A Lafayette County drug unit has lost at least $34,000 that its agents seized during busts and arrests targeting local residents and University of Mississippi students, including for crimes involving marijuana. Government documents show that local officials have known since at least 2016 that the funds were missing—a fact that remained hidden from the public until now.
Federal investigators suspect the funds may have been stolen.
Money has long been a challenge for the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics Unit and its leaders, who have seen their share of controversy since the multi-jurisdictional squad formed in 1988 to bust people possessing or selling illicit drugs down to a few ounces of marijuana, at least in earlier years.
The county, the City of Oxford and the University of Mississippi each kick in funds to financially support the traditionally four-person unit, which in turn has relied on hundreds of confidential informants, many of them young people and university students, whom they arrested with often a small amount of illegal drugs. These busts happen, of course, in a state whose citizens recently voted to legalize medical marijuana and on or near a university campus whose scholars have conducted marijuana research for decades.
A Buzzfeed investigation in 2015 exposed the extent of the unit’s use of informants, including students scared of their lives being ruined for smoking pot, and even reported that a drug dealer had admitted to killing a teenager in Oxford, Chris Poole, because he suspected him of being yet another of the ubiquitous informants trying to buy drugs, usually with a hidden-camera wire inside a polo shirt the unit agents provided.
Buzzfeed learned then that the unit was recruiting an average of 30 confidential informants a year to do the dangerous investigative legwork. In 2014, about half of Metro Narcotics arrests were first-time offenders, and the unit made three times as many arrests for pot than for any other drug. For that publication’s investigation, then-Metro Narcotics Captain Keith Davis and others connected to the unit’s local-government collaborators defended the unit’s methods.
“The informants are dealing with the same circles they’ve always dealt with,” Davis told Buzzfeed in 2015. “There’s no difference with them continuing to buy, just this time it’s through law enforcement. They’re already making this decision.”
Still, Davis quickly left his position leading the unit the same day as a follow-up report to the April 2015 Buzzfeed investigation exposed the CI practice, saying it was a personal decision to depart the job. “Nine years was enough,” Davis said then. Davis could not be reached for comment.
The Mississippi Free Press obtained an April 2016 letter from the city’s attorney to the state auditor’s office stating that “[w]ithin the last year, the Officer in Charge who was serving when the previous loss (of money) occurred was relieved from his duties.” The letter did not name the commanding officer.
The narcotics unit continued after Davis’ departure and still operates today as marijuana becomes increasingly legal across the country in some forms, including now in Mississippi for medicinal purposes. At the same time, federal funding and public support for such narcotics units are shrinking.
A single commanding officer oversees the Oxford unit’s day-to-day operations and three full-time officers. With a budget of about $500,000 a year, and $450,000 in support from the trio of local government collaborators, the unit relies on seized assets and cash to help pay its people and its bills. Metro Narcotics also purchases evidence and information from sources and will sometimes pay informants small amounts of money to work cases.
Confounding the unit’s continual efforts for funding, a Mississippi Free Press investigation has discovered that thousands of dollars were missing even before command changed in the building at 300 North Lamar Blvd. in Oxford. Today, no one seems to know where that money went, who took it or have any plan to get it back—or they won’t talk about it if they do.
To date, the public has not known the money went missing.
$34,000 Missing Without a Trace, Apparently
At least $34,000 worth of seized money went missing from the Lafayette County Metro Narcotics unit, a cache of government documents show. The loss, believed to have occurred over a period of several years, was not discovered until 2014 or 2015, documents indicate. Attorney Pope Mallette, who serves as the City of Oxford’s attorney, wrote an April 4, 2016, letter on behalf of the Metro Narcotics collaborators—the City of Oxford, Lafayette County and the University of Mississippi—to an agent in the office of then-State Auditor Stacey Pickering, providing details of what the attorney said was “a rough guide to the issues raised” about loss of cash that had occurred within the unit.
