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Stealing from the police

Medford police officer Brent Mak places evidence in one of the slam lockers of the department's property control building. The facility was constructed after more than $15,000 was stolen from the department's old evidence room. Click the photo to see a larger (27k) version. / Bob Pennell

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? . — — — — No one was ever charged in the 1997 theft from the Medford evidence room, which will forever remain a mystery

Police believe that whoever stole &

36;15,000 in cash from the Medford police evidence locker in December 1997 was one of their own. They just can't figure out which one.

And now they never will. The case is closed.

In this particular case, I find it hard to believe that the bogey man came into City Hall and stole something, said Medford police Lt. Tim George.

But detectives with Oregon State Police could never scrape together enough evidence to interview suspects in the case, much less to file charges, according to a full report released recently.

Sure, they had clues. A mysterious fingerprint that didn't match up with any police employees ' or anyone else, for that matter. Scratch marks on the door to the evidence room. A bent padlock.

But nothing that ever allowed them to make an arrest ' although they did focus their investigation on a Medford sergeant who is now the chief of Central Point Police Department.

To eliminate officers from suspicion, OSP Detective Greg Wright asked them to take polygraph exams ' also known as lie-detector tests. OSP polygraphers administered the exams to ranking officers and anyone in the department who had direct access to the evidence room.

Police Chief Ray Shipley, now retired, took the first polygraph exam, followed by his deputy chiefs, lieutenants and sergeants. They all passed, along with officer Daniel Nopanen, three property control clerks, two janitors and a police volunteer who took the test. Only one refused to take it ' Sgt. Mike Sweeny.

All of the suspicions were that he was involved, but they're just suspicions. There's nothing factual, said Medford Sgt. Roy Skinner, a detective at the time of the theft.

Wright tried to persuade Sweeny to take the polygraph exam three times over the course of a year in order to eliminate him from the investigation. Each time, Sweeny declined.

This was a decision that I made kind of based on principle, Sweeny said recently. I wouldn't take a polygraph that day unless someone was charging me with something, and I wouldn't do it today.

Although much of Wright's 15-page narrative on the case focuses on his conversations with Sweeny, both before and after Sweeny became chief of police for Central Point, Sweeny was never named as a suspect.

Management-level officers at Medford Police Department defend their decision to take the polygraph exam. Most agree that refusing to take a polygraph in this case worked against the investigation.

Why did I take it? Because I didn't do it. Those who have nothing to hide step up and do it, George said.

I didn't do it. I'm cooperating with the system. I want this investigation to find out who did it, said Sgt. Bob Hansen.

It doesn't look good when you don't take a polygraph. If you want to be a suspect, don't take a polygraph, said Deputy Police Chief Ron Norris.

The results of polygraph exams are not admissible in Oregon courts.

Although the statute of limitations ran out in January 2001, investigators and the district attorney's office kept the case open as long as they could. District Attorney Mark Huddleston presented the case before a Jackson County grand jury. He filed a John Doe warrant and a John Doe indictment ' rarely used because it's unusual to file a case without identifying a suspect, Huddleston said.

However, the lack of physical evidence eventually forced Huddleston to close the case in June.

At that point, I decided I had an indictment that really wasn't worth the paper it was written on, Huddleston said.

John Doe's name may have been on the indictment, but investigators and officers agree that the thief was no stranger to Medford police. No one could just walk in off the street and break into the police department. Only someone who had access to and knowledge of the police department could have walked away with the cash, they say.

It's buried so deep within the bowels of the police department that the general public could never get to it, said Medford Sgt. Dave Ryder.

You also have to ... know when no one's going to be around, George said. A police officer has a portable radio in his ear and knows when people are coming and going. -

It was the afternoon of Jan. 9, 1998. George had just left for the FBI academy in Quantico, Va. Officers were set to attend a retirement dinner for Deputy Chief Bill Bruchman. And on that January afternoon, a California drug suspect walked into the police department to reclaim some cash.

Property control officer Rhonda Buma went to fetch the envelope containing &

36;186 seized from Joshua Alexander Miller when he was arrested a month earlier on a charge of possession of methamphetamine. But the envelope and others stored in Bin 9 of the evidence locker were missing.

Of course it has to be there, property officer Marlene Scudder said when she returned from her lunch break around 2 p.m. Buma and Scudder ran a quick inventory of the locked bin. And then another inventory. When they remembered the man waiting for his cash, he had left.

