A total of $1,510 disappeared from an evidence safe in the Macon Police Departments crime lab in two incidents between April 2010 and May 2011.
The apparent thefts were possible because of long-standing lapses in security and record-keeping in the crime lab, according to investigative documents. Police say those holes have been plugged, but despite lengthy investigations, they still dont know where the money went.
Interim Police Chief Mike Carswell said Sept. 5 theres no way to tell how many cases might have had evidence flow through the crime lab during the span of time that someone was stealing money.
Maj. Charles Stone, head of the departments Criminal Investigations Division, said he doesnt think the thefts will affect the course of any prosecutions.
This appears to be strictly a money theft, Stone said. We have no indication from this entire investigation that any evidence, or any crime scene or anything like that, had been tampered with.
The Telegraph has reviewed several hundred pages of documents related to the case that the newspaper obtained through the Open Records Act. Although the newspaper asked for the documents in May, the police department did not release them to The Telegraph until Sept. 5.
In both instances, the money disappeared from a safe in the confiscated-drugs locker room, which is separate from all other evidence storage, Assistant City Attorney Stuart Morelli said. In an April 5, 2012, report on crime lab security, city Internal Auditor Stephanie Jones said that in early 2012 there was $243,969.82 in the safe that had not been reported to the Finance Department.
The officer under heaviest scrutiny but never charged in either case, Sgt. Steve Gatlin, said Thursday that he prizes his reputation for honesty. Being subjected to two lie-detector tests upset him emotionally and physically, causing reactions that appeared to show guilt, he said.
Being put in that in position and questioning my integrity is what caused those responses, said Gatlin, a 29-year veteran officer. I did not lie on the polygraph. Every time I was asked those questions, I could feel my heart jump into my throat.
I am innocent of anything that happened at the crime lab, and it just bothers me to even be questioned about it.
Now, he said, hes bothered by living with the continued suspicion. Since the thefts remain unresolved, the only way he could be vindicated now is if the perpetrator steps forward, Gatlin said.
Theres three people that knows I did not do that. Thats the good Lord, me, and the person that did it.
Gatlin said the experience has taught him more sympathy for others being questioned by police and why polygraph tests arent admissible in court.
From personal experience, it shows me without a shadow of a doubt that that things fallible, he said.
While transferring confiscated money from closed cases to the citys Finance Department on May 5, 2011, crime lab employees discovered that one packet containing $1,108 was missing, according to a report from Lt. Randy Gonzalez, then crime lab director.
That money, seized during a 2009 drug arrest, last appeared on an inventory in April 2010. Inventory was usually taken once a year.
Lt. Ellis Sinclair, an Internal Affairs investigator, got the case in mid-June 2011. His interviews with crime lab workers turned up many security and record-keeping problems, but they didnt get police closer to finding out where the money went.
Due to lack of accountability tracking system in place and security issues, pinpointing: who what, when, w(h)ere to this case involving the money is still unclear, Sinclair ended his report. Criminal investigation?
Carswell said Sept. 5 that then-Police Chief Mike Burns, in charge of the department until February 2013, authorized the internal investigation and called for a criminal inquiry in the summer of 2011. But it took nearly four more months before criminal investigators in the Property Crimes Division began work on the case.
I had sent the file back to property investigations for a follow-up, Burns said via email Sept. 24. That was not completed until after I was out on medical leave. I did not receive the final report back.
Burns went on medical leave in February 2013 and formally retired in May. But the final report from Sgt. Jason Batchelor, a property crimes investigator, is dated Feb. 27, 2012.
This case will be closed until new or additional information is made available, Batchelor wrote.
He and detective Scott Zajac got the file Nov. 2, 2011. More interviews of lab staff produced the theory that the money could have slipped into a barrel of drugs destined for destruction.
Drugs and money are placed in the same type evidence bag, Zajac wrote.
Crime lab personnel were asked to take polygraphs, given by the GBI. Results were inconclusive for Gonzalez and fingerprint technician Angel Musselman, but GBI polygraph examiner Tim Chatman concluded that Gatlin showed signs of deception on three questions about stealing the money, spending it or knowing about the theft.
In a subsequent email to investigators, Gatlin said he believed his failure was due to being on weight loss pills and colon cleaners.
Sgt. Amy Wheeler -- later promoted to lieutenant -- was a crime lab technician when the money was discovered missing. She failed two questions, about knowledge of the theft and spending any of the missing money, according to the report. Wheeler said she found $5 on the lab floor but later said shed found it outside, reports from Zajac and Chatman said.
