Hidden evidence at center of Salisbury police probe

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Dual investigations into the conduct of officers in the Salisbury Police Department and a prosecutor in the Wicomico State’s Attorney’s Office that could unravel more than 600 criminal cases have their roots in an electronic device that vanished nine years ago. 

According to documents filed in state District Court, three officers assigned to a 2011 burglary case withheld the recovery of a piece of evidence — a GPS unit commonly used by drivers to map trips — to protect a confidential informant who knew details of the theft.

Rather than disclose the GPS device on a list of other items recovered in the burglary, the documents suggest the officers pressed charges that eventually sent one man to jail, before the discovery of the concealed evidence derailed the prosecution of a second robbery suspect.

The documents also show that when the Assistant State’s Attorney who prosecuted the case learned of the missing evidence, she documented what had transpired between herself and the officers — but then neglected to tell her superiors.

All four were suspended from their jobs, pending the outcome of probes by the Maryland State Police, Office of the State Prosecutor and U.S. Department of Justice.

It was a wholly separate probe, however, that led to the discovery of the prosecutor’s memo. When an internal audit showed that a civilian employee assigned to the Salisbury Police Department’s Evidence Room might have mishandled or removed evidence being held prior to a trial, State Police and the State’s Attorney’s Office were called in to review the matter.

The audit found a series of potentially egregious breaches of internal policy by the employee, who is not a police officer. Though currently on suspension, that employee still hasn’t been named or charged. 

Salisbury Police command staff determined there was reason to believe that the civilian employee may have committed one or more thefts while working in the property storage area, which prompted the State’s Attorney’s Office to begin reviewing hundreds of cases.

State’s Attorney Jamie Dykes.

Led by the Wicomico Public Defender’s Office, defense lawyers demanded immediate action, speculating that questions surrounding the Evidence Room alone could reopen multiple cases.

“While the details on the extent of the issue are still forthcoming, this could impact hundreds or even thousands of current and former clients,” said Chasity Simpson, District Public Defender for Wicomico County. 

The multiple probes — and the legal inability of local law enforcement leaders to publicly discuss the matter and provide clarity — have upended police and prosecutor operations, raised questions about ethics and placed the city and county’s criminal prosecution system under unprecedented scrutiny.

One probe leads to another

It was when State’s Attorney’s staff members began reviewing their own records dating back to April 1997 that they discovered the memo that pertained to the 2011 burglary.

The officers’ alleged actions were described in a July 2012 “Memo To File,” authored by Assistant State’s Attorney Kristen M. Schultz, the prosecutor now on suspension.

None of the disclosure documents filed to the District Court names Schultz, but a Maryland Case Records search lists her as the prosecutor in the burglary that occurred in January 2011 at a home on North Park Drive in Salisbury.

It was on Feb. 7 that State’s Attorney’s employees were formally asked if they knew of any irregularities concerning activity inside the Evidence Room.

According to the documents filed March 19, “In response, an Assistant State’s Attorney orally indicated that he/she had such attendant concerns, and that he/she had documented those concerns in a memorandum.”

An addendum — one of three documents filed that day — also doesn’t name Schultz as the memo’s author. But it is clear that Schultz was questioned by State’s Attorney Jamie Dykes and only then revealed what had transpired in the burglary case. She also told Dykes of the memo’s existence.

Also, Schultz said that after writing the memo she “without delay” hand-delivered a signed and dated copy of the memorandum to the Police Sergeant then assigned to the city’s Criminal Investigation Division. 

The memo was found in electronic records and was dated July 9, 2012, the same day as the case was dropped.

When Dykes provided the memorandum to Salisbury Police, the department “indicated that it had no record of having received the ASA’s memorandum.”

Police Chief Barbara Duncan.

Salisbury Police Chief Barbara Duncan has refused all comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

Matt Maciarello, now a Wicomico Circuit Court Judge, was State’s Attorney when Schultz drafted her memo; Ella Disharoon was serving as Deputy State’s Attorney.

At that same time, Dykes was a Senior Assistant State’s Attorney in the office.

Nothing in the documents suggests Schultz either told any of her superiors about the memo or shared it.

Additionally, there is nothing in the record to indicate who served as the Police Sergeant at the city’s Criminal Investigation Division when the memo was delivered.

Because the entire matter is under investigation, Salisbury Police officials are not commenting. 

