EXCLUSIVE INVESTIGATION: GPD Crime Lab and evidence room compromised by security breach

PUBLISHER’S NOTE: On Thursday morning, the Griffin Police Department (GPD) issued a press release regarding the security breach that is the subject of this investigative report.
The GRIP has been investigating this incident for nearly two weeks and has obtained information you will not find in the GPD press release. This article will also disclose additional discrepancies between information presented in the GPD press release and other internal GPD records.
This is the first in a series of articles related to this Griffin Police Department security breach.

SHEILA A. MATHEWS :::

The Griffin Police Department (GPD) Crime Scene Lab, secure evidence storage room and their contents were compromised when two doors were left unlocked, open and unattended for a period of more than ten hours.

The security breach lasted from approximately 5 p.m. Nov. 4 until 3:39 a.m. Nov. 5, 2021.

The GRIP’s investigation of this incident indicates that GPD Crime Scene Investigator Ashley Neath was identified as the officer who left those areas unsecure.

Neath’s loaded duty weapon was also left unsecured on a table in the Crime Lab.

The unsecured Crime Lab door led directly to the GPD parking lot, which is how it was discovered by former GPD Lt. Chris Wilson, who then served in the Uniform Patrol Division.

Wilson reported seeing light coming from the Crime Lab as he was exiting the parking lot. He immediately requested backup and five officers activated their body worn cameras and searched the rooms that had been left unsecured. Wilson’s body worn camera recording can be viewed here:
https://fb.watch/bnXT7PTmKU/

At 4:55 a.m. Nov. 5, 2021, Wilson notified GPD command staff that the Crime Lab, secure evidence storage room and their contents had been compromised. Wilson’s email was sent to GPD Chief Mike Yates, Capt. Brian Jones, Capt. Homer Daniel, Lt. John Hayes, Sgt. Lee Ward, CSI Ashley Neath, CSI Michael Smith and Officer Laurie Littlejohn, the agency’s evidence custodian.

The Griffin Police Department did not officially document the security breach until the following week, when Littlejohn wrote an incident report at 3:22 p.m. Nov. 9, 2021.

Littlejohn reported Hayes had directed her to complete an inventory of the evidence room except for the DNA, drug and gun locker, which Wilson initially reported were secure.

“An inventory of the remaining areas of the evidence room has been initiated,” Littlejohn said. “The results of this inventory will be added to this report as a supplemental narrative.”

Littlejohn’s supplemental narrative stated, “All areas of the evidence room were inventoried and inspected, except for the gun room, DNA room, and drug room. The officers who checked and secured the evidence room that night stated that the gun and drug rooms were locked as required. It is a regular practice to inspect the evidence room daily visually. This inspection will ensure that no evidence is damaged due to any unforeseen mechanical or malfunction of heat/ac units or roof leaks,” Littlejohn said. “CSI M. Smith and I inventoried the evidence room over three weeks as daily tasks would allow. Based on that inventory and visual inspection of the evidence room, it appears that nothing was disturbed or removed. During this time, we began preparations to move all evidence to the new evidence room. Additional attention was given to evidence to ensure a smooth transition to the new location.”

The GRIP has submitted numerous Open Records requests (ORRs) as part of its investigation of this security breach.

Among the first was an ORR that sought production of the findings of any audit that had been performed in response to this incident.

The city of Griffin provided Littlejohn’s narrative summary, which was attached to the initial incident report.

Despite this security breach having occurred in early November 2021, that report – later identified as the only documentation of the audit’s findings – was not written until 7:26 a.m. Feb. 16, 2022, one day after The GRIP submitted its ORR seeking production of that record.

City of Griffin Staff Attorney Kelsey Carden subsequently stated that no report was generated as a result of that audit. Carden said the November audit was converted into an Excel spreadsheet, but that it “merely represents the physical record of the inventory upon completion of that audit.”
Furthermore, Carden said the Excel spreadsheet that purportedly represents a November audit is dated Dec. 27.

Additional information gathering has confirmed that the GPD did not have security or surveillance coverage of the Crime Lab or evidence storage room doors.

Body worn camera footage from the night of this occurrence indicated the parking lot security gate remained open, but neither GPD Chief Mike Yates nor City Manager Jessica O’Connor have responded to the questions related to the gate’s functionality.

As part of this investigation, The GRIP submitted an ORR to Griffin Judicial Circuit District Attorney Marie Broder seeking production of any record in which the Griffin Police Department had notified her office of this security breach.

That ORR was submitted to Broder Feb. 15, and a response stating the DA’s Office had no documentation of that breach was received Feb. 16.

Broder has since confirmed no one from the Griffin Police Department ever reported this security breach to her office. Instead, after speaking with The GRIP Tuesday, she placed a phone call and addressed this incident with Chief Yates on Wednesday afternoon.

The GRIP also confirmed Wednesday that no one from the Griffin Police Department had reported this breach to Spalding County Solicitor General Patrick Shepherd.

Also on Wednesday, eight days after submitting the first ORRs to the city of Griffin, The GRIP Publisher Sheila Mathews emailed a series of questions to Chief Yates. That email was carbon copied to City Manager Jessica O’Connor, City Attorney Drew Whalen and City Staff Attorney Kelsey Carden.

Yates did not respond to any of the questions submitted.

Despite his unwillingness to respond to The GRIP’s questions, the Griffin Police Department on Thursday morning issued a press release related to this security breach.

That press release contains misleading information, uncorroborated allegations and at least one statement that directly contradicts another GPD internal document related to this incident.

According to Thursday’s GPD press release, the physical audit was completed “in the few days following this discovery.”

That directly contradicts GPD Evidence Custodian Laurie Littlejohn’s audit findings, in which she said the process took place over a period of three weeks “as daily tasks would allow.”

Since no reports were generated, The GRIP has been unable to confirm which of those dates is factual.

Mathews has requested that information from both Yates and O’Connor and will report any response that is received.

Further, the press release stated, “The prosecutors in State and Superior Court have been notified. No trials related to the evidence stored in this area have taken place since this discovery. At this time, there is no reason to believe any current case has been adversely affected.”

The Griffin Police Department also alleged in its press release that, “At this time, there is no reason to believe any current case has been adversely affected.”

After speaking with Mathews Tuesday, Broder said she was able to confirm that only a few cases have been tried since the Nov. 4-5 security breach and that they were not affected by this incident, but the remainder of the GPD claim is uncorroborated.

When asked if her office had determined that no current or pending criminal cases have been or will be adversely affected by the security breach, Broder said, “…we are still in the process of evaluating that now.”

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