Panic set in at the Santa Fe Police Department last year when officials discovered evidence in a first-degree murder case had vanished.
Rich Bemis, the police department’s property custodian, started going through every box of evidence in a desperate, yet futile search, said former Santa Fe police Officer Dale Meek, who was present.
“You’re not talking about a misdemeanor theft case where we collected some evidence and now it’s gone, so [the suspect] is going to get to walk,” said Meek, who is now police chief of Center, Colo., a small town near Alamosa. “This is a murder case.”
Guidelines for handling and storing evidence at the police department are spelled out in an eight-page directive issued in May 2017. It was designed to ensure each item can be accounted for.
But a recent third-party review of processes, policies and procedures Santa Fe police are supposed to employ while collecting and managing property and evidence uncovered a number of failures, including a critical step that points back to an officer who now is in charge of the department: Chief Andrew Padilla.
The directive states that the deputy chief of administration — a position Padilla held for about two years before Mayor Alan Webber appointed him police chief in 2018 — is required to inspect the property room and file a monthly report “to ensure that all procedures are being followed, and to ensure the proper accountability procedures are being maintained.”
The policy laying out the responsibilities of the deputy chief of administration was not being followed, according to an outside review by SCS Northwest Consulting Services LLC.
“Inspections per department policy have not been done until recently. This is a requirement to help ensure accountability and best operation of the Evidence Unit,” Steve Campbell, owner of SCS Northwest Consulting, wrote in a withering report that triggered a corrective action plan the police department says it is in the process of implementing.
Padilla declined repeated requests for an interview last week but said in an email the police department is “determined” to follow and focus on the recommendations from the outside review.
“We are diligently working on this matter!” the chief wrote. “To now try and say I single handedly created this issue is a stretch, but I do understand you have to follow up on your leads or tips and keep the public informed.”
Padilla contends there is plenty of blame to go around, including a long list of commanders who preceded him.
“There were other lieutenants, captains, deputy chiefs and chiefs who also didn’t follow the policy,” he wrote.
In a follow-up email, Padilla said he carries “the responsibility of the actions of our organization” as chief of police.
“We have stopped past practices,” he wrote. “We will hire more staff and purchase a standalone evidence management software.”
Meek, a former Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputy who served on the city police force from November 2015 until last year, agreed others besides Padilla played a role, adding Santa Fe’s evidence management issues are part of a systemic problem that goes back many years.
“If I was to sum it up in one word: apathy,” Meek said.
‘It’s a disaster’
A few months before news of missing evidence in the 2017 stabbing death of 21-year-old Selena Valencia came to light, Meek and another former police officer, Gardner Finney, raised concerns about evidence room procedures in separate memos to their superiors. The memos are dated days apart.
Specifically, they reported officers on light duty who were assigned to work in the evidence room on a temporary basis to alleviate “overworked” evidence technicians were sharing passcodes to an evidence management software system — virtually eliminating all accountability in the process.
“I think that was just SOP — standard operating procedure — up until very recently, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s still going on down there,” said Finney, who retired last year.
“It’s a disaster, as you can imagine,” he added. “They still have people working that evidence room that probably shouldn’t be down there.”
Officers who are assigned to work in the evidence room are on alternate or light duty for a variety of reasons, ranging from sprained ankles and broken bones to being the subject of internal affairs investigations for excessive use of force or domestic violence, Finney said.
“All these types of people get temporarily assigned that job,” he said.
Meek and Finney were particularly sensitive to the problem of sharing passcodes.
Though it wasn’t related to the evidence management system, they previously had gotten in trouble after Meek used Finney’s password to approve a police report Meek wrote while Finney, then a senior sergeant, was out of the office, they said.
“The software we used for our reports required a passcode to log in, so you could approve reports and send them to the DA’s Office. [Meek] was allowed to use my passcode while I was on vacation, and the passcode thing blew up because it puts an electronic signature on a document,” Finney said. “It’s a technical policy violation, we found out later.”
Meek reported to the evidence room while he was on alternate duty because of the passcode issue, as well as an inquiry into a high-speed pursuit in which he was involved. He voiced concerns soon after reporting to work.
“I was told that I could use Rich Bemis’ login to complete the work. I advised Rich Bemis that I could not use anyone else’s login to open a computer program,” Meek wrote in a March 18, 2019, memo to Deputy Chief Ben Valdez and Lt. Sean Strahon. “I was being requested to perform an action that I had just received a sustained Internal Affairs investigation regarding the misuse of logins and passwords.”
