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The Florida Department of Law Enforcement building in Pensacola. / Bruce Graner, Pensacola (Fla.) News Journal

PENSACOLA, Fla. -- The crime laboratory that is relied upon by local and state investigators for its expertise in thousands of cases has become the target of a probe by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into missing evidence.

On Monday, the FDLE will begin examining the handling of nearly 2,600 cases by its Pensacola Regional Crime Laboratory. The investigation will include teams from 80 law enforcement agencies in Florida 35 counties.

FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey said at a news conference Saturday in Tallahassee that the probe was sparked last week when his agency was alerted by Escambia County State Attorney Bill Eddins and Sheriff David Morgan.

Bailey said the investigation focuses on missing prescription pain pills from the evidence room of the Escambia County Sheriff's Office. The missing drugs had been replaced with over-the-counter medications.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi offered to help in the investigation.

No one has been arrested or charged in the probe, but Bailey said it centers on "all cases processed by a chemist" in his agency's Pensacola regional office.

The chemist, whose name wasn't released, has been placed on paid leave, according to the FDLE.

Pensacola's FDLE lab analyzes about 400 cases a month ranging from toxicology reports to fingerprint analysis, according to the agency's website. The facility has three full-time analysts, two part-time lab assistants and a supervisor, Mary Jane Havener, whose title is chief of forensic sciences.

Reached by phone at the lab Saturday, Havener declined to comment on the investigation.

Criminal cases involving the evidence handled by the chemist date to 2006, the agency said.

According to Bailey, the cases mostly affect counties in north and west Florida.

Bailey said the motive was unclear.

"It could be personal use. It could be trafficking," he said. "We don't know."

He said that while there has been no indication that the motive was to compromise criminal cases, 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 are going to start from zero," Bailey said.

In addition to the investigation, FDLE will review its laboratory protocols to prevent a recurrence.

"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."

Contributing: News Service of Florida



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Fla. crime lab probed for evidence tampering

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