Precinct 4 Internal Report Suggests a Far Larger Evidence Scandal

The corporal who was fired for wrongfully destroying thousands of pounds of evidence sat at the same tiny desk that had been in the Harris County Precinct 4 property room for 20 years. The printer had been broken for months. An old prisoner cell that had been converted to a gun storage room was full of rifles and shotguns stacked haphazardly on top of each other, and live ammunition was tucked away in disorganized boxes shared with handguns. Boxes marked “drugs” were stacked eight feet high, blocking the passageway down the room’s back aisles.

For 14 years, this was the workspace of Corporal Chris Hess, who was fired this spring after Precinct 4 superiors discovered he had destroyed about 21,000 pieces of evidence since 2007 and an unknown amount more since 2002 without following protocol, putting thousands of cases in jeopardy. Constable Mark Herman previously told reporters this scandal dated back only nine years, but an Internal Affairs Division report obtained by the Houston Press this week suggests the improper evidence destruction began earlier and was wider in scope.

According to the report, Hess was, for more than a decade, the sole Precinct 4 employee who worked in the property room. He made the space like his own glorified man-cave that was apparently left unscrutinized by superiors and auditors — or at least that’s how it would appear. After somehow managing to flout state laws and department policies for 14 years, Hess was finally caught in January. At that time, he destroyed 1,340 pounds of evidence without obtaining a court order granting him permission to destroy it — and without checking to make sure none of the cases tied to that evidence remained open, the internal investigation found.

As a result of Hess's grave error, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office has so far dismissed 100 cases — the vast majority of them drug-related — that were in fact still pending in court at the time Hess and one other deputy drove three truckloads of drugs and paraphernalia, guns and knives to an incinerator. The number of wrongful convictions before this year — cases in which prosecutors won at trial or the defendant took a plea deal, when no evidence even existed against the defendant — has yet to be determined.

Though full of new details, Precinct 4’s internal report also raises far more questions than it answers. The bad news: The fiasco is a lot worse than officials have made it out to be thus far. What follows is the fullest possible narrative we can piece together using the available information, along with the questions that remain.

* * * 

Hess was hired at Precinct 4 in 1992 and since then earned 1,757 training hours through the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. The problem, however, appears to be that few pertain to his actual job: maintaining the property room.

Although he was assigned as the sole employee to the property room in 2002, when now-Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman was the constable, it is unclear what qualified him for the job. One problem, Constable Mark Herman told us, is that no performance evaluations are on file for Hess since 2000, when Hickman took over.

Hess admitted in interviews with investigators that his only training on how to properly destroy evidence took place “five to eight years ago,” under the direction of an instructor named Jana K. McCown, who at the time was first district attorney in Williamson County, the internal probe states.

We reached out to McCown, who said she never administered formal classes, or training through TCOLE. She only did a few one-hour seminars in which she discussed articles she has written for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association — one of them aptly titled “When is a court order needed to destroy evidence?”

The short answer: generally always, McCown recommended — but especially if it is required by department policy. At Precinct 4, it is.

During his interview with investigators, Hess admits to what appears to be an embarrassing amount of incompetence. He not only insisted ad nauseum that McCown’s seminar handout guaranteed him the discretion to destroy evidence in open cases without court orders, but also that the Texas Health and Safety Code — which contains the laws that govern evidence destruction — gave him that right, too. (Actually, Hess said he had only read “bits and pieces” of the code.) Neither McCown’s handout nor the actual law, in any way, convey that officers have that authority, as investigators clearly noted. In addition, Hess appeared relatively unfamiliar with the department’s own policy. “Basically, he was becoming familiar with the policy because of this investigation,” investigator Todd Black wrote.

“During the interview with Cpl. Hess,” Black added, “he would ramble, mumble and speak without clarity and was evasive at times when responding to questions asked.” He wrote later, “Hess kept referring to the Health and Safety Code as if it was a catch-all that protected him (officers) for the destruction of drugs.”

Hess, along with two other Precinct 4 employees, was tasked with cleaning out the property room after a December 2015 Harris County Auditor’s Office audit found it was overloaded with evidence, some of it dating back to 2002, when Hess took over. That month, Constable Herman told Corporal Mike Lacher “there were major inventory issues within the department property room,” and asked him, along with Deputy Anthony Smith, to help Hess clean it up during a month-long project in January. (Curiously, two internal affairs investigators, one being Todd Black, were also tasked with helping — mostly researching which property, such as wallets and purses, could be returned to its owners).

Lacher agreed to help — then on December 28 submitted a letter to Herman announcing his plans to retire at the end of January.

* * * 

On January 6, Day 1 of the big, long plan to clean up the property room, Lacher and Hess submitted to Human Resources a purchase order for the destruction of 1,000 pounds of drug evidence. Hess then said he would contact the incinerator company and set up a date on which to bring the giant mound of waste. So much for the department's policy of mandating court orders to destroy evidence.

Nine days later, actually 1,340 pounds (Hess eyeballed it, wrongly estimating he was destroying less than 1,000 pounds before arriving at the incinerator, Lacher said) was burned in a pit.

