Broward Crime Lab Scandal Could Taint Many Cases
Kadesha Roberts was camped out at a friend's condo in a cookie-cutter, tile-roofed development off McNab Road when the knock came. The short Jamaican woman with spiked hair opened the door to find a UPS man clutching a large package. After identifying herself, she grabbed it.
Then all hell broke loose.
Broward deputies bolted toward her. Roberts dropped the package and tried to squeeze inside, but not fast enough. Cops snatched up the box, discovering bales of marijuana wrapped in green cellophane. Roberts was put in cuffs and the evidence shipped off to the county's crime lab.
That was July 2010, and normally the story would have ended there. Roberts would have been popped for trafficking and the UPS box would have been the prime evidence against her.
But the case wasn't a slam dunk. Several pounds of the marijuana apparently vanished. And it's possible that drugs disappeared in dozens of similar cases. Roberts' bust was only one piece of a scandal that could shake South Florida law enforcement to its core.
Though the broad outlines of the scandal at the Broward crime lab have been made public — two top staff members have resigned, and an internal affairs investigation is underway — New Times has learned it is likely more far-reaching than previously thought. An audit expected later this year is likely to show that drugs are missing in many more cases.
After reviewing hundreds of pages of court documents and police reports, the newspaper has found problems in everything from street-level drug busts to large-scale probes of heavy movers. Among them are Roberts' case and several others, including:
• The bust of a dealer with 363 pills that were field-tested as positive for MDMA in 2012, only to come up negative in the lab.
• A $60,000 Fort Lauderdale reverse sting conducted in 2012 in which cocaine was later found to be missing.
• The 2013 seizure, after a SWAT standoff, of marijuana that was listed at a different weight in police reports and lab analysis.
The common factor: All the drugs landed on the desk of forensic chemist Kelli McDonald. She is still employed at the Broward Sheriff's Office but was recently transferred and could not be reached for comment. Her last known annual salary was $85,800 in 2012. "There seem to be multiple manners in which she has engaged in misconduct," says Gordon Weekes, a chief assistant with the Broward Public Defender's Office. "It creates an issue because it erodes the confidence of the entire criminal justice system."
The Broward lab hired its first chemist to do drug testing in the late 1960s. During the '70s, the county established six laboratories that were funded in part by the state. Today, there are five units — chemistry, DNA, evidence intake, latent print, and firearms — and a $4.7 million annual budget. But the workload is considerable for the lab's 37-person staff, especially considering demographics. According to a 2010 presentation, Broward's drug unit has one analyst for every 319,925 county residents. In Palm Beach County, each analyst serves 253,290 residents; in Miami Dade, the ratio is one to 238,717.
There is a serious danger in overworking crime lab staff. Recent history has shown that the more law enforcement relies on science for convictions, the more vulnerable the system becomes to bad acts by the folks in lab coats.
In November 2013, Annie Dookhan, a tech at a Massachusetts State Police drug lab, was sentenced to three to five years in prison for falsifying reports and lying to investigators. According to the Boston Globe, more than 40,000 cases the tech touched between 2003 and 2012 were thrown into doubt by the scandal, and by the time of Dookhan's sentencing, the state had spent $8.5 million reviewing those cases.
The State of Florida is currently reviewing thousands of cases worked by technician Joseph Graves. In February, the former Florida Department of Law Enforcement employee was arrested for allegedly switching out the prescription pain pills he tested at a Pensacola crime laboratory with over-the-counter substitutes. Since he was hired in 2005, Graves had worked more than 2,600 cases for FDLE involving 35 counties across the state.
McDonald was hired at the Broward Sheriff's lab in 2006 after spending three years as a tech for the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. She had earned a bachelor's degree in forensic science from the University of Central Florida in 2000 and a master's degree in biomedical science from Florida Atlantic University in 2005. In her first five years in Broward, McDonald received positive marks in her reviews and glowing responses from colleagues. She has analyzed drugs in about 5,900 cases from 2006 to this past February, when she was suspended.
But in February 2012, 0.4 grams of crack cocaine — about the weight of a pencil eraser — went missing from the lab. The material was part of a case McDonald was working, and the tech was the last person to have signed the material out of the property vault. McDonald denied any knowledge of the missing drugs. Lab staff thoroughly searched her workstation and the vault but couldn't find a trace of the absent evidence.
The case of the missing crack was referred to the Broward Sheriff's Division of Internal Affairs. Investigators couldn't turn up an explanation. As the last person to handle the material, McDonald was found to have failed to meet BSO standards. The internal-affairs case was closed in October 2012; McDonald was given the recommended discipline of "counseling and policy review" — neither of which she received, according to her own statements in a later deposition.
