Drug charges were dropped against a Buena Park man in a criminal case that hinged on five plastic bags of methamphetamine that were allegedly found in his motel room — but that defense attorneys contend were later planted by deputies as evidence in his case.
Prosecutors with the Orange County district attorney’s office dropped the charges Thursday, court records show, after defense attorneys accused deputies of moving the drug evidence into the man’s criminal file from another unrelated one.
Defense attorneys say the case highlights troubling ongoing issues in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and its handling of evidence.
“We caught [deputies] moving evidence,” said Tammy Nguyen, the public defender representing Ace Kuumeaaloha Kelley, the defendant in the case. “They then tried to cover it up. The D.A.’s office had to dismiss the case.”
Kelley was facing two charges of possession of a controlled substance, but attorneys in the county public defender’s office said evidence suggested the 17 grams of methamphetamine allegedly found in his motel room were instead moved into his case file two weeks after deputies searched the room.
The drugs, defense attorneys argue, were found in another room in the motel that had been searched in an unrelated investigation the same day.
Officials with the Orange County district attorney’s office did not respond to inquiries as to why the case was dropped, but officials with the public defender’s office said records showing evidence was moved and mishandled had left prosecutors little choice but to dismiss the case.
The case, defense attorneys said, highlights a series of problems around evidence mishandling by Orange County Sheriff’s Department officials, including a recently promoted investigator who has faced multiple allegations, including that he has mishandled evidence, lied in reports and illegally listened in on private phone calls between a county inmate and his attorney.
Defense lawyers allege the investigator, Sgt. Matthew LeFlore, and another official also tried to cover up evidence that the drugs had been moved from one case file to another.
On Thursday, prosecutors dismissed the charges against defendant Kelley.
The drug case centered around the bags of methamphetamine that were allegedly found in a Buena Park motel room during an investigation in 2020.
According to court records, deputies searched two rooms in one motel on Oct. 19, 2020, in two unrelated investigations. In a report dated Oct. 20, 2020, LeFlore wrote that he’d collected the drugs from Kelley’s room and booked them into evidence.
But Kelley’s attorneys say that documents released by the Orange County Crime Lab suggested that at the request of the Sheriff’s Department, the evidence was moved from a different file into Kelley’s two weeks after the motel search. It wasn’t clear from the documents who directed that the evidence be moved; only that it was someone in the Sheriff’s Department.
Defense attorneys allege that Sgt. Arthur Tiscareno then “manipulated” records that showed when the evidence was booked in Kelley’s case, making it appear that the methamphetamine had been booked on Oct. 19.
Tiscareno’s report allegedly noted that he was the one to collect and book the evidence, directly contradicting LeFlore’s report.
In court filings, defense attorneys alleged that LeFlore and other officers had “conspired to hide from the defendant the truth about the movement of evidence into this case.”
“This is such a relief for Mr. Kelley, but what about the other defendants out there who have had the same thing happen to them,” Nguyen said to The Times. “What’s really outrageous is that these officers just go back to their jobs like nothing happened.”
In LeFlore’s case, he was promoted to sergeant in January.
Scott Sanders of the public defender’s office has raised multiple concerns about evidence mishandling by officials at the Sheriff’s Department since 2019, prompting audits and criminal filings against deputies.
LeFlore was tasked in 2018 with probing instances of evidence mishandling in the department. Before being assigned that investigation, he was himself referred by the department for a criminal investigation over allegations that he had improperly booked evidence. LeFlore has also been accused of illegally listening in on phone calls between an inmate and his attorney in 2017.
Sheriff’s officials referred questions about charges against Kelley being dropped to the Orange County district attorney’s office, saying the decision to do so was at their discretion.
Sanders said other cases involving LeFlore had been flagged by defense attorneys as having troubling similarities to Kelley’s case.
In another case Sanders is handling, Brittany Faith Shahbakhti is facing multiple felony charges, including possession of a firearm by a felon, possession of ammunition by a prohibited person, possession of narcotics for sale, and possession of materials to make counterfeit cards. She has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Like in Kelley’s case, Sanders said, there are discrepancies in the reports detailing how evidence was collected and by whom.
According to Sanders, LeFlore wrote in his report that he, Tiscareno and other officers searched two rooms of the same hotel. LeFlore and Tiscareno, according to the report, collected the items from the room where Shahbakhti was.
But the sheriff’s Remedy System, which logs who handles evidence, lists another officer as having collected and booked nearly all of it.
In court records, Shahbakhti contended that she never had the items that were allegedly seized, and attorneys argue that “there is insufficient reliability that the items were ever seized.”
Defense attorneys requested LeFlore’s personnel records in the case. At a hearing Friday, Sanders said county counsel disclosed that LeFlore was found to have been in violation of department policy on four occasions. It was unclear what those policies were, and documents in those cases have been purged by the Sheriff’s Department.
At Friday’s hearing, Sanders said officials had found three pages relevant to LeFlore’s conduct. The judge in the case was reviewing the material.
Sanders said county counsel also disclosed that LeFlore was currently under investigation. Defense attorneys have raised concerns over when the materials were purged, and whether they were destroyed before or after the investigation into LeFlore was launched.
County counsel did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department would not confirm whether LeFlore was under investigation by the department, citing the California Peace Officer Bill of Rights.
LeFlore, a spokeperson said, remains on active duty.
“You should not be purging materials after an internal investigation has been conducted,” said Sanders, who has also criticized the department’s policy to purge personnel records every five years.
“The only reason you purge these materials,” he said, “is because you want defendants to have less evidence to cross-examine police officers.”