Lab clerk Alison Amerson passed her test, but Sgt. Melanie Hofmann -- then a computer forensics technician -- refused a polygraph, saying They are not going to violate my rights, the report said.
Gatlin was interviewed one more time, on Jan. 24, 2012.
Sgt. Gatlin stated that ... based on the totality of the evidence, the logical conclusion is I did it, Batchelor wrote in his Feb. 27 report. But Gatlin denied any knowledge of or involvement in the theft, as Batchelor explicitly called it.
Matters rested there until March 27, 2013. On that day, crime lab workers were unable to find $402 that had been seized during a 2005 drug case, according to an April 11, 2013, report from Hofmann. Lt. Mickey McCallum, who replaced Gonzalez as lab director, found an evidence voucher for the money and realized someone had altered the labs computer files to conceal the moneys theft, according to a memo from Batchelor.
The evidence suggests ... the same person or person(s) to be responsible for both thefts, Batchelor wrote May 26. While circumstantial evidence exists that tentatively identifies the individual responsible, the Property Crimes Division is unable to establish probable cause to warrant criminal prosecution.
He recommended that the case be closed. But on July 2, Batchelor again interviewed Gatlin, who denied involvement in either theft, and agreed to take a second polygraph -- but not from GBI. He took one Aug. 16, given by detective Joel Montezinos of the Roswell Police Department. The result was the same as before, with Gatlin again maintaining his innocence.
The Property Crimes Division recommends that this investigation be placed on inactive status, Batchelor wrote Aug. 20.
In the end, the only person who faced punishment was Gatlin, who on Sept. 4 received a five-day suspension for doing not very well on polygraph tests, Carswell said. That was appropriate based on the truthfulness policy in police and Human Resources Department guidelines, Carswell said.
With that, the investigation is completely closed out, he said. New procedures, computer security and cameras in the evidence room should prevent any recurrence, Carswell said.
In December 2011, Burns asked Jones, Macons internal auditor, to review the crime labs procedures as part of the triennial national accreditation process. Carswell said the review wasnt prompted by the missing money.
But Jones April 5, 2012, report said security and record-keeping standards were so loose that she couldnt conduct a full audit. Many of the problems Jones cited -- no standard procedures for handling money, inadequate surveillance, no timetable for moving money to the Finance Department, too much access to evidence and computers, no way to track deletions from the evidence database, and lack of compliance with what security policies did exist -- had been noted in Sinclairs Internal Affairs report seven months earlier.
Following Jones analysis, however, Burns gave the administration a long list of improvements to security and record-keeping, all of which are now complete. Along with that list on June 15, 2012, he gave interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker a reassuring statement.
According to the results, all items were accounted for, Burns wrote.
That was 13 months after the first theft was discovered.
In August 2012, crime lab workers spent more than 100 hours of overtime taking inventory in the Houston Avenue facility. At that time, Burns again said no evidence was missing and no cases were compromised, though a few pieces of evidence had been filed incorrectly.
Asked Sept. 24 about that discrepancy, Burns referred the question to Stone.
I was told that all of the paper files were matched to the actual evidence and then matched to the computer files, Burns said in an email. (Stone) advised everything was accounted for.
Stone, responding through police spokeswoman Jami Gaudet, said he gave Burns the crime lab inventory report from 2012, which wouldnt have included money discovered missing the previous year.
The Telegraph asked for a copy of the case file May 21, but police did not immediately release the documents because of the open investigation into the second incident.
Police sent the file to the city attorneys office for redaction of personal information May 31, two days after Walker emailed Carswell and Stone urging that results be released quickly. Attorney Frank Hogue subpoenaed the file Aug. 7, and it was released to him and The Telegraph on Sept. 5.
Hogue is defending Stephen McDaniel in his trial for the June 2011 slaying of his neighbor and fellow Mercer University law school graduate Lauren Giddings.
Gatlin had fairly significant involvement in collecting evidence for the McDaniel case -- he was the one who found Giddings torso -- and Hogue alleges that Gatlin made some evidence-handling mistakes. But the missing money isnt likely to figure in the McDaniel trial, Hogue said.
He puts little stock in polygraph results and has known Gatlin for years, he said.
I personally believe that he is a truth-telling person of integrity, Hogue said.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.