ELYRIA — Defense attorneys said Wednesday that guns and drugs missing from the Lorain County Adult Probation Department’s evidence room raise questions about the entire operation of the county’s Crime Lab and the soon-to-be closed Forensics Laboratory.
“Things are missing, and that raises all sorts of red flags,” Elyria attorney Kenneth Lieux said.
The missing items were traced to Emmanuel de Leon, who serves as director of both the Crime Lab and the Forensics Lab, according to a letter detailing misconduct allegations against him. De Leon also served as chief deputy of the Probation Department until he resigned that post last week, although he remains on the county’s payroll to certify lab results through Jan. 31.
General Division Court Administrator Tim Lubbe has said that de Leon acknowledged that he took a Ziploc bag of miscellaneous prescription medication that had been ordered destroyed by Administrative Judge James Burge in October. De Leon had planned to use the pills as standards for calibrating the Crime Lab’s drug testing equipment, Lubbe said, but admitted to taking the medication only after twice denying it.
The letter also said that de Leon was the last person to have possession of a 9 mm semiautomatic pistol, a .22-caliber gun of unknown make and a police scanner that can’t be located. Lubbe said it’s unclear what happened to the weapons and scanner.
Lieux said if drugs and guns can’t be accounted for, it raises the possibility that the Probation Department and the two labs don’t have in place adequate safeguards to maintain control of the evidence in their possession.
“If the evidence that is intended to be used against somebody to take their liberty is tainted, of course you have a problem,” he said.
Lorain attorney Mike Duff said there’s no telling how many cases could be compromised by the revelations about the missing evidence. He predicted that defense attorneys will try to have evidence tested by the labs thrown out in pending cases, and he said there could even be efforts to reopen cases that have already been completed.
Not every defense lawyer sees it that way. Lorain attorney J. Anthony Rich, president of the Ohio Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said there isn’t enough information at this point to know if there was a systemic problem at the labs.
“I don’t think there’s anything nefarious going on,” Rich said, although he acknowledged that problems at the labs could have an effect on a few cases.
Lorain County Prosecutor Dennis Will said he expects defense attorneys to start suggesting evidence was tainted, but he doesn’t believe those accusations will impact criminal cases.
“I don’t have a concern that the work done by the lab was improper or inaccurate,” he said.
Both Rich and Will said that evidence will sometimes disappear from even the best-run facilities.
Lubbe said after the bag of prescription medication was discovered missing in November, he asked the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, which runs the state’s crime lab, and the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy to review procedures at the two labs.
A December report from the Pharmacy Board concluded there was “a lack of security and accountability of dangerous drugs used in this lab,” and made several recommendations for improvement.
Lubbe said even before the reviews were complete, it had become apparent that the Forensics Lab, which is overseen by the county’s General Division judges, should be closed for financial reasons.
He estimated the courts will save about $200,000 per year by shifting to instant drug tests for probationers. The new tests won’t require the lab work that was necessitated by older tests.
The decision to close the lab, which some county officials said they only learned about last week, has touched off a scramble by the county commissioners to try to keep the Crime Lab, which they are responsible for, open. The Probation Department had covered many of the costs, including part of the payroll, for the jointly operated labs.
The commissioners voted Wednesday to put a levy on the May ballot that county Administrator Jim Cordes said would allow the Crime Lab to continue to operate independent of the Probation Department.
Cordes said the commissioners are reviewing the Crime Lab’s operations, and the facility will be restructured. But the commissioners also delayed taking action Wednesday on a proposal from Cordes that would have seen de Leon hired to continue to certify the results of lab tests until the beginning of March.
“There are questions that I had, Ted had, Lori had that we want to get answers to before we do anything,” Commissioner Tom Williams said following an executive session on the Crime Lab with his fellow commissioners, Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski.
Cordes said he’s still unclear on exactly what information court officials gathered during the course of their investigation into the missing evidence that formed the basis of the disciplinary action against de Leon. He also said he doesn’t know why the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office, which investigates crimes on county property, wasn’t brought in.
“I would think that when guns disappeared from the Probation Department, someone should have called the police,” Cordes said.
Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Dennis Cavanaugh said his office wasn’t asked to investigate. He said he will consult with county Prosecutor Dennis Will to determine if an investigation is warranted now.
Will said he, too, had been largely in the dark about the missing evidence and, until recently, the possibility the Forensics Lab would close.
“It would have been nice to know there was an issue so we could have been forewarned about it,” he said.
Both Lubbe and Burge said they never brought law enforcement or Will’s office in on the matter because they had no evidence a crime had been committed.
“If I’d have thought somebody committed a crime, I would have notified (Will) right away, but I never had that impression and I don’t today,” Burge said.