Laura Pazarena, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s crime scene analyst and evidence supervisor, was back at work today after she was ordered on paid leave on Aug. 4 following an allegation of abuse of power, and pending the results of criminal and internal investigations.
The criminal investigation was closed within 10 days of Pazarena going on leave. The internal investigation, which examines whether sheriff’s policies were violated, is ongoing, however. It is unusual that an employee would return to work while an investigation has not concluded, Pazarena’s case suggests that, while the investigation itself has not been closed, it may be materially completed, and Pazarena appears to have been cleared.
“I don’t want to say read between the lines,” a sheriff’s spokesman said this morning, confirming that Pazarena was back at work. But in effect, the spokesman’s characterization pointed to unsubstantiated allegations–or at least allegations that may warrant less than a severe penalty.
“She has a job to do and we want her to do it,” the spokesman said of Pazarena.
The crime scene investigator was being investigated following allegations that she had visited a local pharmacy with someone else, acted suspiciously, then allegedly returned at a subsequent date in an attempt to retrieve video surveillance footage, though the store was not at the center of any criminal investigations. A woman who identified herself as Pazarena left her name with the store clerk.
The previous story, with details on the case background, is below.
Flagler Sheriff’s Crime Scene Analyst and Evidence Supervisor Under Investigation
Aug. 14–Laura Pazarena, the Flagler County Sheriff’s crime scene technician hired two years ago to launch the department’s first CSI unit, is under internal investigation, and has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the investigation’s outcome.
The sheriff’s office initially was not releasing information regarding the nature of the investigation—whether it’s an administrative, policy or criminal matter. The Aug. 4 letter informing Pazarena of the internal investigation tells her it stems from “an allegation of abuse of power” on Aug. 3.
“Before we put the cart in front of the horse we allow the internal affairs investigation to move forward,” Jim Troiano, the sheriff’s office’s chief spokesman, said this morning. This afternoon, Troiano provided additional information, saying “we have looked at this case criminally and have determined that there were no law violations.” But while the criminal investigation is over, the internal investigation into the abuse of power allegation is ongoing. Troiano also released the incident report that led to the investigations.
The case centers on a suspicion of shoplifting at the Vitamin Shoppe on State Road 100, and Pazarena’s subsequent appearance at the store, where she requested surveillance camera footage.
On Aug. 3, Cathy Vinhais, the store manager, told a Flagler County Sheriff’s deputy that vitamin stores in the state have been the subject of increasing shoplifting, and that store employees have been heightening their awareness and attempts to identify possible shoplifters. Vinhais and colleagues at stores in St. Augustine and Daytona Beach had been discussing two particular individuals they suspect of being shoplifters at vitamin stores–one white one black. The manager at the Daytona store had actually snapped a cell phone image of the pair and circulated it to other managers, including Vinhais.
According to Vinhais, the pair rarely buys anything. The woman comes into the store with a large purse, with the man acting as a distraction who lures store workers to a different part of the establishment while the woman walks to the higher-priced shelves. Vinhais told the deputy that “the stores have communicated between each other that when these two individuals leave the stores, large amounts of inventory is discovered missing (approximately $500 to $1,000 at a time),” the incident report states.
The evening of Aug. 1, Vinhais saw the pair come into the store and start shopping. Vinhais stayed near the woman, who at one point “shouted” to her that “we’re just shopping,” according to the incident report. When the pair left, an employee got a picture of their vehicle as they drove away. Then the car “abruptly stopped and backed up into a parking space in front of the store, causing employees to panic and lock the front door of the store in fear that the two individuals would return into the store,” the report states. Vinhais said “the two individuals stayed inside their vehicle for approximately ten to fifteen minutes before driving away.”
Vinhais did not call police that day. On Aug. 3, however, at about 1 p.m., Vinhais reported to the deputy that “the female from the incident came into the store wearing a green ‘crime scene uniform’ and driving a crime scene van, accompanied by another female who stood behind her and to the side and did not get involved,” according to the incident report.
Vinhais said the woman wearing the CSI uniform wanted to make a complaint and began asking about the surveillance equipment, and how long footage was kept. Vinhais told the woman that the system is handled by the store’s corporate office. The CSI-uniformed woman then told Vinhais, according to the incident report, that the surveillance footage is public record, and that if she was to ask for it, the store had to produce it. (That’s not accurate, of course, and cops generally know this: private companies’ surveillance camera footage is not a public record, though it may become one if it is part of a law enforcement investigation and it is released. A company may choose to release the footage upon request to private individuals, but it is not required to do so.)
Vinhais provided the cell phone picture that was taken by the Daytona manager of the woman seen at the other store, “and it was confirmed to be Laura Pazarena. The male’s identity is currently unknown at this time.” Vinhais said she felt “threatened” during the
encounter and felt that Pazarena was trying to intimidate her by wearing a uniform and confronting her at the business, the report states.
Vinhais told the investigating deputy that the woman in front of her then wrote her name down as Laura Pazarena and gave her two phone numbers–the same two numbers on record as Pazarena’s as the sheriff’s office’s crime scene investigator.
Pazarena was hired on Aug. 12, 2013, as a crime scene technician, at a salary of $38,288, a hire the sheriff underscored as a major step in making the department’s crime scene analyses more autonomous, and less dependent on the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s crime labs. As part of the expansion, the sheriff’s office bought a $35,000 van (including equipment), the CSI van now familiar to Flagler residents whenever a crime scene of note is established.
Pazarena, formerly a crime scene investigator in Washington, D.C., and DNA analyst of roadside bombs—when she worked for Ideal Innovations, a Pentagon contractor—last October was promoted supervisor of the CSI-Evidence Unit, supervising two evidence custodians. Her current salary is $43,426.
The sheriff’s office also recently hired an additional CSI technician who’s just begun her training.
The sheriff’s office has partnership agreements with nearby agencies and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to provide crime scene analysis—something FDLE does, in any case, with major crimes in Flagler. The office will draw on those agreements to cover the period when it is without its own CSI investigator. In addition, all deputies have been routinely trained in conducting crime scene processing to a degree. “What they’re doing now is a lot of what Laura was doing,” Troiano said, except in high-profile cases. “Nobody is replacing Laura when it comes to a high-profile case, we will call out another agency to assist us.”
The department expects neither loss of service nor additional costs from Pazarena’;s absence.
If a police department’s principal crime scene investigator is implicated in improper or criminal activity, the integrity of the innumerable cases that analyst has handled is potentially in jeopardy—a nightmare, worst-case scenario for any police agency or the State Attorney’s office prosecuting those cases.
“Is there a concern? Certainly,” Troiano said. “Have we looked at these concerns, yes we have but we cannot say anything that’s going to happen” until the investigation is thoroughly conducted, and without bias, he said.
Contacted about the case, FDLE stated through a spokesman that the state agency is not involved in the investigation.