Bemis, who has worked for Santa Fe police since at least 2003, did not return messages seeking comment.
The outside review by SCS Northwest Consulting determined the Evidence Unit is understaffed and that the inventory has grown to “unmanageable levels” with the current number of personnel.
“It’s not just two guys working in an evidence room where that’s their only assignment,” Meek said. “They all have extra duties, so they’re overworked.”
One of the tasks assigned to officers on alternate duty is handling “disposition sheets” from the District Attorney’s Office, which indicate what evidence is no longer needed.
“You get the disposition sheet, which has the case number on it,” Meek said. “You locate the evidence in the evidence room, then you pull the evidence, check it to the disposition form and that evidence gets put into a large pile for destruction.”
While officers have access to the evidence management software system, “not everybody in the department has administrative rights to get into the evidence section to pull evidence out,” Meek said.
Sharing passcodes, he said.
“It is so hard to get administrative rights for someone who’s going down there on a temporary assignment that by the time they get the rights to do it, they’re already back onto full duty,” Meek said. “It’s just a lot of red tape to get through it, but the job needs to get done. So, what was going on is the [evidence technicians] would log into the system for the alternate duty officers and then they would remove it through the tech’s entry.”
Meek said the practice stopped him in his tracks.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m using someone else’s login to do it? Wait a second,’ ” he recalled.
While Campbell’s report recommends training officers and evidence room staff on how to use the new evidence management software the department plans on purchasing, it does not address the login credential issues.
If it is not in the report, Campbell said it means he did not look at that in the review process.
Evidence room practices ‘grossly irregular’
Finney reported his concerns about officers sharing passcodes about a week before Meek filed his memo.
Finney wrote in his complaint that he was contacted by an officer who told him “that everyone on light duty is still violating the law, even though [now-retired] Deputy Chief Robbie Vasquez was notified in writing on February 26, 2019 about people on light duty using passcodes from a former employee to access” various computer systems.
In an interview, Finney said an officer he supervised at the time told him the passcodes were in plain sight.
“She said, ‘Hey, they have a notebook down there next to the AS 400 terminal, which is the computer down there in the evidence room, and it’s got passcodes written on it,’” he said. “It was left down there so that any officer working that terminal could manage the evidence management system so they can enter evidence, take evidence out, that sort of thing.”
Finney called the practice “grossly irregular and irresponsible.”
The missing evidence in the Valencia case resulted in a plea deal for her killer, 28-year-old Christopher Garcia, who pleaded no contest to one count of voluntary manslaughter and guilty to two counts each of tampering with evidence and drug possession.
Garcia, who faced life in prison under a first-degree murder conviction, was instead sentenced to 12 years behind bars, which could be cut in half with time off for good behavior.
The police department said it lost 11 pieces of evidence, including fingernail clippings and traces of hair found on Valencia.
“I just remember Rich started going through every single box of evidence because evidence was missing,” Meek recalled, referring to the evidence custodian. “He had record of it going to the lab and coming back from the lab, but it couldn’t be located.”
Finney, who was born and raised in Santa Fe, said the missing evidence in the Valencia case could have far-reaching consequences.
“Look, losing the murder evidence is outrageous,” he said. “But another thing that’s lost — and I hear this because my family lives here — is the public trust. There is no public trust now in the police department.”
Finney predicts the police department’s sloppy practices will create problems for the District Attorney’s Office.
“If I was a defense attorney, I would take every single case to trial — every single case — and challenge every bit of evidence,” he said. “Let me put it to you this way: If your truck is in evidence and you’re accused of a crime but you knew that multiple people had access to your truck, would you rely on what the police pulled out of there?”
Meek said he believes complacency in the department about evidence management procedures was largely to blame for the controversy. He said the vast majority of officers pursue a career in law enforcement “for the right reasons” and only a minuscule number — “0.1 percent” — would be involved in something “dirty” or illegal.
“Do I think that that’s what was going on in the evidence room [at the Santa Fe Police Department]? No,” he said. “But you don’t have accountability, so someone could’ve easily pulled evidence from the shelf and threw it away and pulled it out of the computer system, and no one would know.”
New Mexican reporter Amanda Martinez contributed to this report.