New police chief left with mess to sort out after former boss retired

At first glance, it looked like several weapons, jewelry and $2,500 were missing from the Cornelius Police Department’s evidence room.

The department was starting its first evidence inventory in 18 years and “it was really hard to not flip out and think ‘We are going to jail,’” Police Chief Ken Summers said. “I’ve never seen something so bad.”

The panic was last fall. By the time Summers spoke about it to the Community Oriented Policing Citizen Advisory Board July 17 — a day after completing the inventory — most of the missing items had been located.

Last November — at the request of Summers, who had just stepped in as interim chief — Lt. Joe Noffsinger conducted a surprise audit of the room and found that 65 percent of the 6,952 items of evidence did not match the location recorded for them on paperwork.

Now, after eight months of sorting through case files from 2008 to 2013, everything has been found except a car stereo and speaker, which were seized in 1999.

“These two items were among four seized” Summers said in a press release July 18. “We can show that the other two items were released to the rightful owner, but he did not initial the form showing receipt of these two specific items. Given the accuracy of our records in other cases, we believe this was a simple error.”

The missing jewelry had fallen behind drawers. Paperwork for the missing guns was found. Other paperwork indicated the $2,500 may have been sent back to its owner.

“One by one all the discrepancies were falling down,” said Summers. “It’s a huge weight off.”

Former Chief Paul Rubenstein was put on leave due to an investigation last year after four Cornelius officers reported “ongoing corruption” in the department. Summers agreed to serve as interim chief on condition that an evidence room inventory be conducted immediately.

Unorganized inventory rooms can sometimes spark legal action against a department, and while the blame wouldn’t have fallen on Summers, it was vital to fix it as soon as possible, he said.

Property Specialist Marlene Thomas was in charge of the eight-month project and is now the only individual who can enter the evidence room alone. Previously, Rubenstein and Noffsinger could enter the room alone, said Summers.

Throughout the effort, Thomas stressed the importance of being thorough.

“She understood the risks and liability and took it very seriously,” Summers said. “She was scared to death of what she was going to find. She did a great job.”

Summers said the evidence room now lives up to accreditation standards. Surprise audits will be conducted every six months, with a complete inventory annually, said Summers, who also added motion alarms and other security measures.

COPCAB member Cathy Small voiced her frustration that Rubenstein eventually retired from his position with severance and vacation pay “and left this mess for us. You can be jailed for bad record-keeping,” she said. "That makes me angry."

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