THE GREEN HAZE - Bungled Evidence, The Never-Ending Story

(03/16/2002)

By Bob Weaver

State Police Superintendent Howard Hill said he would like to pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV and not hear something negative about the agency. A solution to that problem does not appear forthcoming.

The agency has been spiraling in disarray for several years, unable to develop a supervisory system that promotes accountability. Some observers say officers have acted like independent agents, enforcing the law.

Despite millions of dollars in lawsuits and numerous criminal charges, some related to the state police lab and others to trooper misconduct, the West Virginia Legislature has declined to take a stand.

Now comes the latest incident at the lab. Sgt. Timothy White and the lab's Director Capt. Rick Theis have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation by the U. S. Attorney's Office and the FBI. Problems surfaced over tests done between April and July, 2002.

Major problems surfaced in September, 2000 when a civilian co-worker Todd McDaniel pled guilty to a federal fraud charge, and was sent to jail. McDaniel admitted he skipped tests on suspected marijuana and cocaine evidence.

The lab was then examined by the FBI, and after a Freedom of Information request by The Charleston Gazette, their report showed others in the lab mis-managed tests, although McDaniel was the only person prosecuted. The State Police then declared the lab functional.

The FOIA documents indicated the now suspended Sgt. White, the whistle blower on lab problems in 2000, also failed to conduct "preliminary testing" and showed signs of deception during an FBI lie detector test.

Delegate Larry Faircloth, giving an overview of State Police problems, has called for an investigation by the Department of Justice. He says customary channels have been unresponsive.

Problems with drug testing or drug evidence is part of the current investigation linked to the Kelley Mace case in Calhoun County. Trooper Doug Starcher is being investigated for perjury by an independent prosecutor from Kanawha County, after allegations that he may have lied before the Calhoun circuit court.

Mace contends a search warrant obtained by Sgt. John Bonazzo and Trooper Doug Starcher, alleging a million dollar drug ring operating from her house at Chloe, produced no evidence. She contends a bag of common garden sulfur was called methamphetamine to indict and prosecute her in Calhoun Circuit Court, an action that continued for about one year before the case was dropped.

Court transcripts of the Mace case indicate evidence did not exist, or it was misplaced and did not reach the State Police lab. The lab report was not presented as part of the evidence against her.

The State Police revamped its lab in 1994 after the Fred Zain case threw the agency into turmoil, resulting in numerous law suits and millions of dollars in claims from people who were falsely incarcerated.

The Zain case is the object of a current suit by Attorney General Darrell McGraw against the law firm Steptoe and Johnson. Documents indicate the firm attempted to conceal problems related to the Zain case, which could continue to cost taxpayers huge sums of money.

Jim Lees, a leading West Virginia attorney, says State Police lab problems should be expected because it is run by a police unit. He says police operated crime labs are flawed.

Kelley Mace claims when State Police did the drug raid on her property, she told one of the officers he would find nothing. She said he replied "Yes I will. It is my lab."

Lees says labs are supposed to answer questions of the court on evidence in an independent manner, which runs counter to law enforcement's mission to find the bad guys and punish them.

Lees wants a stand-alone crime lab run by the Medical Examiners Office that could be connected to a state university.

The current internal review process maintained by the State Police has been in question for years, where troopers are investigated within their own ranks for misconduct. Many who have experienced the process contend it is flawed and has some constitutional quagmires.

While most members of the State Police can be declared dedicated and professional, those who present problems over and over, do not seem to be held accountable for their poor performance or outrageous misconduct.

Incidents with local troopers have become legendary, related to brutish and abusive behavior.

The call for a civilian review board or an independent lab has been adamantly rejected by State Police officials, and now the organization is wanting to unionize. The State Police lobby has consistently kept legislators from tampering with the structure of the agency.

The Hur Herald has discovered the agency uses numerous glitches to hide public information, even under the Freedom of Information Act. They would not disclose the number, let alone the names of officers, of misconduct charges filed against Calhoun troopers, nor would they validate that a Braxton County trooper was dismissed or provide information regarding their local budget.

Nothing short of a major revamping of the agency will suffice, and only the West Virginia Legislature can do that. The slope is greased, and despite efforts by Col. Hill and others, and there is little light at the end of the tunnel.


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