A chemist at a Pensacola crime lab could have compromised hundreds of state drug cases, Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey said Saturday.
As a result, FDLE has begun a criminal investigation and a statewide review of all crime-laboratory drug evidence.
The investigation was triggered by the discovery that prescription pain pills had gone missing from the evidence room at the Escambia County sheriff's office. The missing drugs had been replaced with over-the-counter medications, prompting Escambia Sheriff David Morgan and State Attorney William Eddins of the 1st Judicial Circuit to call in FDLE.
On Thursday, Bailey said, investigators determined that each case involving missing drugs had been analyzed by the same chemist.
The chemist, who has been relieved of his duties but not charged, processed 2,600 cases for 80 law-enforcement agencies spanning 12 judicial circuits and 35 Florida counties since 2006.
The cases mostly affect counties in North and West Florida, but extend as far south as Monroe County.
Bailey said the motive was unclear.
"It could be personal use. It could be trafficking," he said. "We don't know."
He said there was no indication the motive was to compromise any criminal cases, but that could be the effect.
Beginning Monday, FDLE teams will be deployed to inspect all evidence handled by the chemist. Each regional special agent in charge is contacting local law-enforcement leaders and state attorneys regarding pending cases.
"We're going to start from zero," Bailey said.
In addition to the investigation, FDLE will review its laboratory protocols to prevent a recurrence. Bailey said FDLE currently administers a drug test upon hiring and, after that, "for cause."
"We're going to look at the rules and regs governing drug testing," he said. "But again, we don't know that this chemist was actually ingesting drugs."
Bailey also said he had spoken with Attorney General Pam Bondi, who offered the services of the Office of Statewide Prosecution.
The commissioner said he'd been advised not to release the name of the chemist, who is being compelled to use paid annual leave until his status is resolved.
"As soon as the state attorney sees that what is there is what we think is there, we are going to hurdle the bureaucratic obstacles and he will be terminated," Bailey said.
Bailey said he was shocked by the discovery and wouldn't have suspected the employee, who isn't cooperating with the investigation.
"The chemist has lawyered up," Bailey said.