The attorney’s letter described how Metro Narcotics had been keeping track of seized assets, which includes cash said to have been associated with criminal activity that helped support the unit’s financial needs.
“Seized cash was initially accounted for through a receipt process, by which the arrestee signed a receipt, acknowledging that the amount of money the Unit claimed to have taken matched the amount the arrestee gave up,” Mallette wrote in the 2016 letter. He explained that the funds had historically been locked up inside the unit’s office rather than deposited in a bank.
“The cash was then placed in an envelope and the case number and amount seized were written on the outside of the envelope. The envelope was then to be placed in a locked cabinet until it was either used at trial as evidence, or was otherwise forfeited to the State or, in some cases, returned to the arrestee,” Mallette told the auditor’s agent.
Mallette said in the letter that in the early 2000s leaders of Metro Narcotics developed concerns that the seized funds were too accessible to unit members, prompting them to rent a lockbox at the First National Bank of Oxford to store the funds.
The attorney informed the auditor’s office in his letter that he understood that two signatories were required to enter or remove money from the box. Mallette added that only the officer in charge of the unit, two of the three control board members and the Oxford city clerk were the signatories to the lockbox.
The control board made up of senior law enforcement officials from Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department, the Oxford Police Department, and the University of Mississippi Police Department, or their designees, are responsible for monitoring the unit.
A woman in the city clerk’s office eventually figured out that a large amount of funds were missing as she prepared a deposit to the “narcotics bank account.”
“About two years ago, as some envelopes were being placed in the lockbox, the Deputy City Clerk for the City of Oxford was involved in the process,” Mallette wrote in 2016. “She counted the money in two of the envelopes, as the last point of contact before the money was to be included in a daily deposit into the narcotics bank account. She does not know where the money previously had been located—lockbox or evidence room. In any case, she found cash shortages in the two envelopes…which I think totaled around $4,000.”
Mallette said that the deputy clerk contacted the commander of Metro Narcotics, an agent and the city clerk upon realizing the shortage. Metro Narcotics then notified the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
“After an investigation,” Mallette wrote, “the FBI reported to the Control Board that, although it had suspicions as to the source or individual who may have taken the money or caused the loss, it did not believe that it had enough evidence to pursue anyone at that time.”
Then, More Narcotics Money Found Missing
An additional discovery of missing money occurred in late 2015 when the narcotics unit’s change of command prompted two members of the control board, then-OPD Chief Joey East and Lafayette County Chief Deputy Scott Mills, to inventory the contents of the unit’s lockbox prior to the handoff of command. At the time, East’s father, Buddy East, was sheriff, a position he held for 46 years with son Joey taking it over in 2019.
The two members discovered funds missing from the envelopes already deposited into the lockbox and notified the FBI for a second time, the city’s attorney wrote.
“It is our understanding that the FBI investigation is ongoing,” Mallette told the auditor’s agent. “However, it is also our understanding that there is another $30,000 (or so) in additional missing funds. The parties to the (Interlocal Agreement) also have heard that the funds likely have been missing over a period of several years, and that when the FBI did its prior investigation of the missing $4,000, it did not count or check the envelopes already deposited into the lockbox.”
‘The Operation of the Unit Was Lax. Sloppy.’
A source familiar with the work of the Metro Narcotics Unit in Lafayette County spoke to the Mississippi Free Press on the condition of anonymity. That person, Robert Hale (who is using a fake name for publication), said he knew about the unit and the loss of seized money.
“The reason why some changes were made,” Hale stated, pausing for thought, “… to the way deposits were made, and to the way that the cash was being held, and how soon deposits were made was a result of the (FBI) Investigation.”
“The tracking of the cases, the operation of the unit was lax. Sloppy. Which accounted for errors being done, and why I think the missing funds or whatever it was—why it went so long before they noticed.”
Hale also shared that more than one person working for Metro Narcotics was thought to be responsible for the loss, but without conclusive evidence. “I think the problem that we ran into was never a direct line pointing to a single person,” He said.
