BOCA RATON, Fla. - The Oxycodone tablets were labeled "Exhibit 5" in a Boca Raton drug case and displayed for a jury in April. But then the pain pills became the focus of a major investigation into stolen evidence from a Palm Beach County Courthouse vault.
The Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office Monday announced it will not file theft charges against three Clerk & Comptrollers office employees because of the unlikelihood of criminal convictions without solid proof. During the investigation, one clerk's office employee was fired, one resigned and another was reassigned.
The State Attorney's Office report also criticized the clerk's office for having "nominal safeguards" with evidence handling, citing the recent disclosure of yet two more thefts of narcotics from the same vault.
"Due to the failure of the clerk's office to adequately monitor access to its evidence vaults, and the resulting lack of evidence of theft, there is no reasonable likelihood of successful prosecution in this matter," wrote Assistant State Attorney Michael Dutko Jr., in a memo dated Friday.
Clerk Sharon Bock on Monday said the crimes and recommendations from a recent audit have prompted significant changes in the methods used to protect the thousands of guns, drugs, and contraband stored as evidence for prosecutions. She's added security cameras, assigned a vault supervisor, and increased staff training.
"We take this very seriously," she said of her office's role in handling an inventory of 175,000 pieces of evidence. "We're in a position of public trust."
The breakdown began with evidence used for the state's case against Theadene R. Mattis, 32, who was arrested by Boca Raton police in August 2010. During a trial April 11-12 of this year, prosecutors presented the court with a sealed plastic bag containing 1,003 Oxycodone pills, records show.
On April 12, a jury convicted Mattis of five drug charges, including Oxycodone trafficking, and he was sentenced to a total of 25 years in prison. He has since filed an appeal.
According to a report from Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office Det. Pete Zampini, here's what happened after the trial:
On April 30, the bag of pills, weighing nearly 121 grams, was cataloged and placed into Vault B at the main courthouse in West Palm Beach. There are two vaults in the 205 N. Dixie Highway building: Vault A is used for documents, diagrams and photographs, while Vault B keeps valuables such as drugs, firearms and currency.
On June 1, the Oxycodone bag was stored in a sealed, bar-coded box with bags of methadone and cocaine from the Mattis case. On June 29, evidence clerks Colleen Faba and Yahaira Laureano reported the Oyxcodone bag missing. Three days later the Sheriff's Office opened an investigation.
At the time, Bock placed three employees on paid administrative leave: Faba, Laureano, and evidence clerk Renee Hawkins. All three had access to the vault at the time the evidence vanished, Zampini found.
Faba and Laureano pointed the finger at Hawkins, while Hawkins made allegations against Faba.
Dutko's memo noted that Hawkins had access to the Mattis evidence box on June 28, but her failure to sign a vault entry log doesn't mean she's guilty. There were numerous other cases of employees leaving the log blank.
"Because of these identified problems, it cannot be determined when the tablets were stolen or who may have taken them," he wrote.
Dutko went on to describe Hawkins' handling of the box as "suspicious" but there's no way to prove the Oxycodone bag was inside at the time.
During the investigation, Hawkins, 32, was arrested Aug. 20 for possession of controlled substances without a prescription. She was later fired.
Laureano has since resigned, and Faba has been reassigned to a position that doesn't require evidence handling, said Un Cha Kim, chief operating officer for the clerk and comptroller's office.
As a result of the breach, the office's inspector general, Roger Trca, started an audit of the evidence department. This led to the discovery of 414 missing Oxycodone pills from two other criminal cases.
The state attorney's report highlighted the contributing factors to the thefts.
"The nominal safeguards in place to restrict access to the evidence vaults were not sufficient to defend against employee misconduct or, potentially, other criminal activity," Dutko wrote. "The protections relied almost entirely upon voluntary employee compliance, over which there was no adequate technological supervision."
However, the overall audit findings released Monday contained good news: Out of a "limited scope" audit sample of 256 evidence items, only four were misplaced or missing, for an error rate of 1.6 percent.
Bock said the evidence department's flaws have been
eliminated and she expressed confidence that the newly-installed cameras would be a line of defense against lawbreakers.
"We strive for zero loss, zero mistakes," she said. "This is all going a long way to improve the process."