Probes to receive new scrutiny

The officers and prosecutor’s suspensions in the burglary case became public Feb. 21; news of the pending investigations was announced Feb. 24. The contents of Schultz’s memo was released to the District Court on March 19 and obtained just last week by the Salisbury Independent.

Almost forgotten in a sea of public concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the probes will re-enter the discussion stream on Tuesday when the Wicomico County Council considers an emergency funding request from State’s Attorney Dykes and her chief deputy, William McDermott.

Dykes will ask the council to allow her to hire two prosecutors and an investigator to review all cases conducted over a 23-year span — an expense that could exceed $300,000 in annual salaries and employee benefits.

In a letter to County Executive Bob Culver and shared with the County Council, Dykes was emphatic in the need for a complete probe.

“With the integrity of our entire judicial system over the last 20 years being brought into focus, there has never been a more consequential moment for the Office of the State’s Attorney for Wicomico County,” Dykes wrote.

“We did not seek this problem, but have been unwavering in our dedication to the rule of law and our ethical responsibilities since we learned of its existence. … It is clear to me that to ensure that the ends of justice are met, we need more resources.”

Dykes said a national trend when such probes are needed is to create “Prosecution Integrity Units” — highly skilled and specialized units within prosecutor’s offices that ensure the process of prosecution works fairly, that law enforcement agencies understand their ethical obligations and the public is protected.

Dykes said she will join the State Police and Wicomico Sheriff’s Office in a multiagency review of the Salisbury Police Department’s property facilities.

“This will include a 100 percent inventory and accounting of every piece of evidence contained therein,” she wrote.

“This will also include our office providing a special investigator to monitor and participate in the process. As we move forward internally, we will need prosecutors at the highest levels of experience and skill who may be called upon to litigate motions in opposition to re-opening old cases, but perhaps even prosecuting decades old cases that are set for new trials.

Dykes said such prosecutors would require $100,000 in annual salary plus benefits, and an investigator with significant law enforcement experience would need an annual salary of up to $65,000.

“The stakes for our community are high,” she wrote, “and therefore we will need to recruit prosecutors who are at the top of our profession.

Dykes has stated the investigations will “take months, and possibly years.”

Protecting a Confidential Informant

According to the March 19 filings, the string of events involving the Salisbury Police officers began in January 2011, when firearms and electronics were taken during a home burglary on North Park Drive. City Police later arrested two Salisbury men, Christopher Martinez Bacon, then 25, and Aaron Jesse Carey, also 25.

Bacon ultimately made a plea in the case, and — because of previous offenses — was sentenced to 10 years in state prison. 

When Carey came to trial in December 2011, however, Assistant State’s Attorney Schultz met with two Salisbury Police Detectives, Sgt. Thomas Hitty and Cpl. Jeff Hughes.

Schultz documented the meeting and other details in her July 2012 memo.

In reviewing the evidence logs for the case, Schultz wrote, the meeting was held at police headquarters, where she asked Detectives Hitty and Hughes about the recovered evidence — including the GPS unit that had been discussed. 

She wrote in her memo that it was her understanding that “based on the disclosures to date, reports, custody logs and lab forms, that it was never recovered.”

Schultz wrote that Hitty told her the GPS had been recovered and “that it was to his knowledge” in the property room.

Hitty, Schultz wrote, said the GPS device’s recovery “was purposely never disclosed … as there were legitimate concerns” within the City Police Criminal Investigative Department that the physical safety of a Confidential Informant — someone who had helped the detectives in their burglary probe — could be jeopardized if that piece of evidence was disclosed at trial.

According to defense attorneys, prosecutors and police officers, Confidential Informants are so vital to many investigators — and concerns that their safety could be compromised in a trial — that prosecutors and police have been known to drop cases rather than expose them to the accused.

Schultz wrote that, up until that point, no one had ever told her about the Confidential Informant’s role in the case.

The prosecutor wrote that she pressed for more information. Her narrative through the memo is written in strict legal language:

“The undersigned (Schultz) inquired why there was no report about the GPS or the Cl, and the undersigned was told by Det. Hitty that Det. Hitty was ordered not to write one.”

She continued: “The undersigned asked for the name of the Cl and requested Det. Hitty write a report detailing the recovery of the GPS. The undersigned immediately orally disclosed said evidence to (the Public Defender).”