In his interview with the Mississippi Free Press, Hale corroborated Keith Davis’ statement to Buzzfeed about leaving, adding that Davis left shortly before the discovery that thousands of seized dollars had vanished from the Northern Mississippi narcotics unit as Mallette discussed in his letter to the state auditor’s office.
“There were concerns on finances. Absolutely,” Hale told the Mississippi Free Press about the discovery of missing funds then.
Hale said members of the unit’s local collaboration reacted with shock upon learning money had gone missing. “It was like, ‘How can you just miss this?’” Hale recalled.
It’s either poor leadership—you have poor supervision at best. Or worse, you’ve got a thief. So it was one of the two,” Hale said.
Another former Metro Narcotics commander named Searn Lynch had been arrested in November 2012 for doctor shopping. The Oxford Eagle reported that Lynch later pled guilty in federal court in April 2013 following the accusation of scheming for several years in an attempt to acquire pain pills from health-care providers, or what the court documents referred to as obtaining multiple prescriptions of controlled substances by misrepresentations, deception and subterfuge.
The Unit’s Arrest Numbers, Including Error
A close examination of the monthly reports kept by Metro Narcotics agents show what Robert Hale referred to as “sloppy” tracking of information. The data sets contain math errors and often incomplete tracking of statistics. However, totals are still included in some data sets anyway, despite the fact that they may include errors making it difficult to know whether the information is credible.
Reports, accurate or not, show that in 2018, Metro Narcotics recorded 284 total cases; 119 were student cases and 168 are listed as non-student; and 16 additional cases for 2018 listed under “unknown.” For the same year, those cases resulted in 165 grand jury indictments. The unit recorded 41 student arrests and 85 non-student arrests in 2018.
In 2019, the unit recorded 267 total cases. The year’s data set lists 200 non-student cases, 87 student cases and seven unknown cases. The unit reported 103 grand jury indictments that year, with Metro Narcotics agents recording 31 student arrests and 117 non-student arrests.
In 2020 Metro Narcotics reports from January to June, the unit reported 107 total cases. Ten were recorded as student cases, and 106 were non-student cases. Seven cases were recorded as unknown. During the first six months of 2020, Metro Narcotics recorded 32 grand jury indictments. The unit arrested four students and 69 non-students.
UM: ‘Getting Out with the Right Exit Strategy’
In December 2017, former UPD Chief Tim Potts sought counsel with Mississippi State University Police Department’s Chief Vance Rice. The documents show that Potts detailed to Rice how much the university paid toward the operation of the Metro Narcotics Unit and asked if Mississippi State University had become involved with a similar unit.
“We (the university) pay $150,000 towards the running of the task force…a terrible practice…and in a year or two it will be more,” Potts wrote in an email included in the documents cache in this publication’s possession. “I am trying to get away from that (we investigate our own drug cases anyway and share the info with the unit), and go to a model where we send officers we pay to work for the unit, and no longer pay $150k. I could hire three officers with fringe covered and still be money ahead. I would rather us work on the DEA task force and work with MBN on big cases if needed. We have had too many issues with the current drug unit.”
Rice wrote back to Potts that City of Starkville and Oktibbeha County officials approached Mississippi State University’s police department in search of officers for a newly formed narcotics unit in that area, but that university declined.
“Good luck in getting out,” Rice responded. “… You’re going to need the full support of the Administration as pulling out will cause some issues with the city and county.”
“You got that right,” Potts wrote back. “I think this is something the university has been looking to do for sometime, but became more of an issue when I started. I think the university is receptive to getting out with the right exit strategy. With a new mayor, it may be the right time to share that we are on an island when compared to other SEC schools.”
Not to mention, the University of Mississippi fielded vicious criticism after the Buzzfeed investigation of its participation in students being put at risk of danger as confidential informants. One December 2015 email to the chancellor, UPD and others criticized the unit’s “abusive practices of young college students,” and criticized the university’s delayed response to the December 2015 episode of “60 Minutes” that followed the Buzzfeed reporting and for treating students as “commodities.”