When Scudder and Buma informed Lt. Jim Howe, head of property control, Howe sealed off the evidence room as a crime scene. Several sergeants had argued that the theft should be kept a secret and hidden cameras should be placed in the evidence room to see if the thief struck again.

Norris, the deputy police chief, disagreed. Any physical evidence left in the property room should not be disturbed, he said. With the dozen or so employees who knew about it, the theft would have remained a secret for only one shift, he added.

Only Buma, Scudder and Howe had keys to the inner sanctum of the evidence locker ' formerly the police department's jail cell. But once investigators arrived, it was apparent that anyone with a Swiss army knife could have burglarized the old cell, which had no alarm system.

Scratch marks on the strike plate and door latch revealed that someone had jimmied the door knob lock. The lid of Bin 9 ' the only locked bin in the room ' was mounted with hinges on the outside. Crime lab analysts said the hinges' six Phillips-head screws had been unscrewed at least once since they were first installed, allowing the lid to be lifted off.

The thief made off with &

36;15,590 in cash sometime between Dec. 15 and Dec. 30. The largest amount ' &

36;8,835 ' had been confiscated from a Philadelphia bank robbery suspect who was arrested in Medford. Other amounts varied from &

36;258 in a wallet to &

36;3.31 in change.

Fifty-one items in the evidence room were checked for fingerprints. Prints of clerks and officers inside the evidence room were all justified, said OSP's Wright. One fingerprint found inside the money bin was compared with those of 100 people who worked in City Hall. As with all officers, Sweeny's prints were on file and did not match. The print's owner remains unidentified.

I couldn't imagine anyone breaking into the police department, Scudder said. It was back in the days when you thought you could trust people.-

Wright said he's confident that those who passed the polygraph exam had nothing to do with the evidence room theft. While polygraph exams are controversial and their accuracy a point of debate, the device still is used in criminal investigations across the country.

In the absence of Sweeny's cooperation, investigators were forced to try other routes, Wright said. Investigators interviewed Sweeny's former girlfriend, Rebecca Nutter, who said that the year of the theft he had bought her expensive Christmas presents ' a pearl and diamond ring, dresses and lingerie.

Nutter said she was surprised because Sweeny didn't seem to have any money to spend and was living in a cheap hotel, according to a taped conversation she had with Sgt. Skinner.

Sweeny saved payroll receipts for unused accrued vacation time in case there was ever any question of his financial position at the time of the theft, he said in a recent interview. Wright never asked to see them, he added.

Nutter said Sweeny told her that he wasn't taking the polygraph exam because they're not accurate and he was being framed, according to the tape.

In a recent interview, Sweeny said he didn't believe in the accuracy of polygraphs and was being scrutinized around the time of the theft because he was supporting female officers who had filed a sexual harassment suit against the department.

I knew that I wasn't a good fit at Medford Police Department anymore, Sweeny said. They actually did me a favor by making it miserable there.

He accepted the chief's position at Central Point six months after the theft was uncovered. Sweeny said he had planned on retiring within the year from his 26-year career at Medford, anyway.

Had he left for Mexico or something like that, I might have been suspicious, Wright said. But he really didn't go that far.

Wright planned to ask every sworn officer to submit to the polygraph. However, it was deemed impractical with the large number of officers to be tested coupled with Sweeny's refusal, setting a precedent for others to decline.

I still feel like they're kind of obsessed with me because I told them to stick it, Sweeny said. But that's life. It doesn't make me guilty.-

In the midst of the investigation, locks were changed, cameras were put up and an alarm system was installed in the evidence room area. Three years later, a spacious new property facility with state-of-the-art security put to rest doubts about the security of the police department's evidence.

The four-year investigation ended up costing OSP more money than the amount stolen from Medford, Wright said. Yet Eric Mellgren, Medford's new chief hired in 1998, urged state police to keep the case open despite the lack of progress. Mellgren wanted the case cleared to preserve the police department's integrity, he told reporters in 2000.

I think it's just a sobering experience for a police agency, Mellgren said recently.

At some point, because we don't have a crystal ball, we have to say enough's enough and move on, said Skinner.

It's just frustrating that there's that cloud hanging out there, Norris said.

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail