Emerging scandal in evidence room puts hundreds of drug cases at risk
It began this spring when the Braintree police chief ordered an audit of the department’s evidence room. But after the officer in charge found out that the review was about to begin, the 20-year veteran committed suicide, according to two people who have been briefed on the case.
Now, as audit details emerge and reveal missing drugs, guns, and money, Norfolk District Attorney Michael W. Morrissey is facing the possibility that hundreds of drug cases may have to be thrown out because the evidence was tainted or lost. Norfolk Superior Court judges dismissed the first five Braintree drug cases on Monday and Tuesday at the request of prosecutors.
“We won’t and don’t use tampered evidence. It’s that simple,” said Morrissey in an interview. “We play by the rules, as painful as it is to let some of these people go.”
The emerging scandal at the Braintree evidence room invites comparisons to the mishandling of drug samples by former state chemist Annie Dookhan. Her widespread tampering with drug evidence forced the dismissal of thousands of cases and the closure of the state forensic lab where she worked.
Braintree officials are expected to release the results of the audit this week. They have asked Attorney General Maura Healey to investigate whether any crimes were committed.
The audit, first reported by WCVB-TV, revealed that eight guns were missing, along with $70,000 in cash and “a lot of drugs,” according to someone with first-hand knowledge of the audit’s findings. At least two of the weapons were found in Braintree police officer Susan Zopatti’s house, this person said.
Braintree Mayor Joseph Sullivan said town officials have already implemented plans to improve the oversight of evidence.
“We are doing our work in responding to the audit,” he said. “We’ve already established new protocols associated with the evidence room. We are earnest and determined to take the corrective steps that are needed.”
Zopatti’s husband hung up the phone when contacted by a Globe reporter, and Braintree officials — including the mayor —
Braintree Police Chief Russell W. Jenkins hired the auditor in May because he suspected something was wrong, according to someone with direct knowledge of the situation. He chose former State Police major Bruce Gordon, who runs a company called Narcotics Audit Solutions and had recently performed an audit of the police department in neighboring Weymouth.
Gordon met with Zopatti on May 13, according to a person briefed on the audit. She killed herself within a week.
Zopatti oversaw the evidence room from 2013 to 2016. Prosecutors are revisiting all the drug cases that originated in Braintree during that period — potentially hundreds of cases, according to Morrissey.
All of them, even closed cases in which the defendant accepted plea deals, could be thrown out, Morrissey and two defense lawyers say.
Morrissey’s office, which started notifying defense lawyers last month, began dismissing cases this week — including that against Roberto Castillo, who was arrested with a co-defendant at a Braintree motel in 2015 and accused of selling heroin, morphine, and cocaine.
“I commend the district attorney for being upfront. I think he acted appropriately and properly to take steps to remedy the situation,” said Castillo’s lawyer, Mark Bennett, of Milton. “But it’s troubling because it undermines public confidence in the criminal justice system. The entire system hinges on the police and everyone else playing by the rules.”
Judge Robert Cosgrove, who dismissed charges against five Braintree drug defendants this week, said in court that the implications of evidence room tampering are profound.
“I presume if (evidence) is kept in the Braintree evidence locker, I would think it would be true of every case in the town of Braintree, would it not?” Cosgrove said.
Healey’s spokeswoman, Cyndi Roy-Gonzalez, confirmed the office has been asked to investigate but gave no details. “We’re reviewing the matter,” she said.
Massachusetts has been rocked by multiple evidence tampering scandals in recent years. Dookhan, who worked at the now-closed state drug lab in Jamaica Plain, admitted in 2013 to tampering with hundreds of illegal drug samples that she was supposed to analyze, triggering the review of thousands of cases. She was granted parole in April from her three- to five-year prison sentence.
Two years later, another state chemist, Sonja Farak, admitted stealing and using drug samples she was analyzing at the state lab in Amherst. Her admission jeopardized not only the cases she worked on but potentially thousands of cases that were sent to the lab where she worked. Prosecutors are still working with defense lawyers to determine which cases should be dismissed.
Morrissey said he has no choice but to throw out all the recent Braintree cases even if there’s no direct evidence of tampering.
“I tell people this: If I served you a bowl of piping hot beef stew and you found the meat was rancid, would you set it aside and keep eating, or would you send the whole thing back? You’d send the whole thing back.”
Kevin Reddington, another defense lawyer, said he has two drug trafficking cases pending in Norfolk Superior Court. He recently received notice that there was a potential problem with the evidence.
“In this day and age — and with Annie Dookhan — it’s a cause for concern. Consistent with his duty, the district attorney, in a timely manner, placed attorneys who have cases pending on notice that this issue is out there. I’m sure the investigation will continue and motions to dismiss will be filed.”