Crime

Two former Bradenton police employees charged with stealing nearly $30,000 from department

Two former Bradenton police employees charged with stealing nearly $30,000

Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan talks about the the arrests of two former employees who investigators say stole money from the department during a five-year period. The arrests came after an 11-month investigation.
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Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan talks about the the arrests of two former employees who investigators say stole money from the department during a five-year period. The arrests came after an 11-month investigation.

Two former Bradenton police employees have been charged with stealing nearly $30,000 in seized or forfeited funds from inside the Bradenton Police Department over five years, according to Chief Melanie Bevan.

Jake and Cynthia Zaagman turned themselves into the Manatee County jail Wednesday morning and were charged with felony counts of scheming to defraud. They were being held on $7,500 bonds.

The 11-month-long criminal investigation was a joint probe handled by the Bradenton Police Department and the FBI. Bevan had requested the FBI’s assistance early in the investigation.

The investigation became public on Sept. 15 during a Bradenton mayoral debate between Mayor Wayne Poston and his then-challengers, Warren Merriman and Eleuterio Salazar.

The thefts occurred off and on over a five-year period between 2011 and 2015.

We felt betrayed. This is a police department.

Police Chief Melanie Bevan

“We felt betrayed. This is a police department,” Bevan said. “The audacity of employees to think that in this house, that they can come in ... crimes such as this, how dare them, and not expect to get caught. And they have both been caught.”

Jake Zaagman retired in August 2015 from his position as the civilian administrator. At the time of his retirement, he was responsible for overseeing the department’s records management system and the Information Technology and Property and Evidence sections.

His wife, Cynthia Zaagman, retired from her position as the department’s administrative services and budget coordinator in February 2016, at the onset of the investigation.

Both had worked for the department since 1983.

The stolen money was taken from seizure and forfeiture funds, which were managed by Jake Zaagman and audited by Cynthia Zaagman, authorities said.

“When you have two employees that have grown with the Bradenton Police Department and have assumed positions of trust and influence, and these two employees are on either end of taking in money and that entity that audits the money, they are both supervisory personnel who can sign off on audits and entries — that’s the perfect storm,” Bevan said.

The Bradenton Police Department is the victim, she said.

“We trusted that our employees would be held to the same standard that we would expect police officers,” Bevan said.

Detectives worked with the State Attorney’s Office before charges were filed against the Zaagmans.

Even though the crime spanned five years, investigators started even earlier.

“We didn’t stop short there,” Bevan said. “We felt because of the positions that they held and really because of the crimes that they committed that we needed to further back. We went back a decade, looking at everything that they had touched, everything that they had been involved in. ... No stone went untouched in this investigation.”

30,000 The number of items that investigators audited within the property and evidence room at the Bradenton Police Department

As part of the investigation, an audit of more than 30,000 items stored within the property and evidence room at the Bradenton Police Department completed in May 2016 concluded that no property, evidence or money belonging to anyone outside the department was taken. No evidence or cases were compromised as a result of the thefts, according to the audit.

“I want to ensure everybody that no property, no evidence, nothing that could impact any state, any federal case was tampered with or was taken. There is no fear of that,” the chief of police said.

Bevan launched the investigation in February 2016, the same month she took office, after the thefts were uncovered in late 2015 during an internal audit conducted by the department’s Office of Professional Standards, which handles internal affairs investigations.

The investigation revealed that Jake Zaagman would allegedly steal some of the money before making deposits of seized or forfeited funds into the department’s bank account. His wife would cover up the thefts by manipulating the internal financial documentation, investigators allege.

The investigation remains ongoing.

The couple answered to various supervisors during their tenure, including the chief of police, retired Capt. Tim Christiansen and Warren Merriman, who was fired from his position as deputy police chief in January 2015. To date, no one other than the Zaagmans is facing potential charges.

“This is a criminal investigation, and everybody has a presumption of innocence,” retired Chief Michael Radzilowski told the Bradenton Herald. “I think Chief Bevan did exactly what she was supposed to do, and she has my complete support.”

Merriman told the Herald that Cynthia Zaagman never reported directly to him, but to the chief of police directly. Jake Zaagman had reported to Merriman from sometime in 2011 until he was promoted to deputy chief in 2013.

If the couple had conspired to commit the thefts as alleged, Merriman said, he didn’t think there was any way anyone could have known.

“It’s a good day when we can show the citizens of Bradenton that we can police ourselves. We identified this and in quick haste launched an investigation,” Bevan said. “I have complete confidence in the detectives that engaged in the analysis and really just some great detective work throughout this. ... This was hours and hours of sifting through financial records, computer forensic analysis, bank records, personal habits and lifestyles.”

It was not an easy task, she said.

Initially, two detectives were assigned to the investigation, but ultimately it was a team of nine including those involved from the State Attorney’s Office and the FBI.

“My staff handled this as good as I could ever ask for,” Bevan said. “I’m proud of how they put aside any past relationships ... whether they are your friend, neighbor or they’re your co-worker; justice needs to be served — and in this instance, it has been.”

Anyone having further information about the case can call Assistant Chief Paul McWade at 941-932- 9349, or, to remain anonymous and be eligible for a cash reward of up to $1,000, call Crime Stoppers at 866-634-8477 (TIPS) or send an anonymous tip through the web at manateecrimestoppers.com.

Jessica De Leon: 941-745-7049, @JDeLeon1012

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