Orange County sheriff’s officials are being accused in court records of planting evidence by moving drugs found in one investigation into the file of a second, unrelated drug case.
More than 17 grams of methamphetamine were found in five plastic bags in a room of a Buena Park motel during an investigation in 2020. But attorneys with the public defender’s office on Wednesday alleged the drugs were moved nearly two weeks later into the evidence against another suspect, Ace Kuumeaaloha Kelley, whose criminal case was unrelated.
“The astonishing truth is that the methamphetamine was actually seized during a search of another motel room that same day, unconnected to this defendant,” the filing reads.
At the center of the allegations filed in court Wednesday is Sheriff’s Sgt. Matthew LeFlore, a recently promoted investigator who has faced a series of allegations of misconduct, including mishandling evidence, lying in reports about it, and allegedly illegally listening in on private phone calls between a county inmate and his attorney.
In the court filing, attorneys allege that not only was the drug evidence moved from one unrelated case to another, but also that LeFlore and other officers in the department “conspired to hide from the defendant the truth about the movement of evidence into this case.”
“This is the kind of conduct that should send chills down the spines of the public — sworn officers shifting evidence from one case to another and then doing everything in their power to cover up what they did,” said Tammy Nguyen, a deputy public defender in the case.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, in a brief statement, did not respond to questions regarding the allegations against LeFlore and other officials.
“We have received the motion and will comply with all court orders,” a spokesperson said.
According to the court filing, deputies searched two rooms of a Buena Park motel in unrelated investigations on Oct. 19, 2020.
In a report dated Oct. 20, 2020, LeFlore allegedly noted he had collected and booked the evidence in the investigation against Kelley, including 17.8 grams of methamphetamine. Investigators also found heroin in the room.
But attorneys for Kelley said the evidence was found in another motel room, which was unrelated to Kelley’s case. Two weeks after the search, the methamphetamine was moved from that case into Kelley’s case, they allege.
Defense attorneys said documents recently released by the Orange County Crime Lab clued them in that the evidence was moved. The lab tests and examines evidence such as confiscated drugs. According to the filing, a note in documents provided by the lab stated the evidence was moved, at the request of the Sheriff’s Department, from one case file to another on Nov. 4, 2020, nearly two weeks after the search.
“This is no different than planting evidence in a case,” said Deputy Public Defender Scott Sanders, who has previously uncovered in court filings multiple instances of evidence mishandling by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The evidence mishandling scandal resulted in the reduction or dropping of charges in at least 67 cases.
Defense attorneys also alleged that, after the evidence was moved, another sheriff’s official, Sgt. Arthur Tiscareno, “manipulated” records showing when evidence was booked in the Kelley case, making it look as if the methamphetamine had been booked on Oct. 19, 2020.
“The movement of the methamphetamine would have logically been carried out at the direction of and in coordination with Sergeant LeFlore and Sergeant Tiscareno,” the 110-page court document reads.
Tiscareno’s report, however, also indicated he was the one who collected and booked the evidence in the case that day, contradicting LeFlore’s police report.
In an interview, Sanders said evidence suggested the move was deliberate, and not an accident on the part of law enforcement, pointing to their alleged efforts to hide the drug’s movement from one case to another.
“The only rational perspective is that [LeFlore is] hiding intentional misconduct,” Sanders said. “LeFlore and Tiscareno long ago lost the right to claim innocent mistake.”
According to Wednesday’s court filing, Tiscareno was promoted to sergeant in November. LeFlore was promoted to sergeant in January.
Since at least 2019, Sanders has raised issues in court filings detailing evidence mishandling in the department, prompting audits of the agency and criminal filings against deputies.
Tiscareno and LeFlore have repeatedly appeared in these allegations and audits of the department’s handling, he said.
“We learned that Tiscareno wrote dozens of false reports about when he booked evidence,” Sanders said. “After all that, they not only secretly moved evidence into this defendant’s case, but made the conscious decision not to write a report or tell anyone outside of their department what happened. The community can assume the very worst.”
LeFlore had been tasked by the Sheriff’s Department in 2018 to review allegations of evidence mishandling in the agency. An investigator at the time, he was then referred by the department for a criminal investigation himself over allegations he had also improperly booked evidence.
In previous court filings, Sanders has alleged the department was aware of allegations LeFlore booked evidence late and wrote reports in which he lied about when he booked evidence when he was chosen to head the audit.
When the department referred the allegations surrounding LeFlore to the Orange County district attorney’s office, it allegedly withheld multiple reports of accusations that the investigator lied.
LeFlore has also been accused of illegally listening to privileged recorded phone conversations between an attorney and an inmate in 2017, according to court records.
On Friday, an Orange County Superior Court judge ordered portions of LeFlore’s confidential personnel files to be turned over to defense attorneys in the case involving an inmate whom LeFlore arrested twice, KABC-TV Channel 7 reported.
An audit by the Sheriff’s Department also revealed 40 instances in which Tiscareno claimed to book evidence in reports, yet had not yet done so, according to the court filing.
It’s unclear what effect the evidence of methamphetamine may have played in the two cases so far. Kelly has pleaded not guilty to two counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell.
The defendant in the other drug case pleaded guilty to one count of being in possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell. A second charge was dismissed, and he was sentenced to two years of probation, according to court records.
Sheriff’s officials have said in the past they have taken steps to improve the way personnel are educated on the policies and procedures for handling evidence. However, Sanders said it continues to be an issue in criminal cases, while consequences seem to be few.
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