But the episode put the Broward Public Defender's Office on notice. When McDonald's name came up in a case involving cocaine seized in a Hallandale Beach house raid in 2013, the office hired an outside drug tester. McDonald's original crime laboratory analysis noted the presence of 16.3 grams of cocaine. The public defender's expert found 10.98 grams.
The discrepancy was brought to the attention of the lab's manager, James Ongley; he ordered a random reweighing of 20 cases McDonald worked in 2012. Nineteen checked out. In one case, McDonald had originally recorded the presence of 1,012.6 grams of cocaine. The reweigh totaled 998.3 grams. Ongley reported the discrepancy to BSO's Internal Affairs Unit, and a new investigation was opened.
McDonald was reassigned to a desk job in February 2014. A month later, Ongley and McDonald's former supervisor, Randy Hilliard, resigned.
BSO is currently reviewing all 5,900 cases McDonald worked between 2006 and 2014. And as the paper trail New Times uncovered shows, the weight discrepancies go far beyond a few missing grams of crack.
In July 2010, after Roberts was handcuffed at her friend's condo in North Lauderdale, BSO deputies tore into the UPS box. Inside they found "approximately 38 lbs of marijuana" wrapped in green cellophane, records show.
Later, Roberts admitted that she had planned to hide the pot in a hollowed-out space under the hood of her silver 2006 Land Rover. She was going to deliver the drugs to a third party, whom she refused to name.
But as the defendant was being charged with trafficking, the amount of marijuana changed. In a supplemental report prepared on July 19, a detective wrote that BSO had found "approximately 31 pounds (14.06 kilograms) of suspect marijuana" in the UPS box. Nine days later, when McDonald weighed the drugs at the crime laboratory, she recorded only 28.1 pounds.
Although Roberts was originally charged with felony trafficking, prosecutors were forced to retreat, and she pleaded no contest to a possession charge this past June. She got a single day of probation.
A second controversial case began on June 28, 2012, when Fort Lauderdale Police detectives fitted out a criminal informant for a sting on a suspected drug dealer named Andres Reyes at SW Fifth Street and 18th Avenue. As officers monitored the scene, an informant gave Reyes money for a black leather pouch containing pills.
Police then arrested Reyes and field-tested the 363 pills found in the pouch. They came back positive for MDMA.
But on July 18, the same drugs were tested by McDonald at the crime laboratory. She found "no controlled substance." In a deposition with the public defender, the Fort Lauderdale detective who conducted the field-test reported he was "100 percent" sure the test at the scene showed MDMA. He also recalled — but couldn't say for sure — that the drugs taken from Reyes were compressed tablets, like aspirin. According to pictures taken by the public defender, the pills in the lab's vault under Reyes' case number are capsules.
Prosecutors dropped the MDMA charge against Reyes, but a possession charge is pending for a joint he had in his pocket.
A third case was initiated a month later, on August 15, when undercover Fort Lauderdale Police detectives brought two kilos of real cocaine to a meeting with Juan Alberto Rodriguez, Frank Osme, Patrick Duplessy, and Luciana Parham. The buyers brought $60,000.
After the four paid the cops and were arrested, the two kilos of bait were submitted to the crime lab, where McDonald tested and weighed one of the bricks, noting 930.7 grams. As the case ground through the legal system, the public defender hired an outside analyst to reweigh the cocaine. This time, there were 924.78 grams.
Rodriguez and one of his codefendants pleaded no contest to cocaine trafficking and conspiracy in late July. Their sentencing date is scheduled for September. Two additional defendants pleaded guilty in 2012 but have yet to be sentenced.
Perhaps most interesting, though, is the case of Yellow Cab driver Wilner Telcius, who was trying to collect a $6 fare from drunk passenger Joel Troxell on August 4, 2013, when things got weird. Troxell declined to pay, then waved around a .357 magnum, and Telcius called the cops. After a standoff including a SWAT team, cops found "76.2 grams of... cannabis in (2) plastic bags."
After Troxell was charged (the case is ongoing), McDonald tested the drugs on August 8 and found only 55.6 grams.
BSO is still investigating McDonald and declined to comment on these cases.
Prosecutor Jeff Marcus says his office has retested drugs in cases as they go to trial. "We haven't been dismissing cases," he says. "[But] the crime lab is down a chemist, and they've been swamped with all their work."
At the Public Defender's Office, however, attorneys continue to comb through cases McDonald worked. Says chief assistant Weekes: "When you have a chemist that is engaging in chronic misconduct, it becomes an issue of confidence in a fair trial."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.