Serious Concerns About Metro Narcotics Unit
Correspondence indicates that former UPD Chief Tim Potts had several concerns about the operation of Metro Narcotics.
The Mississippi Free Press reached out to Potts, who now lives out of state, for an interview. He declined to comment on matters related to missing seized money, but said he was proud of his time as UPD chief and as a control-board member for the Metro Narcotics Unit.
Potts shared unit oversight duty with then-OPD Chief Joey East and Scott Mills, the chief deputy for the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Department. Potts told the Mississippi Free Press that he never had access to the lock box as a member of the control board. Mills and East did not respond to several requests for comment.
“I came in at a time where the entire control board was looking to revamp the operation of the unit, so I felt like we made some very positive changes,” Potts said.
The former UPD chief said he stayed out of the way of the unit on their investigations.
“I didn’t butt heads with them on the operation. I didn’t feel like they took advantage of our students at the time,” Potts said in the interview. (Metro Narcotics) were receptive to all the changes that the control board came up with. So, I know a lot of that transpired because of the ‘60 Minutes’ piece, but they were still receptive to the changes.”
“Some people may be upset that it took that long to make the changes, but I like to focus on the fact that the positive changes were made,” Potts told this reporter.
Documents show that those changes included the hiring of a new commander named Rod Waller, a veteran police officer who spent much of his career fighting the war on drugs. Once Waller took over the Metro Narcotics Unit, he said he wanted to update the policies related to the handling of CIs, as well as handling of evidence or seized funds, but did not specify how he intended to accomplish that goal or what the updates themselves would be.
“As far as our CI policy, they will be made aware they can talk to attorneys, they can talk to an adviser, family adviser, if they want to do that before they make a decision,” Waller told Oxford Eagle reporter Stephanie Rebman in 2016.
‘We Can’t Get What We Have Been Asking For’
Documents from 2017 and 2018 illustrate a struggle between the University of Mississippi leaders and those in law enforcement guiding Metro Narcotics. At that time, fallout from both Buzzfeed and “60 Minutes” reporting prompted university leaders to seek to have the unit accredited and to install an external measure of accountability.
During cooperative amendments to the interlocal agreement, university leaders attempted to insert language that invited representatives of the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency and the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics to meet with Metro Narcotics quarterly.
Additionally, UM leaders authored a new provision in their edit of the interlocal agreement that would allow for regular external review if accreditation was not available for the unit:
“The parties further agree that the Drug Unit shall pursue accreditation from an external reviewing agency or association to ensure best practices with respect to general law enforcement practices, the enforcement of drug laws, the use of confidential informants, the handling of evidence, and the seizure, use, and disposal of property seized by the Drug Unit. If accreditation is not available in the context of drug or narcotics units, then the parties agree to seek external, peer review of the Drug Unit at least every four years, with the first such review occurring in 2018,” the requested provision read.
Then-OPD Chief Joey East asked for UM’s language to be removed in the Oct. 7, 2017, comments he left in a draft of the interlocal agreement.
“I do not see why this is in the MOU,” East said. “University has a member on the board so they are represented…,” East commented in reference to the invitation to federal representatives. “It just seems like they want more oversight but without good direction. I would like it taken out.”
“Again OPD has accepted this responsibility and is in the process of (seeking accreditation). Metro follows all OPD SOP on all areas. Over kill,” East added.
A representative with the Oxford Police Department confirmed that OPD is now nationally accredited in accordance with the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. The representative also said those policies are the same that guide Metro Narcotics today.
‘Something Needs To Change’
While addressing then-Chief East’s comments with his UM colleagues in December 2017, then-UPD Chief Tim Potts told then-UM counsel Donna Gurley and former Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Brandi Hephner LaBanc that the unit was not following the policies East referenced as justification for removing the language.
