Evidence has a strange way of disappearing and reappearing at the Bunnell Police Department.
The State Attorney’s office on Dec. 30 completed a follow up report to its last year’s investigation of irregularities and mismanagement at the department, and the department’s inappropriate favoritism toward City Commissioner Jimmy Flynt. The follow-up doesn’t explore new ground. It relates an attempt by Bunnell Police Chief Arthur Jones to set the record straight on one piece of evidence missing at the time of the summer investigation. Amber Burl of Ormond Beach was jailed in October 2009 on a marijuana possession charge even though the evidence used against her was never produced by the police department. Burl’s case was one of several the State Attorney’s office was investigating because of similar irregularities.
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The follow-up report notes that eight such cases are still being investigated by the State Attorney’s office, suggesting that the police department is not yet in the clear. And even when it attempts to get in the clear, serious questions arise, as in the Burl case shows from the follow-up report.
A little background is necessary to understand why the department was being investigated in general and what the Burl case involved in particular. The department came under the State Attorney’s scrutiny following allegations that its cops were improperly favoring Flynt’s wrecker business and bullying people in the community. Two cops–John Murray, who was second in command in the department, and Lisa Murray, his wife–were arrested and charged for misconduct, and in John Murray’s case, cocaine possession and evidence tampering. The State Attorney’s report (available here in full) showed a pattern of favoritism, slipshod policing, intimidation of drivers going through Bunnell, and a series of arrests and administrative charges imposed on drivers that could not be backed up with proper documentation.
The city has acknowledged that one aspect of the procedure–a $350 “administrative fee” the city imposed on drivers who were towed, separate from the towing charges–amounted legalized extortion. The city abolished the fee late last year and agreed to pay back drivers who’d had to pay it in the previous eight years.
But numerous issues remained with procedures at the police department. Burl’s case is one of them. Burl is today 21. She was 19 when, driving through Bunnell in October 2009, Lisa Murray arrested her after finding what the State Attorney’s investigation described as “a very small amount of marijuana (twisted in the bottom corner of a cellophane cigarette wrapper) and a multicolored pipe.” Burl’s car was towed by Flynt’s Saxon’s wrecker service, out of the normal rotation required by the sheriff’s rules, and without giving Burl a chance to have her mother get her car–both violations of state law. Yet when she got out on bail–and paid the city $350 and Saxon’s $260–the marijuana in the cellophane wrapper was right there in the car. So was the multicolor pipe.
“Burl said she was afraid because she thought she was being set-up and her mother told her to through it in the trash can at the restaurant,” the investigative report related. “She said after she threw away the marijuana and pipe they both left Bunnell immediately. Ms. Burl said as a result she was sentenced to probation and drug counseling classes and has been attending them since.”
The evidence, of course, never turned up at the Bunnell Police Department–until last October. That’s where the follow-up investigative report comes on.
On Oct. 28, the State Attorney’s office received a call from Jones, the Bunnell Police chief. Jones wanted to go over discrepancies between his own departmental audit and the original State Attorney’s report. He also wanted to tell the investigator that evidence in the Burl case had been found. The investigator noted the discrepancies–which had to do with dispatch reports and the sheriff’s office’s wrecker schedule not matching up with the police department’s–but also found that “many of the individuals named in the BPD findings were not considered in the SAO investigation,” and some that were still had no proper paper trail.
The more noteworthy matter was the Burl case. Jones produced photographic evidence of the multicolor pipe and cellophane bag containing the marijuana in question–the pipe and the bag that Burl had supposedly thrown away. Angela Hatfield, the police department’s evidence custodian, told the investigator that “she discovered the missing evidence when all of the original evidence, previously stored off-site, was transferred to the new evidence vault.” The manila envelope in which the evidence was located and presented to the investigator had never been properly sealed, according to protocol. There is no documentation of “how the evidence was submitted or placed in evidence,” the investigator wrote in the follow-up report.
The investigator showed Burl and her mother pictures of the discovered evidence. Burl was “adamant” she had found at least a part of the pipe and the marijuana in her car after leaving jail, and thrown out both, though she said part of the pipe in the photograph looked like hers. Ruby Thompson, Burl’s mother, didn’t recognize the pipe, but remembered seeing the metal bowl part of the pipe–not included in the evidence photo–and the marijuana, and having her daughter trash both.
This is not the first time that evidence has gone missing at the department, or that it has been improperly documented. A previous report by the same investigator–into allegations, since found to be baseless, that Frank Gamarra, a sergeant Jones fired, had stolen counterfeit currency–noted that the currency in question had not been properly documented once the department made its allegation against Gamarra. The investigator’s summer investigation had also noted similar issues–that evidence and reports had a way of appearing and disappearing as if by magic, including a bag of evidence that reappeared in a locked office the investigator had previously examined.
The latest follow-up investigation shows the pattern continuing.