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Palmer PD discloses missing property

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MARK VARSEL
The Ellis County Press
PALMER - Item 10 on the agenda at the latest Palmer City Council meeting was placed there at the request of Police Chief Scott Lynch.

It read, 'Discussion and possible action regarding reports and status of the Evidence Room at the Police Department.'

It was an issue causing the chief a great deal of concern.

He said, 'I wish it had never happened and I wanted council to know,' referring to his discovery of missing property from the evidence room of the Pal-mer Police Department.
Lynch was hir-ed by the Palmer Police Department in July of 2002.

At the time, Stephen Sparks was the Chief of Police.

Sparks later became city administrator for the city and Lynch was promoted to chief in October 2005.

According to Lynch, as City Administrator, Sparks could never find the time to conduct a complete inventory of the evidence room and finally, in October, Lynch accepted a letter drafted by Sparks; wherein, he assumed control of the evidence room, but Sparks accepted the responsibility for all property logged in prior to Oct. 3, 2005.

As told by Lynch, after being appointed chief and with all the demands on his time, it was not until January of this year he was able to begin organizing the evidence and property now under his control.

He said he became alarmed immediately when he discovered several evidence bags, which should have contained varying amounts of controlled substances, to be empty.

'I was scared to death,' Lynch said, 'and I talked to Municipal Court Judge Sue Schmidt and contacted the district attorney's office to let them know what I had uncovered.

'I requested that they come to Palmer and conduct a thorough inventory of the evidence room.'

It was a month later when representatives from the DA's office showed up in Palmer.

They were shown the empty evidence bags.

'They took some pictures, but said they couldn't help.

'They didn't have time to conduct an inventory and said there was no evidence a crime had taken place.

'From their perspective, it was missing property.

'They advised me to submit a list of what property needed to be destroyed.

'We've been waiting on a destruction order since February - we haven't received anything since February,' Lynch said.

Lynch suspects the missing contraband, which amounted to a pound and a half of marijuana and about an ounce each of cocaine and methanphetamine, was used for dog training purposes.

At the time, the Palmer Police Department was actively engaged with other area law enforcement agencies in the training and utilization of K-9s in law enforcement activities.

'It probably wasn't a real bright thing to do, but I don't believe there was any criminal intent involved.'

He said, usually, dog training drug paraphernalia is obtained through the DEA.

An internal effort was initiated to thoroughly inventory and reorganize all the contents of the evidence room. At the time, the room was located in the back of the police department with eight-foot walls, but no ceiling to separate it from the rest of the office.

The internal door securing the room had hinges mounted on the outside.

'The door could've been removed by tapping out the three pins holding it, or someone could have crawled over the wall. Four people had keys to it,' Lynch said.

Control of the room has since been turned over to a single officer, Sgt. John Zaidle.

Zaidle has cataloged all the existing evidence and was the only individual given authority to remove property from the room.

'Sgt. Zaidle is 100 percent responsible for that room,' Lynch remarked, with Zaidle nodding in agreement.

Everything was fine until earlier this month, according to the officers, when a former defendant came to reclaim his property.

Lynch paraphrases from the police report, 'A man was arrested after midnight on Dec. 1, 2001, under an overpass on I-45. He was asleep as the officer approached the vehicle. Open alcoholic beverage containers and a deer rifle were observed in the passenger seat. The occupant failed numerous field sobriety tests and a search revealed two handguns under the front seat.'

Lynch said the man was arrested and charged with 'carrying a weapon unlawfully,' not the DWI charge might have expected.

The two handguns were properly logged into the evidence room after being seized as evidence, as documented in the report.

The deer rifle was confiscated for 'safekeeping,' but after almost five years in the court system, the charges were dropped and the man was authorized to pick up his property.

When he approached Lynch last month it was immediately apparent there was a problem.

Lynch said, 'I knew there wasn't a deer rifle in that evidence room and I told him so.

'I was right, there wasn't any deer rifle in the room . . . it cost the police department $850.'

This caused Lynch to become even more concerned about the contents of the evidence room, even though they now had a complete and thorough inventory of its contents.

'We knew what was in the room - what we didn't know was what was supposed to be in there,' Lynch said.

All of the evidence in question was logged prior to the start of employment of any of the current pfficers now on the police force, including the chief.

By coincidence, the software the department uses to log incident reports had recently been updated.

Previously, they could search incident reports for people, business names, addresses and vehicles, but not weapons.

The new software changed that and on a hunch, Lynch searched the database for weapons.

He took the list generated and compared it to Zaidle's inventory.

Now he knew for certain what property should have been in the property room, but Lynches' problem grew as more missing property was revealed.

Lynch told the council, 'Eight more guns, that should be in the evidence room, are not there.

'Their owners could be in jail, or the cases still in court. They could show up one day. This is an unknown liability for the department and it's already cost us $850.'

The story doesn't end there. A previous, verified inventory revealed the evidence room once contained 44 articles of jewelry and $1,588 in cash belonging to Bobby Petkoff.

Locals may remember Petkoff as the murder suspect apprehended in Palmer, shot in an escape attempt and hospitalized at Parkland Hospital in Dallas.

Upon his release to the Texas Rangers, he jumped from their vehicle while driving down I-35. Petkoff was currently serving time in prison.

Sgt. Zaidle contacted Petkoffs' father to try to determine the disposition of his son's property, as there were no records at the police department to indicate the property was released.

Petkoff, a retired police officer himself, indicated he had tried to retrieve the property at the request of his son.

'This property was not part of any criminal investigation and was also being held for safekeeping,' said Lynch.

'Indications are that Petkoff purchased this jewelry with the proceeds he received from selling two automobiles.'

Zaidles' notes, from his conversation with the elder Petkoff, reveal when questioned about the property, Petkoff indicated he received 'A few rings and a few dollars.'

The inventory list of the jewelry was reported to be extensive and impressive. According to Lynch, Schmidt, who had also seen the jewelry, informed him that it 'was not costume jewelry.'

Today, things have changed at the Palmer Police Department. The evidence room has been moved and redesigned. It has been reinforced and a single officer administers control over its content to guarantee accountability.

The contents are inventoried and neatly arranged in chronological order.

While Lynch has searched the computer records for weapons, there could be other property he hasn't yet defined.

'There are cabinets full of paper records that pre-date the computer system. The only way to search those records is by manual review to see if they document additional property supposedly held by the department,' he said.

Lynch said, 'We no longer take possession of property for safekeeping.

'Let the wrecker company or the jail worry about it. If it's not evidence, found property or seized property, we don't take control of it.'

Sparks was not available for comment.

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