Missing money starts probes of toll police force City seeks to renege on plan to return cash seized in bust

August 26, 1992|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer

Baltimore prosecutors say they cannot fulfill an agreement to return more than $3,000 seized from a Florida man in a drug arrest because a veteran Maryland Toll Facilities police officer stole the money and then killed himself.

All of this confuses and frustrates Paul Kirsch, who was convicted on drug charges but maintains he knew nothing about the marijuana that police found in the luggage in his rented Lincoln Town Car. He says the cash, far from being drug money, was a loan from his mother.

"I feel like I'm being penalized for having cash on me when I didn't really do anything wrong other than to exceed the speed limit in Baltimore City," the Orlando, Fla., man said. "I've got no idea what to do."

In the course of a year, the Kirsch case has grown from a routine traffic stop into two ongoing investigations into corruption in the toll facilities police force. And it seems to have led to some finger-pointing between city prosecutors and state lawyers representing the toll police, part of the Maryland Transportation Authority.

Baltimore prosecutors say Officer James R. Dark Jr., who was found dead last month at a Baltimore County cemetery, stole $40,000 from the toll facilities force and failed to deposit in a city bank account the $3,673 seized from Mr. Kirsch.

As a result, the city says it won't reimburse Mr. Kirsch with money it never received.

The story begins on Aug. 31, 1991, when Mr. Kirsch was pulled over for doing 78 in a 55 mph zone on southbound Interstate 95 near the Fort McHenry Tunnel in Baltimore. He was arrested after a check showed his Florida driver's license was suspended. A toll facilities officer found $3,673 in Mr. Kirsch's pocket and a subsequent search of his car turned up "eight plastic baggies of suspected marijuana" in a bag belonging to Mr. Kirsch, police said.

Mr. Kirsch said the drugs were either planted by police or were already in the car when he rented it.

Police charged him with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and initiated court proceedings seeking forfeiture of the money. In October, he was placed on a year's probation and was fined $650 for possession of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute. He also was fined $105 for speeding.

Meanwhile, negotiations continued between Mr. Kirsch and Rudolph F. Drayton, who handles forfeiture cases for the Baltimore state's attorney's office.

City prosecutors appeared to have a strong case for forfeiture; under the law, cash in proximity to drugs, as in the same car,

creates a presumption that the money was used in violation of drug laws. But prosecutors agreed to return all but $500 of the seized money, and the settlement was approved June 3 by Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan.

Awaiting a check for $3,173, Mr. Kirsch received instead a July 20 letter from Mr. Drayton saying that "a problem has risen with respect to locating the $3,673."

In a motion filed last week asking Judge Kaplan to rescind his order approving the settlement, Mr. Drayton elaborated on the "problem."

The motion said Officer Dark had received the $3,673 and entered the amount in his ledger but failed to deposit it in the city bank account. Mr. Drayton said he alerted Lt.James Stevens of the toll facilities police and an investigation began.

On July 20, Baltimore County police found Officer Dark, a 17-year veteran who most recently was assigned to the investigative unit, dead in his car at Holly Hill Memorial Gardens. Police found empty bottles of sleeping pills in the car. The state medical examiner ruled the death a suicide by drug overdose.

Also found in the car were cassette tapes, police said. The 38-year-old officer left a taped confession admitting to stealing about $40,000 from the toll facilities police, according to the court document filed by Mr. Drayton. That amount is more than seven times the $5,623.52 seized by toll facilities police in 44 drug arrests so far this year.

In his motion, Mr. Drayton said the toll facilities police reversed their position and said they would not turn over money to pay Mr. Kirsch.

Writing in court records, Mr. Drayton said the state attorney general's office advised him that "the criminal act of Officer Dark absolves the state of liability for the money."

Deborah Donohue, an assistant attorney general assigned to the Maryland Transportation Authority, disputed the accuracy of Mr. Drayton's assertion but did not elaborate.

Edward Hechmer, chief of the toll facilities police, said that an internal investigation into the missing money is under way and that he is unsure how much Officer Dark may have taken. "We don't know if it was $40,000," he said. "The investigation is targeted at any or all missing monies, if there are any."

The criminal investigations division of the state attorney general's office is conducting a similar inquiry.

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