“My concern is that much of this is going/referring to OPD. The need for an annual audit should not be negotiable,” Potts wrote to counsel Gurley. “Given the track record of Metro and a lack of sound financial records, and [sic] annual audit should be required. I think that relying on OPD policy is fine, but they are not sticking to the policy. The annual review of the unit commander has not happened….that is a violation of the accreditation standards.
Potts continued: “… To be honest, the constant battle with metro (narcotics unit) is draining. They want it their way and do not want to cooperate with the state/federal agencies or share the drug information. We have to [sic] many agencies in this area pulling in different directions.”
January 2018 emails from Potts to Gurley suggest that those comments by Potts refer in part to policies concerning oversight of seized funds and money used during operations.
“That (OPD Policy 4.9) covers the evidence audits. …but it doesn’t cover an audit of the seized funds/ buy money,” Potts wrote to the UM lawyer. “An annual audit only covers a portion of the total evidence. I think given the track record that a full audit of seized funds/ buy money be conducted. Maybe after a few years, if there are no issues, we can relax it to every other year or something. Given the track record, I truly feel that a full annual audit of seized funds/ buy money should be conducted.”
Neither UPD nor the University of Mississippi public-relations department responded to messages requesting comment for this story.
Potts: ‘We Are Not Cutting Edge’
The early-2018 emails indicate that the issues Potts raised were not resolved. He left UPD in January 2018 to be closer to family, he says.
“In my humble opinion, something needs to change in the operation of metro,” he wrote to Brandi Hephner LaBanc in a Jan. 25, 2018, email.
“The current operating practice is antiquated, and quite frankly, we are not cutting edge, we are operating how units operated years and years ago. If this method was efficient, units would still be using the formula. My fear is we are on an island. Look at the other SEC schools, and I can tell you ZERO Big Ten institutions operate like we currently do.”
What is clear through examination of Potts’ and Hephner LaBanc’s email correspondence is that multiple university leaders were unhappy with Metro Narcotics.
As Hephner LaBanc put it in a February 2018 email to counsel Donna Gurley, “…the Chief in Charge has been the same for a while and we can’t get what we have been asking for.”
Emails indicate that Hephner LaBanc was also seeking statistics related to student confidential informants.
In 2018, during further collective redrafting of the Interlocal Agreement, now-former Vice Chancellor Hephner LaBanc attempted to attach a document called Exhibit 1 to the agreement. Through Exhibit 1, Hephner LaBanc sought to collect specific information about cases and informants, such as how many of them were students and how long they spent working as informants.
Correspondence between attorneys representing UM and the City of Oxford revealed that then-OPD Chief Joey East did not want the types of statistics collected by Metro Narcotics to disseminate among the unit’s public-institution partners.
On Feb. 1, 2018, the City of Oxford’s attorney, Pope Mallette, wrote UM counsel Donna Gurley, saying that “Chief East explained that he did not think the parties are well-served by including the Exhibit to the agreement.”
Mallette then stated that the control board was willing to provide the statistics UM leaders wanted, but apparently outside of public view. “(Chief Joey East) said they agreed that the Exhibit should be removed from the Interlocal itself, as it raises as many questions as it answers, especially since the document will be on file with 3 public entities, and the AG’s office.”
Tracking Students Without UPD Knowledge
Rod Waller served as the commander of Metro Narcotics for just over four years. He assumed that position in 2016 following the departure of former Commander Keith Davis.
“When I first arrived, things were dark in Metro,” Waller told Hotty Toddy reporter Alyssa Schnugg in a June 2020 interview. “We had received some bad publicity and not viewed positively by the public. However, the whole unit made changes to the way things were done. I feel we can now take pride in the fact that we brought Metro back to a place where it is thought of in high regard.”
UM leaders had issued a coordinated response on June 3, 2016, to the “60 Minutes” segment on Metro Narcotics after the show’s producers later requested an update. “Waller has been specifically charged with ensuring that the Metro Narcotics Unit adopts and follows the best law enforcement and community relations’ Practices,” the statement said.
