing how it went about the investigation, and the actual numerical findings.
Diaz, who took the helm of the city’s 109-person police force in May, has already instituted controls to halt tampering in the evidence room.
He assigned police officer Ciro Pineda to oversee chain of custody and the opening and closing of the room’s only entrance. The room — about 10 feet by 30 feet with wooden shelves, a cage for weapons and a vault for valuables and money — now has a new deadbolt lock and alarm system. New evidence is being stored with the Miami-Dade Police Department until the issues are cleared up.
Until October 2013, the evidence room was overseen by Sweetwater police officer Catalino Rodriguez, who left the department after being appointed to a commission seat. For the past two years, a civilian has been in charge.
For Sweetwater, the latest alleged indiscretions only add to a city besieged by turmoil the past two years.
In August 2013, Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño was arrested by federal agents, accused of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks in a sham government grant scheme. Three months later, he admitted his guilt and accepted a prison sentence of three years.
Shortly after Maroño’s arrest in October 2013, Police Chief Roberto Fulgueira stepped down amid state and federal investigations into public corruption and civil rights violations. Fulgueira had been at the helm for eight years.
Then in December 2013, an El Nuevo Herald investigation found the city was bolstering its budget with $168,000 in towing fines accumulated through Southland Towing Co., which was owned by a business partner of Maroño.
This past May, Police Chief Jesus “Jesse” Menocal, left when Mayor Jose M. Diaz — a commissioner who replaced Maroño — was not permitted to run again after a Miami-Dade court ruling known as the “resign to run” law.
Diaz, the acting police chief, said he asked FDLE to conduct the audit only after learning of a second evidence room — one the public and most cops were completely unaware of — the city rented a few blocks from the police station at 500 SW 109th Ave.
An investigation in 2013 found the evidence area filled with counterfeit luxury clothes, handbags, and machines used to determine if currency is fake or not. After Maroño was arrested, a police department commander said the mayor had authorized the use of the warehouse earlier that year.
Later, then-Mayor Diaz admitted federal authorities were investigating the disappearance of thousands of dollars in cash from the city evidence rooms. Diaz said the missing money came from either seized assets or from fines recovered from the Southland Towing scandal.
On Wednesday morning, Acting Chief Diaz said the FDLE investigation didn’t include anything from the second evidence room, and all property had been removed and secured.
“They took the property to a trailer and locked it with four wood screws,” he said, “which isn’t the right way to handle it, either.”