A Billings Police Department employee was fired earlier this month after stealing prescription painkillers from the evidence locker, police said Tuesday.
The revelation throws into question hundreds of police cases and dozens of prosecutors' cases, and prompts a major review of the department's procedures.
It is the second time in roughly three years drug cases have been affected by BPD evidence technicians stealing drugs. A second employee was fired in 2014, and later charged, after stealing drugs from the police evidence locker.
Rawlyn Strizich, 38, was fired Feb. 6 after reporting her drug thefts to her supervisor at the evidence locker, Police Chief Rich St. John said during a press conference Tuesday. Strizich was fired the day the audit was completed.
St. John called the press conference after The Billings Gazette requested information on reported evidence thefts earlier in the day.
Strizich told her supervisor Jan. 20 that she had been stealing oxycodone and other opioids. The confession came just a few days before an audit of the evidence locker was set to start.
She was suspended and then fired two and a half weeks later, after the audit was completed.
Strizich had been employed with the police department since 2013, working initially as a clerk. She became an evidence technician in 2016.
After Strizich notified her supervisor, BPD performed an initial audit of the evidence locker, focusing on drugs, cash and firearms.
That audit showed Strizich’s thefts likely affected 138 drug cases with 134 suspects. St. John said the cases were at varying stages of completion, with some still under investigation and others that had already been forwarded to the county attorney for charges.
In each case, oxycodone or other opioid pills were taken, St. John said.
The audit shows the drug thefts began appearing around July 2017, but the case is still under investigation. Opioids were missing from cases dating back to 2007, as well as cases opened as recently as 2017.
Once the BPD's investigation is complete, it will forward the case to the county attorney's office for possible charges.
About $300 in cash was also missing, along with other types of drugs, the preliminary audit found, but no connection has yet been made between those items and Strizich, St. John said.
“The M.O. was very simple,” St. John said. “Miss Strizich would search the facility’s computer system for oxycodone pills, write down the case number and location, open the package and take the pills. She would either reseal the package or simply shred it.”
BPD said there was no evidence that the drugs had been sold or traded, and BPD believes Strizich was stealing them for her own use.
The thefts occurred despite security procedures the department has in place for evidence handling, including surveillance video.
Asked whether that footage is regularly reviewed as a part of evidence security, St. John said it was impossible to assign that duty to such a small department of four — three evidence technicians and one supervisor.
A second audit of the entire evidence facility and its 61,000 items is now underway.
“Unfortunately, we caused a lot of extra work for the county attorney’s office and for the city attorney’s office in some cases,” St. John said.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito estimated the evidence thefts would affect 40 felony cases in his office alone, including cases where no charges have yet been filed, cases pending disposition, and cases that have reached a disposition. A complete tally was not immediately available.
"We’re all disappointed," Twito said Tuesday. "I mean, obviously we don’t want to have a case affected because of something like this."
Twito added that he had confidence his attorneys and the police department would handle the situation properly.
Strizich’s thefts underscore broader problems in the BPD’s evidence storage process, St. John said.
“This situation underscores a conversation about our evidence operation and facility that’s been going on for two years,” St. John said.
The chief said the department was working to tighten up procedures. That will include more stringent background checks for evidence technicians, increased staffing levels at the evidence facility and possibly more frequent evidence audits. Until now, those audits have been performed once every six months.
However, the most recent full audit was performed in March 2017. It did not indicate any suspicious activity on Strizich's part, or turn up any missing drug evidence, Captain Kevin Iffland said.
Working to decrease an evidence backlog is now also a priority, St. John said. He said the evidence comes in quicker than it can be dealt of, due to lengthy investigation and judicial system procedures.
BPD is working with the city and county attorney's offices to determine next steps. It has also notified defense attorneys and local judicial officials.
St. John said he hopes Strizich gets the help she needs.
The police department is asking the city council to fund a new evidence facility to address crowding at the current site. St. John reiterated that request Tuesday but said his department also needs to double down on their operations at the same time.
“One’s facility is only as secure as the staff is honest,” he said.
Mayor Bill Cole attended the press conference.
In April 2016, a BPD employee was charged with stealing drugs from the police evidence locker.
Coby James Lewis was charged with felony criminal possession of dangerous drugs and misdemeanor theft of drugs. Lewis received a three-year deferred sentence and was ordered to pay $1,000 to the BPD Drug Forfeiture Fund.
A Yellowstone County prosecutor said the missing drugs were from a 2012 accidental overdose case and did not affect any ongoing criminal investigations. Investigators said the missing drugs included a syringe containing meth and oxycodone pills.
In 2015, at least 15 Yellowstone County drug cases were dropped after evidence was stolen at the Montana Crime Lab in Missoula. As many as 50 cases statewide were affected by the tampering.
The thefts involved Steve Brester, a former Missoula Police lieutenant who went to work for the crime lab as a technician after retiring from the police force. Brester apparently spent only nine months working for the lab before he was fired.
At the press conference Tuesday, St. John defended the remaining evidence staff.
“It must be noted that staff at our evidence facility are consummate professionals working in a very difficult environment,” he said. Strizich’s actions are "not consistent with nor a reflection of the professional conduct exhibited daily by that staff."