Southampton Town Police Chief Robert Pearce on Tuesday acknowledged that evidence—undocumented drugs and money found last year in the department’s now-defunct Street Crime Unit office by former Chief William Wilson Jr.—vanished last week, but he said it recently resurfaced.
He would not, however, provide any details.
“The items that were missing have now been accounted for,” Chief Pearce said. He refused to comment further, citing an ongoing internal probe that he has launched into how his predecessor shut down the Street Crime Unit, a specialized drug investigation squad at the heart of much controversy in the department during the past year.
The evidence—which Suffolk County Crime Laboratory analysis confirmed included cocaine and marijuana and several different types of prescription pills—was swept up from the Street Crime Unit office early last year after then-Chief Wilson said he noticed drugs and cash strewn unsecured in desks and cabinets in the room and launched an investigation. After testing, the evidence was returned to headquarters, logged into the department’s system, and stored in a locked property room.
The items were discovered missing, however, when Chief Pearce reportedly went looking for them after investigative photographs of loose drugs in the office were published in The Press on March 14. They were found on Monday in a temporary evidence lockup in the Detective Division.
Chief Pearce, who had been the division head overseeing the drug unit, Ray Perini, an attorney representing the union for department brass, and Lieutenant James Kiernan, the former unit’s commanding officer, all criticized the publishing of the photos last week.
Mr. Perini, whose client Lt. Kiernan was the supervising sergeant of the unit, said he was “livid” that the photos were published. Lt. Kiernan was suspended for nearly six months on dozens of disciplinary charges filed by Chief Wilson, many of which involved the condition of the Street Crime Unit office.
Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst on Tuesday said the Town Board had been informed that the evidence collected from the Street Crime Unit office was missing—and subsequently that it had been recovered.
“[The police chief] was scheduled to come to us in an executive session last Thursday, to update us. We ended up not having the executive session, because Chief Pearce was not available, so I had rescheduled it for this week,” she said. “But in the meantime, we were told today that the evidence has been located.”
The board still plans to meet with the chief this Thursday, March 28, to discuss the issue—specifically, the chain of custody protocols for evidence and whether they need to be improved.
Chief Pearce this week said it would be unfair for him to answer questions regarding the evidence’s disappearance and reappearance, since he is conducting an active investigation.
But Detective Kevin Gwinn, the vice president of the town’s Patrolman’s Benevolent Association, the union representing rank-and-file cops, said he was aware of the disappearance and reappearance because one of his union members, Officer Theresa Tedesco, the property room officer and someone he described as a “stickler for detail,” was relieved of her duties overseeing the room by Chief Pearce the day the evidence was discovered missing.
“When a PBA member calls me and tells me that she’s been relieved of her duty because drug evidence against high administration in the police department, a high-profile case, has gone missing, that certainly is not spinning tales. That’s a firsthand, factual report of what happened,” Det. Gwinn said, referring to an accusation this week by Lt. Kiernan that the PBA was “spinning tales.”
Officer Tedesco’s property room responsibilities were returned to her on Tuesday morning, Det. Gwinn said, after the missing items turned up on Monday in a Detectives Division temporary evidence closet that had already been searched as part of an audit being conducted by Chief Pearce, reportedly on Friday.
Det. Gwinn said his union was displeased an outside agency did not conduct the audit, because many administrators accused of “mishandling” the Street Crime Unit and the supervision of Police Officer Eric Sickles, a former member of the unit who became addicted to prescription drugs, were the same ones conducting the investigation.
“It was a huge conflict of interest, because the way it was being done was like putting wolves in the henhouse,” Det. Gwinn said.
He said he was also concerned about the possibility that evidence from other cases stored in the property room might now be considered tainted.