Southampton Town Police Chief Robert Pearce said this week that he has launched an internal investigation into how his predecessor, former Police Chief William Wilson Jr., shuttered the now defunct Street Crime Unit.
But that investigation may run into a roadblock, according to police sources within the department, who say that much of the evidence discovered by Mr. Wilson in the Street Crime Unit office has recently disappeared from a secure storage room at headquarters where evidence in criminal cases is kept. The evidence allegedly was discovered missing last week after Chief Pearce himself asked to see it.
Mr. Wilson last week for the first time publicly described finding drugs and money strewn about the office in early 2012 as the unit, which conducted undercover drug investigations in the department, was being decommissioned.
The probe, Chief Pearce said, was prompted by Mr. Wilson’s comments in The Press last week about how cash and drugs were left lying around unsecured in desks and cabinets in the unit’s office. Suffolk County Crime Lab testing of the drugs, ordered by Mr. Wilson shortly after they were discovered in early 2012, revealed that there was cocaine, small amounts of marijuana and several prescription pills.
A police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retribution by superiors, said the evidence seized by the former chief had been picked up on June 29 after being analyzed by the county and was properly logged into the department’s system—a receipt shows that it was picked up and logged in at police headquarters, then put in the locked storage facility—but has since disappeared.
Officer Tim O’Flaherty, president of the Southampton Town Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the police union, confirmed the confidential source’s report on Wednesday. He said he has been informed that the items seized from the Street Crime Unit office were logged in at the Town Police headquarters but that “now, supposedly, nobody knows where it is.”
Officer O’Flaherty said that no information about the evidence has been shared with him or other officers by Chief Pearce but said that the officer in charge of the property room, Officer Theresa Tedesco, has been told that the evidence is missing and that she would be held accountable.
“With concern to my officer, the problem that I have is that other people have access to that room,” Officer O’Flaherty said, adding that the chief and any of the department’s lieutenants could access the property room at any time on their own. “That one officer has been down there for four years, handled thousands of pieces of evidence—and the one thing that is missing is this? That seems suspicious.”
Officer O’Flaherty noted that both Lieutenant James Kiernan, who headed up the Street Crime Unit, and Chief Pearce would have had unfettered access to the evidence room.
Chief Pearce could not be reached for comment on the allegation of the missing evidence on Wednesday morning. But in an interview on Tuesday—before the source had provided information about the missing evidence—he had noted that the evidence “could be in a number of spots,” but did not offer specifics. Asked if it was in the property room, he declined to comment, citing his investigation.
He also said that cash found in the Street Crime Unit office, photos of which were published in The Press and at 27east.com last week, was “buy” money used for drug buys and in prostitution stings, and that it was all properly logged. He lamented the publishing of the photos and said he was taken aback by the way the money, especially, was presented. One photograph showed bills arranged by denomination in rows across a tabletop.
He also maintained that the drugs found loose in the Street Crime Unit office had been properly logged and secured. The lockers in the office, he said, were locked and had to be opened with bolt-cutters when the evidence inside was seized by Mr. Wilson.
“We’re looking into how that office was mothballed,” Chief Pearce said. “They dismantled it, but was everything put in its proper place and properly accounted for? There are certain things that don’t make sense. All the file cabinets were thrown out. I don’t know why. I don’t know if I’ll ever know why. We just want to review how the process was done.”
“I’m looking to move forward,” he said, adding that he has been in touch with Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas J. Spota’s office. He asked shortly after becoming chief in December 2012 if there were any issues with the department that he needed to know about. The answer, he said, was no. “They’ve told me there are no pending investigations into Street Crime,” he said.
The chief declined to comment further, citing his own investigation. He would not discuss where the photographed items were now.
Over the last year, Mr. Spota’s office has conducted at least two investigations into the Town Police Department. The first stemmed from the removal by town officials of numerous boxes of police files from the department’s headquarters in 2011, following reports that some were being shredded by high-ranking officers in the days before Chief Wilson took over the department. Agents from the D.A.’s office seized the documents from Town Hall in 2012, but have not discussed publicly what was found in them.
The second investigation involved more than 100 criminal cases brought by the Street Crime Unit, specifically those handled by Officer Eric Sickles, who it has been revealed was addicted to prescription drugs while working as an undercover officer. Last year, two convicted felons were released from prison after the D.A.’s office asked that the charges against them be vacated because of doubts about the case the police department filed against them. It was recently revealed that a third felon also had the charges against him dropped because of issues with the Street Crime Unit case, though that man remains in prison on separate charges.
On a related note, Chief Pearce said that Officer Sickles is expected to be cleared to return to duty in the department soon.