Inquiry into stolen drugs hits dead end
No leads in theft from police facility
Three years after Boston police revealed that at least one officer had stolen hundreds of bags of drugs from an evidence warehouse — a brazen crime that shook a department reeling from scandal — the case has quietly gone cold.
Investigators have been unable to find any physical evidence tying a specific person to the theft, and no one has come forward with information that could incriminate a suspect, according to police. No one has been arrested or disciplined in connection with the case.
The probe, which at one point included 25 to 30 investigators, including FBI agents, now has none. The inability to crack the case suggests that officers can be as reluctant as witnesses on city streets to help police solve crimes.
“I would call it an inactive investigation,’’ Commissioner Edward F. Davis said. “We’re hoping some lead will present itself, but we’ve run everything into the ground at this point.’’
Police released a 164-page internal audit in January 2008 that detailed the theft of drugs — including heroin, cocaine, and marijuana — from 265 cases. Most of the drugs stolen were prescrip tion pills, mainly oxycodone.
The audit’s results strongly criticized lax security and a highly disorganized, flawed record-keeping system at the Hyde Park warehouse.
Davis said that since the audit, officials have adopted almost all the recommendations made by the Police Department’s auditing and review division, including installing 21 cameras throughout the drug depository, moving the drug vault into a room that is constantly lit, and replacing its computerized record-keeping system with a more sophisticated software program. Officials take quarterly audits of a small, random sampling of the inventory, Davis said.
But some of the problems that plagued the depository have worsened.
At the time of the audit, 40,000 old cases that contained drug evidence remained in the depository, creating a logjam that was also a potential source of corruption. Many of the drugs that were stolen came from cases investigated between 1991 and 1997. The depository now holds more than 45,000 cases with drug evidence that is at least 10 years old and that officials say should be destroyed.
Three years ago, auditors said there was an urgent need for a “purging unit,’’ a group of several officers dedicated to destroying drug evidence. The department has yet to form one.
Davis said that under the current law, older drug evidence cannot be destroyed without a court order. He said city officials have urged the Legislature to change the law so departments could more easily destroy older drug evidence.
The drug thefts followed a string of corruption scandals, including the 2006 arrest of three officers on federal drug trafficking charges. Davis, who took over the department that same year, vowed to improve the community’s trust in the department and to stress integrity and honesty to its officers.
“It’s always unsettling when a thing like this takes place,’’ Davis said in a recent interview. “When you recruit from the human race, you do have issues that pop up once in a while. . . . I think that right now I’m satisfied that we’ve done the right thing and the Boston Police Department is moving forward appropriately.’’
The audit began in September 2006, sparked by a scheduled transfer of drugs from one part of the depository to the other. During the inventory count, investigators found that someone had stolen drugs from cases, even substituting substances such as aspirin or Tylenol to cover the theft of drugs from 90 cases.
Even more disturbing, someone had stolen drugs after the audit began. That discovery led to the transfer of the 10 officers working in the depository.
Some of those officers have since retired. Some still work for the department, but Davis declined to say how many remain at work or where they have been assigned.
Davis said dozens of people were questioned in connection with the theft. Asked whether the 10 officers were the lead suspects, he said the poor surveillance system at the depository made it difficult to focus on them. At the time, only one camera recorded who entered and left the facility.
“Without cameras, we couldn’t see without any doubt that it was simply the 10 people who worked there,’’ he said. “What if somebody had keys and access to the facility after hours? It could have been someone who worked there years ago. We can’t rule that out as a possibility.’’
Police say the locks and combinations to the entrances of the warehouse were changed after they realized that thefts continued well after the audit was under way.
Davis declined to say whether internal investigators tried to set up stings that would have caught an employee in the act of stealing.
The physical evidence was also scarce, said Superintendent in Chief Daniel Linskey.
Police sent hundreds of the tampered bags to the FBI for DNA and fingerprint analysis, but none of the results that came back pointed to a clear suspect, he said.
“The only prints we found were consistent with officers who packaged it at the station,’’ Linskey said.
After the theft was discovered, police and prosecutors feared that the missing drugs would lead to overturned convictions. But almost all of the drugs were stolen from cases that were closed, officials said.
Anne Goldbach, forensic services director for the Committee for Public Counsel Services, said she had not heard complaints from any defense lawyers. “I’m not aware of any cases that have been litigated on the basis of the compromised evidence,’’ she said.
Several law enforcement officials with knowledge of the investigation said that whoever stole the drugs apparently was careful to make sure they were not part of active or high profile cases.
Davis declined to say whether he believed drug addiction or greed motivated the thief or thieves. Asked whether he considered an independent audit following the investigation, Davis said he did not.
“The auditing process worked really well,’’ he said. “It’s designed to uncover flaws like this, and that’s exactly what it did.’’
One criminal justice specialist said an outside audit following such a large theft would have helped the department ensure it had done everything correctly to prevent more corruption.
“If things go wrong in this scope and magnitude, it’s good to bring a professional organization that can say, ‘This is how you can do it best,’ ’’ said Maki Haberfeld, a police science professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “This is a matter of public trust. It’s not just a matter of internal investigators against one or two officers.’’
But Jack Greene, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern University, said that the department had acted appropriately by transferring the officers and conducting a thorough internal audit.
“I think that’s a very powerful statement on the part of the department,’’ he said. “It looked into it and decided there were real concerns.’’
Police officials can improve on that by making subsequent audits more easily available to the public, Greene said.
Despite the lack of leads, Davis said he remains hopeful that police will eventually find whoever was responsible.
“There are all sorts of reasons why people come forward with information, sometimes months, sometimes years after the investigation has occurred,’’ he said. “There is a distinct possibility that this could be solved.’’
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.