TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The fate of thousands of criminal cases across the state -- including ones in Central Florida -- are uncertain after Saturday's stunning revelation that a law-enforcement chemist allegedly stole pain pills for years from an evidence room in the Panhandle.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement chemist worked in Pensacola but was involved in nearly 3,000 cases across Florida, including an unknown number in Lake and Osceola counties, and a massive investigation could turn up more.
This is thought to be the first time such a widespread evidence-tampering situation has arisen at FDLE.
FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey revealed Saturday that roughly 2,600 cases since 2006 have been linked to the chemist, whose name was not released.
Investigators at other regional labs -- including the Orlando crime lab, which routinely forwards cases to the Pensacola office --have already found other cases worked by the same chemist where drugs have disappeared.
Investigators said the drugs had been replaced with over-the-counter medications and each case had been analyzed by the same chemist.
That chemist, who worked in FDLE's Pensacola Regional Crime Laboratory, is under a criminal investigation and has been relieved of duty with pay.
The discovery was made last week by Escambia County law enforcement officials. FDLE did not disclose how many pills were taken.
"The quantities are large," Bailey said during a news conference in Tallahassee on Saturday. "The chemist has lawyered up."
FDLE teams will start working Monday to inspect all the evidence handled by the chemist, who could be charged as soon as next week.
The State Attorney in Pensacola is coordinating the investigation with FDLE, and Attorney General Pam Bondi's office could also ask Florida's statewide prosecutor to get involved, Bailey said.
"This has the potential for impacting hundreds of drug cases around our state," Bailey told reporters. "The impact is going to be significant."
The chemist worked on cases for 80 law enforcement agencies in 12 judicial circuits.
"Anyone who has a closed case where an analyst was a witness for the state needs to have the case examined, " said Andrew Moses, a criminal defense attorney at Moses & Rooth Attorneys At Law firm in Orlando. "This really puts a blemish on the system when stuff like this happens."
Officials said it wasn't clear if the chemist was stealing drugs to use or to sell.
Bailey said there was no indication that the chemist was bribed to tamper with evidence and get cases dismissed.
He would never had suspected the man, hired in 2006, of any wrongdoing.
"This is a total shock and disappointment," Bailey said.
Bondi praised FDLE for taking "swift and direct response to this situation."
She also pledged to provide as much assistance as needed to FDLE and local prosecutors.
"What has allegedly happened here has potentially put at risk the extensive efforts of law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts in many of the cases handled by this analyst," a statement from Bondi said. "Our battle against prescription drug abuse in Florida has been very successful over the last three years, and I will not tolerate any actions that compromise our continued success in ridding our state of this problem."
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service