Schultz also discussed the case with a third police officer involved in the case, Cpl. Richard Engle.

After meeting with the officers, Schultz met with Carey’s lawyer, Public Defender Chasity N. Simpson, to work out a plea deal. Schultz, however, dropped the charges.

“(I) was unaware of the entirety of the circumstances and did not wish to misrepresent — full disclosure would have to include a further interview with Det. Hitty, Det. Hughes and Cpl. Engle,” Schultz wrote. “In light of the circumstances surrounding the trial issues in this matter, and the credibility issues that may arise on behalf of SPD detectives should the case be tried, (I) offered a plea to felony theft, 18 months active incarceration, defense was free to argue for less or concurrent time.”

‘Credibility issues’

Two weeks prior to the July 9, 2012, trial date, Schultz wrote that she contacted Hitty and came away believing that Hitty “did not have malicious intent, did what he was told by a supervisor, and believed it was for the safety of the (Confidential Informant).”

But, Schultz also believed the Public Defender could argue “credibility issues of all three detectives at trial.”

What Schultz wrote next is perhaps the most damaging section of her memo.

She wrote that Hitty explained that he and Hughes picked up the GPS from the Confidential Informant, and the two detectives contacted Engle.

Hitty, she said, told her that Engle told him to withhold the location of the GPS and the Confidential Informant, to place the device in the Evidence Room without a report, and not disclose its recovery to the State’s Attorney’s Office.

Hitty and Hughes followed Engle’s instructions, Schultz wrote.

The existence of the GPS was only disclosed later, under direct questioning. Its existence was secreted to protect the Confidential Informant’s role and identity.

Schultz said another meeting was held with Hitty at the State’s Attorney’s Offices and it was decided “that a trial would not be in the best interest of the Salisbury Police Department and the credibility of Det. Hitty, Det. Hughes and Cpl. Engle.”

The case was dropped.

Hitty, according to Schultz, met with the burglary victims and explained the situation.

Schultz wrote that in her view Hitty had “facilitated open and honest communication” with her after the discovery of the GPS.

She wrote, however, that she never spoke to Engle until after the decision had been made to drop the case, and that Engle was not known to have written any reports about the case.

In a later discussion with Hughes, Schultz said, the detective affirmed he was ordered not to disclose the GPS by Engle — all to protect the Confidential Informant.

Deputy State’s Attorney William H. McDermott authored the March 19 disclosure filed publicly in District Court.

McDermott wrote that the State’s Attorney’s Office was releasing the documents to provide “transparency, confidence restoring and good governance that exceed those requirements imposed by the applicable rules.”

Because a prosecutor “has the responsibility of a minister of justice and not simply that of an advocate,” McDermott wrote, the office — through the disclosures — is “exceeding the state’s legally imposed obligations (so) the state can restore confidence in the system …”

He also points out that investigations into the conduct of Engle, Hitty and Hughes are pending.

Remaining questions

The documents fail to clarify three issues: 1) What did the defense attorneys for the burglary suspects know exactly?; 2) Who was the Salisbury Police Sergeant to whom the Schultz hand-delivered her memo?; 3) Why didn’t Schultz tell any of her State’s Attorney’s Office supervisors?

Police Chief Duncan has cautioned against speculation, as no charges have been filed and a probe is ongoing.

“We’re going to afford our officers all the due process, which they are entitled to by right,” Duncan said, “but the public needs to know that in the event that our officers’ conduct is found to be outside of our standards, then that will be met with the appropriate disciplinary actions.”

Dykes sat for a PAC 14 television interview earlier this month in which she explained the threats to public perceptions of law enforcement. Citing the ongoing investigation, however, she was unable to confirm details.

“We have faith and trust our court system to make appropriate determinations at the appropriate time.” Dykes said.

Duncan also stressed she strictly followed procedures by placing her officers on paid-leave status and by conducting an internal probe. Only at the conclusion of the investigation, she said, will there be a determination about what possible actions should be taken regarding the officers.

The Chief has also said the public should retain trust in the department, despite the current swirl of controversy and dual investigations.

“We have committed individuals who work very hard to build trust every single day with every encounter that they have with our public,” Duncan said. “That’s what they’ve been sworn to do — to serve and protect. And they believe in it, and they’re going to continue to do that.”

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