Both Lacher and Hess admitted to investigators that neither of them conducted research on the dozens of boxes of drug cases they decided to incinerate in what appears to have been a matter of hours on January 6. The difference to investigators, however, appears to be that, well, Hess is the property room manager — he should know the rules. Instead, Hess incessantly pointed the finger at Lacher, saying that he destroyed evidence in all those open cases only because Lacher told him to do so. Further, Hess claimed that it was actually Constable Herman who put Lacher in charge of the evidence room clean-up — despite the fact that both Lacher and Hess hold the same rank and the property room is not Lacher’s main area of expertise. Hess claimed that he tried to stop Lacher from loading boxes of 2015 drug cases onto the trucks at the last minute, yet Lacher’s response was, “It all gets burned.”

Investigators, after interviews with several other employees, concluded Hess was lying.

Here’s what investigators appeared to believe instead: “Cpl. Lacher stated that Cpl. Hess wanted to get the evidence destroyed while they still had a chance, and made the comment that the DA’s office does not call about the evidence.”

* * * 

On February 29, after Lacher was long gone, Hess received a phone call from DA’s office investigator Kerry Gillie. He was asking for drug evidence in a marijuana case. And this is when Hess’s apparent years’ worth of misconduct was finally exposed.

The drugs weren’t there.

“[Gillie] asked for a court order for destruction copy,” Hess wrote in an email that day to his direct supervisor, Sergeant Christian Nicholson. “I didn’t explain to him that we didn’t need an order according to my last training [on the Health and Safety Code].” (a.k.a., McCown’s class that taught the exact opposite.)

Hess was busted. Precinct 4 Captain Michael Combest started looking into the case, fielding calls from the DA’s office. He started by asking Nicholson how this possibly could have happened, and “the explanation provided was that Hess destroyed the evidence after being told to while Cpl. Lacher was working within the property room,” Combest wrote.

If Nicholson was Hess’s direct supervisor, it is not exactly clear, then, what type of supervising he did, given the condition of the property room and the misconduct that allegedly continued for years. We attempted to reach him yesterday and left a message, but did not hear back.

On March 7,  the DA’s office Police Integrity Unit launched its own investigation, and Assistant District Attorney Tiffany Johnson contacted Combest, wondering whether Hess was still back there in that man-cave of a property room. Combest told her yes: “I told her Hess was this department’s only property room deputy and currently no one else knows the procedures and operations.”

Hess was fired only after he — the man who admitted to not understanding the law — taught other people how to run things.

It was at this point, back in early March, that, defense attorneys say, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson should have immediately informed her trial prosecutors of potential problems with any drug cases coming out of Precinct 4. Then, Brady notices should have been sent out to all defense attorneys handling cases originating from the precinct.

Instead, she did not send an email to her trial prosecutors until August 19.

The DA’s office is currently investigating all cases affected in the past nine years, and it is unclear why officials there and in Precinct 4 have seemed to ignore the fact that Hess admitted to destroying evidence without permission for his entire tenure in the property room, which dates back to 2002, not just since 2007, when a new electronic system called File On Q was implemented. Constable Mark Herman did not return a request for comment.

Paul Morgan, who represented a defendant whose drug charges were dismissed last month because the evidence kept by Precinct 4 was destroyed, said he does not believe investigators grilled Hess, Lacher or others who were present during the storage room clean-up hard enough. Somehow, Morgan pressed, nobody thought to ask before destroying 1,340 pounds of evidence if any of the cases were open? Nobody, not Hess’s colleagues or his superiors, thought to double-check, or just check at all?

“That should be the first question you ask,” Morgan said. “If they’re going to destroy a significant amount of evidence, that question should obviously be posed. If it was posed, it was probably ignored.”

Morgan believes Hess is simply “feigning incompetence” in order either to escape criminal charges or to cover up much worse behavior. From the lengthy internal affairs report, it is still impossible to understand how Hess managed to get away with doing this throughout his entire tenure without anybody's ever batting an eye. 

“You can’t sincerely say you didn’t know you needed a court order,” Morgan said. “That’s like if you're a soldier in a war and you forget to figure out whether the safety on your gun is on. It's just something you should know how to do before you execute something serious. This wasn't some small little administrative task."

A sheriff’s office spokesman did not return a request for Hickman’s comment.

Morgan has managed to successfully petition the feds to investigate both Precinct 4 and the Harris County District Attorney’s Office’s handling of the fiasco. As it continues, surely many more cases may be affected; some officials have estimated more than 1,000.

Impressively, even after all his admissions that he failed to understand laws or policies, investigators note that Hess never once admitted he was wrong, steadfastly clinging to the assertion that he was just following Lacher’s orders.

The closest Hess came to showing any sign of guilt, investigators wrote, was after he agreed with investigators that department policy clearly states deputies must obtain a court order before destroying evidence. Perhaps realizing there was nothing that could explain away the misstep, Hess asked them, “Where do we go from here?”
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn