Missing evidence is among military crime lab's new woes

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 24, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Army's crime lab, already beleaguered by multiple internal investigations, has something new to explain: missing evidence.

Examiners misplaced evidence in a possible suicide investigation and an assault case. One of the analysts didn't notify his superiors for months that a handwriting sample he was supposed to examine had been missing, a miscue that delayed an investigation into the matter until recently.

Meanwhile, two former senior employees of the lab's high-profile forensics testing in Afghanistan have accused their bosses of firing them in August in retaliation for complaining about mismanagement.

Their lawsuits are the latest in a growing list of employee complaints about the lab. In less than four years, at least seven internal investigations have been launched and eight complaints filed against managers. Employees say the turmoil has distracted them from their mission of analyzing evidence.

The U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, near Atlanta, is the military's most important forensics facility, handling more than 3,000 criminal cases a year.

Now the lab is trying to determine how evidence that was supposed to have been tested was lost.

In September, forensic document examiner Clyde Gayle said in a memo that he'd tried to track down a missing handwriting sample in an assault case but couldn't locate it. He first discovered it was missing in April, which raises questions about why he waited so long to report it.

"There was no effect on the result of the forensic examination in this case," Gayle wrote in the memo. He declined to comment to McClatchy.

In a separate incident in August, another lab employee discovered a washcloth that was supposed to be analyzed was missing two weeks after it had been inventoried for a possible suicide case, according to a memo about the incident. A DNA examiner was supposed to test the washcloth for the presence of blood..

The lab delayed analyzing the rest of the evidence in the case to try to locate the washcloth but no one could find it, the memo said.

In mid-August, an examiner was told to analyze the rest of the evidence without the missing washcloth. The Army's Criminal Investigation Command, which oversees the lab, refused to respond to questions about the two cases, including whether it would notify relatives of the soldier who was thought to have committed suicide.

"It would be inappropriate for the (lab) to comment on possible ongoing cases or investigations," a CID statement said. "I can tell you that the (lab) processes more than 32,000 pieces of evidence annually."

CID has continued to back the lab's director, Larry Chelko, who's been in charge since 1993 and who previously oversaw the lab's controversial response to allegations of misconduct by its staff. In turn, Chelko has defended the leadership style of one of his deputies, Richard Tontarski Jr., although numerous complaints have been leveled against him.

Employees embroiled in the disputes accuse the lab's top officials of being slow to deal with major problems yet capricious and arbitrary in the handling of more minor ones.

"The lab's management wants people to go with the program no matter whether they're right or wrong," said Andrew Carson, who was the chief of the expeditionary forensics laboratory in Afghanistan until he was fired in August. "Rather than empower people, they have created a culture of fear."

Carson, who's a retired Army CID investigator, said he thought he was targeted because he was critical of lab management and contractors who worked with the lab. Carson was working under a one-year contract, but he expected to have it renewed.

Carson said he first stirred controversy when he demanded that an employee who was physically menacing him be sent back to the United States. Carson also raised eyebrows when he reported violations by military contractors, including improperly disclosing internal information.

Then, after discussing problems in Afghanistan with CID's inspector general's office, Carson said, he was called "out of the blue" at his office in Kandahar and told he had to report to the lab's headquarters in Georgia.

When he arrived, he was fired and told he'd been accused of discriminatory behavior.

Lab officials claimed in a letter to Carson that he'd "made demeaning sexual comments towards women and made racially motivated statements." Carson said he never made such remarks and that he thought a disgruntled employee might have leveled the allegations against him, but he wasn't told where they came from.

The letter also accused him of making "disparaging remarks" about lab employees, supervisors and contractors "while in the company of visitors" to Afghanistan. Carson said he thought the letter was referring to his discussions with the inspector general's office.

"This behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated," the letter said.

Recently, the Army sent him questions to determine whether the allegations against him were true.

"The questions were geared toward justifying the action they had already taken, which was firing me," he said. "As much as they claim they relieved me because of poor leadership, they need to look in the mirror. I didn't do 21 years in the Army by not understanding how to lead."

John S. Capone Jr., a logistics management specialist who worked with Carson in Afghanistan, was fired at the same time.

Capone, who also had been expecting his one-year contract to be renewed, said he was told he was accused of making "rude" remarks and putting in for too much overtime. The lab also accused Capone of making a $211 cable charge on a TV in a common area of the lab, according to a letter it sent him. Capone said he wasn't given an opportunity to defend himself.

"None of it is true," said Capone, a retired Army sergeant major of 34 years. "But they didn't bother to check anything out until after the fact."

Capone said he thought he might have been targeted because he wasn't a "yes man" although he added: "I still don't know why."

CID said in its statement that it couldn't comment on discrimination complaints because of privacy laws.

The lab's problems, however, go beyond employee disputes.

Earlier, McClatchy detailed the misconduct of two analysts who made serious errors during DNA and firearms testing but falsified and destroyed documents when confronted by it, investigators concluded. The Army, however, has never publicly acknowledged the extent of the misconduct nor the lab's culpability. McClatchy pieced together the story by conducting dozens of interviews and reviewing internal investigations, transcripts and other documents.

In a separate incident, another examiner didn't reveal during sworn testimony in a capital murder trial that she'd been put on probation for making a mistake on her proficiency test. Her testimony was thrown out.

Complicating matters, CID sent an investigator to determine whether missing records that detailed misconduct at the lab had been destroyed or stolen. The Army said it realized that the documents had disappeared from the lab when it began responding to McClatchy's questions about the two discredited analysts.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D- Vt., and Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, have urged the military to look into the misconduct of at least one of the analysts.

The Pentagon's inspector general's office agreed to investigate, but hasn't specified what it's looking into.

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