ELYRIA — Lorain County Crime Lab Director Emmanuel de Leon was hired permanently as part of a restructuring plan approved Wednesday by the county commissioners.
De Leon, who has held the title for years, had been working on a series of short contracts since February after the county’s General Division judges closed down the Forensics Laboratory. De Leon also had served as director of the Forensics Lab and was the county’s chief deputy probation officer, a position he resigned in January because of the closure of the Forensics Lab, which also is overseen by the judges.
The Forensics Lab had given drug tests to probationers, while the Crime Lab analyzes drug and fingerprint evidence taken in criminal investigations.
The commissioners had delayed bringing de Leon on to run the Crime Lab permanently until an investigation into missing items at the Probation Department was completed, county Administrator Jim Cordes said.
While that probe is still ongoing, Chief Deputy Sheriff Dennis Cavanaugh announced last week that the investigation had cleared de Leon of wrongdoing.
De Leon had been suspected of improperly taking seized pills that had been ordered destroyed as well as having responsibility for two guns and other items confiscated from probationers that can’t be accounted for.
Cavanaugh said the investigation determined that de Leon took the pills to use as standards to calibrate lab equipment, and that there was no evidence he had anything to do with the missing items.
De Leon’s new position comes with a pay cut. He will earn $45,000 per year as Crime Lab director, but was paid nearly $63,500 last year when he oversaw both labs and was working for the Probation Department.
Cordes said his proposal calls for the Crime Lab staff to shrink to from three to two employees while the restructuring takes place.
A decreased need for latent fingerprint evidence means the fingerprint expert working at the Crime Lab will be laid off next month, Cordes said. Latent fingerprints are those typically found on objects at crime scenes that need to be processed.
But he said the lab will continue to test suspected drugs. The speed with which the Crime Lab can process drug evidence is being cited by law enforcement as a reason to pass a levy to support the lab that will appear on the May ballot.
Cordes said sending drugs to be tested by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation would delay getting the results significantly. The state lab already analyzes DNA, gun shot residue and other tests for law enforcement in the county.
Commissioner Tom Williams had pushed for BCI to take over the functions of the Crime Lab because the state doesn’t charge police to perform those duties and such a move would have avoided the need for a levy.
Despite the reduction in staff at the lab, Cordes said if the levy passes he expects that the number of lab workers could eventually swell to five.
“If the levy doesn’t pass, we’re just going to limp along as best we can,” Cordes said.
He said he would like to see the lab begin to conduct drug testing on individuals for organizations like the county’s Juvenile Court and Lorain County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services in the same manner as the old Forensics Lab used to do.
The judges have said the decision to close the Forensics Lab was a financial one because they didn’t need the detailed analysis of probationers’ drug tests that the lab provided. It was simpler and cheaper to use instant tests that indicated whether or not a probationer had illicit narcotics in her system.
But Cordes said the juvenile courts and others like to know the levels and are willing to pay to have that service.
He also said the levy would generate enough money for the lab to buy and maintain the expensive equipment needed to perform the tests it offers.
It also could eventually become a sort of clearinghouse for evidence gathered by local police that needs to be taken to BCI. That could save police departments money because an officer won’t need to be detailed to drive the evidence to out-of-county labs, Cordes said.
The ultimate goal, Cordes said, is to get the Crime Lab accredited, but he acknowledged that is still a long way off.
Although Cavanaugh said the investigation found nothing to suggest there were problems at the lab, a report by the Ohio Board of Pharmacy concluded last year that some security changes were needed.
Cordes said those changes have been made and other policies and procedures are being revised to improve how the lab functions.
Commissioner Lori Kokoski said while she felt bad about the need for a layoff, the changes being made at the crime lab are necessary.
“Whether or not the levy passes, these things needed to be done,” she said.