Still, other documents indicate that Waller may have stepped on the toes of the university’s police department in April 2019 when aggressively pursuing a student case.
On the morning of Friday, April 5, 2019, Waller emailed Ray Hawkins, the UPD police chief who replaced Tim Potts after he departed for his home state of Indiana.
“Ray, If you could, please contact Martin Bolen about the below student, xxx xxx, and see if xxx is actively in the below class or has dropped it. We have a grand jury indictment for xxx.
As always, your assistance is greatly appreciated,” Waller wrote.
Correspondence shows that Waller had contacted UM economics instructor Martin Bolen on April 4, a day before inquiring with Hawkins. The instructor only directed Waller to UPD and told him they could possibly help him locate the student he was interested in.
The following day, on the afternoon of April 5, 2019, UPD’s Captain of Field Operations Jesse Richards emailed UPD officers.
“All, Please be advised. Effective immediately, no information concerning a student at Ole Miss is to be given to Metro Narcotics without the approval of Chief Hawkins or Captain Richards. In the event someone from Metro Narcotics should call or email requesting information, notify them you have to get approval first or they can contact either of us themselves,” Richards wrote.
‘Fear of Not Being Funded’
Even as some change at least has come to the Metro Narcotics Unit, it is still facing a possible funding crisis, and it is still apparently missing at least $34,000.
The string of controversies cannot help, especially coupled with shrinking enthusiasm for funding old-school-style narcotics units and piling up marijuana arrests in a time when the university is investing in cannabis research and legally growing marijuana, and state voters approved medicinal use just months ago.
Still, local law enforcement wants the unit to continue.
In an April 2020 email, Metro Narcotics Control board member, former OPD chief and current Lafayette County Sheriff Joey East told control board colleagues UPD Chief Ray Hawkins and OPD Chief Jeff McCutchen that he had financial concerns related to the unit.
“I would like for us to meet and discuss the future of Metro Narcotics. I know that times are hard, and I am worried that metro might be in danger of not being funded next year,” he wrote.
High Speed, Low Drag
Robert Hale, the confidential source, told the Mississippi Free Press that stagnation in the policing culture of Lafayette County contributed to the recurrence of issues within Metro Narcotics, whether that was the same rotating pool of law enforcement officers in the area, or the methods by which they conducted themselves.
An apparent fixture of that culture is a toxic mindset about the work of drug units that welcomes violence, the source said.
A common point of discussion in recent years in discussions of policing reform is shifting policing from what some experts call a “warrior” approach to one focused on public service or being a “guardian” of communities. Special policing units, such as narcotics units, are a frequent target of such accusations.
“Modern policing has so thoroughly assimilated the warrior mythos that, at some law enforcement agencies, it has become a point of professional pride to refer to the ‘police warrior,’” law professor and policing expert Seth Stoughton wrote for the Harvard Law Review in 2015.
A rowdier approach to drug enforcement is something Control Board member Scott Mills expressed fond memories of in a summer 2018 interview with Daily Journal reporter Chaning Green.
“I know it sounds corny,” Mills told Green in an interview, “but the sheriff and I have talked about this a lot, just being able to help people with something that no one else could help them with.”
“I loved drug enforcement. I loved chasing dopers, catching the sellers and everything. It was high speed and low drag, and was just a lot of fun to me.”
Hale, the confidential source, said the idea of “high speed and low drag” enforcement was a pitfall of the Metro Narcotics Unit. “Some of these (officers) that came up when The Unit was started had that mentality, and it’s tough when that mentality is now on the control board,” he told the Mississippi Free Press.
Email story tips to Christian Middleton at [email protected].
April 7, 2021, update: Citing details released to the public in the above April 7 investigative report, Oxford defense attorney Kevin Frye called for a suspension in the prosecution of all Metro Narcotics cases in the Lafayette County Circuit Court. Judge Kent Smith denied Frye’s sweeping request, but stated that he could consider suspension of prosecution on a case-by-case basis. Frye told the court that he intended to follow up with some of his cases in that manner.