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2011-01-27

BCSO weapons inventory - two years & counting

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

As far as audits of equipment, ammunition and firearms goes, the one at the Bandera County Sheriff's Office has been in the works for two years.
BCSO personnel pulled an item from the Thursday, Jan. 13, agenda of Bandera Commissioners Court that covered declaring weapons forfeited to the BCSO by the county and district courts as surplus property. As written, the agenda item required action by the court.
2009, audit begins?
According to a local law enforcement officer, the weapons, which are being stored at the Tarpley ranch of Reserve Deputy Phil Becker, along with ammunition and other department equipment, were still being inventoried. A proposed audit of the items first surfaced in January 2009 when commissioners court took up the matter of an "Indemnity and Hold Harmless Agreement" with Becker for law enforcement activities being conducted on his property.
At that time, commissioners seemed nonplussed to discover BCSO administrators had been storing a portion of the department's arsenal at the locale.
Sheriff Weldon Tucker acknowledged to the court his department had been storing "ammo, training stuff and targets," as well as a cache of the department's mini 14 and the new AR 15 rifles at a secure location at Becker's ranch.
Seemingly caught off-guard at the revelation, County Judge Richard Evans noted, "I didn't know about the storage. That must be included in the contract."
Quickly concurring, Tucker said, "We need an audit and we need to do that today. We'll take an inventory of everything stored out there and get it on the county's insurance."
In a later interview, Chief Deputy Richard Smith said he and County Auditor Christina Moeller would conduct a complete inventory of weapons and equipment stored at Becker's private ranch as soon as possible.
May 2010,
audit continues
Additionally, Tucker alluded to the planned inventory last May in a voluntary statement made to investigators with the Office of the Texas Attorney General.
He discussed allegations that he had used a county-owned rescue boat for personal fishing trips. Tucker has since been indicted by a Bandera County Grand Jury for official misuse of county property.
The guns came up when Sgt. Robyn Wilson of the AG's office brought up an assertion by former Deputy Scott Sharp that BCSO deputies had used departmental or evidential weapons on hunting trips.
Tucker told Wilson, "All of those allegations have been disposed of a far as federal court goes."
Dismissing Sharp's allegations, Tucker said, "Just like this incident with the boat. You know if I thought that at anytime that I was doing something wrong, I wouldn't have told, you know, everybody at the sheriff's office where I'm going or to take that boat down there."
Although he categorically denied that any weapons had left his department, Tucker added, however, "As far as I know of? No, it happened under Ronnie." No follow-up question was asked to determine the last name of the person to whom Tucker had referred. However, calls to former local law enforcement officers confirmed that no "Ronnie" had apparently been employed by the BCSO for the last 20 years.
'Didn't mean it'
The incident that Sharp had referred to in a sworn affidavit allegedly occurred when Tucker; his brother, Lt. Allen Tucker; Deputy Shane Merritt; and Smith, who was then an investigator, were in the so-called weapons vault. Weldon Tucker was aware of Sharp's claim that law enforcement officers were "pulling off tags and whatnot, fixing to go bird hunting."
Tucker continued, "He made that allegation that we had said that. And, to be honest with you, we might have said something, but it never happened. There's all kinds of thing that get said ... but, no, nothing like that has ever happened."
When told that sometimes law enforcement officers use issued departmental weapons such as long guns or shotguns for skeet shooting to hone their weaponry skills, Tucker agreed that had also happened at the BCSO, saying, "Well, we have shot skeet at the firing, at the shooting range, but as far as hunting with them, no."
He told investigators that Becker serves as range master, assisted by Sgt. Gerald "Jerry" Johnson. He named Becker, Johnson and Merritt as the department's firearms instructors.
Well, no audit yet
"When was the last time that you audited your evidence or had your evidence audited?" Wilson asked.
Tucker said that while an actual audit was not taking place, his deputies were "going through everything now. And it's been an ongoing process because there's stuff in there 30 years old."
Wilson then inquired if the process had uncovered a substantial amount of irregularities with the evidence and the manner in which it had been catalogued and tracked.
"There was major irregularities before we started. The system that we have in place now is a good system," Tucker said. "Are we coming up with a bunch of missing stuff? No. Are we coming up with stuff that we don't know why it was never given back to the public? Yeah."
Tucker postulated that weapons had never been returned to owners in the past because "Bandera County never had anybody who was capable of running an inventory room the way it should have been."
To Wilson's question about whether the BCSO presently uses an electronic inventory system, Tucker said no, adding, "Well, we do have the capability of logging stuff into our almost dinosaur age computer system. [A deputy] is able to electronically file some things through it, but, no, our system is not as good as what we would have hoped."
The evidence inventory is now located at the Bandera County Jail and Justice Center on Highway 173 North. Tucker described the move as in the "interest of getting everything logged in and organized the way that it should be." At the time of the interview, Merritt was in charge of the evidence inventory.
Need court order
As Tucker described the process, items seized by deputies over a weekend would be noted in their law enforcement report. If necessary, the evidence would be weighed and then dropped into a box. "When Shane comes in, he takes it out and logs it in so [the deputies] don't have to worry about it," Tucker explained.
Discussion then turned to the disposal of stolen or found property that could not, for whatever reason, be returned to the rightful owners. "I'm not sure how it works. I don't know if, after a period of time, [Merritt] requests a court order to get rid of it somehow or another," Tucker said. He continued, "If we get anything in there, before we get rid of it, we have to have a court order. I don't know what the time frame on it is or how it worked. But once we take something in, [it] can't leave there unless we get an order."
Before the discussion turned to other matters, Tucker reiterated that to the best of his knowledge, no evidentiary or departmental guns had ever been used for personal hunting trips by BCSO law enforcement officers.
However, the question remains: How long should it take to get an accurate count of the weapons - departmental or evidentiary - that are currently being held by the BCSO?
For the record, the subject of BCSO firearms is back on the agenda for the Thursday, Jan 27 meeting of commissioners court.