Cops and Robbers

Missing seized drug money remains a mystery, long after authorities promised answers.

More than two years ago, hundreds of thousands of dollars mysteriously disappeared from the Metropolitan Area Narcotics Trafficking Interdiction Squad, or MANTIS, an organization made up of representatives from numerous local, state and federal policing agencies.

A financial audit revealed $600,000 of illegal drug money seized by MANTIS was missing, drained out of a bank account during a three-year period. After the case was turned over to the FBI, fingers quickly pointed at an unnamed retired Tucson police detective as the alleged thief.

By August 2002, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was publicly saying the investigation into the theft would be concluded within a couple of months. But no arrests have been made.

According to Phoenix-based FBI agent Susan Herskovits, authorities are still looking into the robbery, and she doesn't know when their investigation will be completed. As for statements made last year that the case would soon be wrapped up, Herskovits says, "We didn't put that out, and we're not comfortable with timelines."

Through a spokesperson, Dupnik recently said, "I do know the investigation is nearing an end, and that is all I know."

When this embarrassing theft was first revealed, calls for tighter security measures and better bookkeeping at MANTIS were intense, especially because this was the third time in a decade that seized drug money had vanished from the agency. Local authorities even commented that the organization should perhaps be disbanded.

While minor personnel reductions impacted MANTIS during the last two years, as did the addition of tighter financial regulations, several major changes are about to occur at the agency. Lt. George White of the Sheriff's Department, who is assigned to MANTIS, says beginning Jan. 1, the organization will have both a new name and additional staffing to try to make it more efficient.

Called the Counter Narcotics Alliance, the revised group will retain the same focus on drug interdiction, but it will have available 150 commissioned officers, up dramatically from the current 28. Some of these new people will include FBI agents focusing on public corruption, U.S. Customs officials staffing a financial task force and federal Drug Enforcement Agency officers dealing with international drug trafficking.

Local police will also significantly increase their number of committed personnel. With 22 officers involved, the Tucson Police Department will have responsibility for street-level narcotics sales, while the Sheriff's Office is assigning 24 commissioned officers to concentrate on mid-level drug dealing.

But that doesn't solve the case of the missing MANTIS money, and the thief is still being sought. The same can't be said for the thief who stole hundreds of pounds of marijuana from under the nose of the U.S. Customs Service. That criminal got away with the 1998 crime.

Back then, about 10 tons of pot confiscated by federal officials had been sent from El Paso to Tucson to be incinerated, but the process was time-consuming. So law enforcement agents responsible for overseeing the operation left the incinerator before the marijuana was all burned. That allowed someone to haul between 400 and 1,000 pounds of singed pot out of the furnace.

Since the incinerator was located in Pima County, the Sheriff's Department handled the investigation. Deputy Dawn Barkman says the resulting "black" marijuana was still useable, and it was sold for consumption. Some who bought it were arrested for drug possession, but no one was ever apprehended for the original theft, and Barkman says the case is now closed.

While no arrests were made in the pot robbery, a number of U.S. Customs Service agents were either suspended or demoted for their involvement with this case.

While both the MANTIS and Customs Service robberies have the appearance of being pulled off by thieves with insider information, at least a 1995 theft from the Tucson Police Department doesn't follow that pattern.

In that case, 30 pounds of plastic and other explosives, enough to fill up a small trashcan, were taken from an unmanned TPD storage bunker. The robbers fortunately left behind a lot of other material at the remote site.

After eight years, just like with the other robberies, no arrests have been made. Because of that, TPD still considers the case of the stolen explosives open.