Money stolen, found and missing again

Cash: Up to $38,000 used as evidence in a bank robbery trial has disappeared, officials say.

October 03, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

As they wrapped up a two-week bank robbery trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, federal authorities discovered another possible crime - some key evidence, more than $36,000 in cash, had disappeared.

FBI officials confirmed yesterday that agents are investigating what happened to money used as evidence in the trial of Nacoe Ray Brown, who was convicted last week in a string of violent bank robberies in Baltimore County.

Special Agent Barry A. Maddox, an FBI spokesman, declined to discuss the evidence investigation in detail or say how much money is missing. But law enforcement sources said that $36,000 to $38,000 was gone and that FBI agents had interviewed numerous courthouse employees this week.

The money was determined to be missing as attorneys packed up after a jury had returned its verdict against Brown last Thursday, said U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis, who presided over the trial and was astounded by the discovery.

Davis said investigators have indicated that the money apparently was not taken from his courtroom, but that it likely was lost somewhere between the courtroom and government storage used to hold sensitive evidence during trials.

"My understanding is it wasn't taken out of the courtroom, and that gives me a very narrow measure of relief," Davis said. "The bureau is undergoing a very thorough, professional investigation, and we can just await the outcome."

Officials with the U.S. attorney's office did not respond yesterday to requests for comment.

Federal prosecutors and the FBI agents assigned to the case would have been directly responsible for the money. Such evidence, along with items such as guns and drugs, typically is kept locked in a secure area except for the brief period when it is introduced at trial.

The missing money provided odd punctuation to a high-profile bank robbery case with its own curious twists.

Brown, 34, of Baltimore, was charged with another man in connection with four Baltimore County robberies last year that gained attention for the level of violence, the amount of money taken and the robber's many disguises. In one robbery, the gunman wore hospital scrubs and a stethoscope; in another, a suit and black fedora, according to an affidavit by the FBI's lead investigator in the case, Special Agent Anthony M. Campano.

Prosecutors said Brown was the holdup man in four robberies that netted more than $450,000. He was convicted on three counts of bank robbery; jurors were deadlocked on a fourth count.

The other defendant, Kevin L. Hilliard, pleaded guilty to his role in one robbery and testified against Brown at the trial. Hilliard said that Brown told him God had directed him in a vision to rob banks as a way to fund his struggling gospel dinner theater in downtown Baltimore. The theater, Shekinah's Place on Guilford Avenue, closed.

Court records show that it was during a search of Hilliard's home that FBI agents found a safe containing about $68,000 in cash, some of it in wrappers from banks that had been robbed.

A list of government exhibits introduced at trial makes two references to cash - one exhibit was listed as "Money from Hilliard's safe;" another was identified as "Money recovered from Hilliard on arrest."

A stipulated agreement that all exhibits in the case had been returned was signed on the last day of the trial by each of the attorneys in the case - Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jonathan P. Luna and Jacabed Rodriguez-Coss and defense attorney Kenneth W. Ravenell.

Ravenell said yesterday that at the trial, government lawyers asked Hilliard to identify the cash seized from his safe as coming from the bank robberies. Ravenell said the money was heat-sealed in two or three separate plastic bags and that each one was extremely bulky because the denominations were relatively small.

The missing bag of money contained as much as $38,000, apparently in $20 bills, according to law enforcement sources close to the investigation.

Ravenell said the money was in the courtroom for only the short period when it was identified by Hilliard and introduced as evidence. After that, he said the evidence apparently was taken to a secure area by government agents or attorneys, who typically wheel case files and evidence boxes through the courthouse on rolling carts. "These were not like little stacks of ... hundred-dollar bills," Ravenell said. "It's not something that, in my opinion, is just going to fall off the cart in the hallway and no one would notice."

Ravenell said he had not been interviewed by FBI agents and learned about the missing evidence during an unrelated appearance in Davis' courtroom this week. He said the evidence probe would not affect his client's case or sentencing, which is scheduled for December 13.

"The money was there during the trial," Ravenell said. "What they did with it after, I have no idea."

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