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Missed Signs In Case of Cop Who Stole Drugs

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday May 16, 2006

Although former Berkeley Police Sgt. Cary Kent, who pleaded guilty in April to felony charges of grand theft and possession of heroin and methamphetamine was sentenced Friday to one year in county jail, he’ll do no time behind bars. 

Friday, Superior Court Judge Don Clay, who said Kent “served the public very well” yet betrayed the public trust, offered the now-retired officer alternative sentencing, such as home detention or work furlough. 

Kent and his attorney Harry Stern will be back before the judge June 27 to propose specific sentencing. 

Kent stole heroin, meth and pills from the police department evidence locker that he supervised, compromised at least one criminal drug case and caused one case to be dismissed, said Clay, who noted Kent was “very remorseful and accepts responsibility” and was enrolled in a “detox” program so that he could “move on in life.” 

Some 900 pages of Berkeley Police Department reports on the case, requested by the Daily Planet on April 17 and released Friday by the department a few hours after Kent’s sentencing, paint a picture of a police department that apparently had great difficulty in acknowledging for more than a year that one of its own, the person responsible for overseeing narcotics evidence, had a serious drug problem. 

The reports show that Kent was able to convince colleagues that radical changes in behavior, appearance and work ethic were a result of a medical condition. It also shows that, while at least one commanding officer may have talked to Kent about poor work habits—not showing up on time to distribute drug evidence to officers going to court, missing meetings, not completing his work—no formal disciplinary action seems to have been proposed until he was put on administrative leave Jan. 6, after hard evidence came to light that he had tampered with drug evidence. 

The reports also show that some 280 drug envelopes had been tampered with, about 100 more than had previously come to light. These contained mostly heroin and methamphetamine, but also included ecstasy, rock cocaine, vicodin and oxycontine. 

Documents released were mostly transcripts of interviews conducted in January and early February by Berkeley Police Department Lt. Cynthia Harris and Inspector Mark Scarlett of the Alameda County District Attorney’s office with 31 police officers, three informants and a private citizen. Interviews with “informants” indicate that Kent continued to buy heroin after his mid-January retirement; informants said they thought Kent was still on the force. 

A Jan. 24 interview with Chief Doug Hambleton reveals that the chief, in his post since March 2005, was largely left out of the loop, with officer concerns about Kent’s demeanor and work ethic being raised with him only last fall. 

Hambleton told investigators that in October or November “when I discussed [a new rotation in the Special Enforcement Unit where Kent worked] with some other command officers, people brought to my attention that Sergeant Kent, who was in that assignment, has had some illness for a while and they were concerned about whether he would be able to work the street or work some other assignment in the Department if he were to be transferred.”  

The chief met with Kent and discussed a possible medical leave beginning mid January to allow him to address medical issues, and told investigators his concern grew just before Thanksgiving, when his staff told him Kent had not completed an annual physical that should have been done during the summer. 

“And to me that kind of raised a concern that … we as an organization have a right to know . . . that people are in good shape physically and . . . that’s why we do the annual physicals,” Hambleton said. 

At this point, reports indicate the chief was following the issue closely. Speaking of Kent’s failure to go to a December doctor appointment set up by the department—Kent said he had the wrong time—the chief told investigators: “That just . . . struck me as a little odd . . . but it didn’t start raising any red flags at that point.” 

Kent finally went to the physical, but refused a blood test. That, “coupled with the fact that he is one who has custody of our narcotics . . . we started getting concerned,” Hambleton told investigators. 

From there, the chief asked for a preliminary audit of the drug vault. Officers found a number of articles had been tampered with and that led to Kent’s administrative leave, his retirement and eventually, his guilty plea. 

“Had you heard any rumors of any drug use with him?” Harris asked the chief who said he hadn’t. 

Yet, others in the organization had long questioned Kent’s dishevelment, his isolation, his sometimes not making sense and his terrible work habits. 

Captain Stephanie Fleming was chief among them. Since April or May, she’d noticed Kent had gained a lot of weight, “had that sallow look about him,” and spots on his face. 

“. . . he was sweating profusely. He would come rushing into staff meeting on Monday mornings . . . And a lot of times he would not even make it there,” she told investigators. “He would call me and say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t make it. I had to go down to the lab and pick up some dope for the officers to take to court.’ He always had an excuse.” 

Fleming was perhaps the first to look squarely at the possibility that Kent was on drugs, as indicated in the interviews. She mentioned it to colleagues, but apparently did not take her concerns to the chief. 

“I asked a couple people; I think I even mentioned it to Capt. Gustafson and even asked Lieutenant Yuen. You know, ‘Do you think the guy’s on drugs?’” she told investigators. It was Fleming, according to interviews, who ultimately got the chief to approve the initial audit of the drug vault. 

The commander of the SEU between January and August 2005 was Capt. Eric Gustafson. Gustafson was a personal friend of Kent’s and others in the department. While it appears that some discussion of his personal relationship with Kent was redacted from the reports (there is an entire page of Gustafson’s testimony that was redacted), one gets the picture that Kent socialized with the person who was his subordinate and neighbor.  

Gustafson told the inspectors about going away for a weekend with Kent and other BPD officers to baseball training in spring 2004. It was then that Gustafson noticed that Kent stayed in his room when the others went out to activities other than the games. 

“It was the first tickle that I thought something might not be right,” he told inspectors.  

But he didn’t know what it was. 

When Gustafson took over the SEU in January 2005, he saw Kent “coming and going and his hours were flexing all around and he didn’t look good.” 

Then Gustafson started to hear that Kent wasn’t there in the morning to give the officers the drug evidence they needed to take to court. He apparently addressed the issue in an informal way, discussing Kent’s performance with him in April 2005, to which Kent responded, according to Gustafson, “‘You’ll never have to ask me again.’” 

In May, things weren’t getting better and Gustafson spoke to him again. Gustafson told investigators that by that time Kent was “flatly unreliable,” never being where he was supposed to be and not answering his cell phone.  

The record shows that Gustafson stepped in for Kent: “You know even after (the conversation with Kent) I was still handing out dope in the morning and that’s not my job,” Gustafson told investigators.  

On July 8, Gustafson sent Kent an e-mail, included in the reports, outlining work duties and a schedule that was to be maintained.  

The e-mail offered no consequences for ignoring the captain’s demands, but Gustafson told investigators it was preliminary to “setting the stage for a performance improvement plan.” 

Asked whether a previous commander had evaluated Kent, Gustafson said he didn’t know how that had been handled. “Usually those things are done informally person to person where you discuss problems in the unit or problems with people or something like that,” he said. 

No performance plan was included in the documentation. 

Testimony by many officers showed that Kent continued to come to work at irregular hours—even the middle of the night—and to be absent when his colleagues needed his presence most. 

Asked by investigators whether he suspected Kent was using drugs, Gustafson responded: “No, I had no suspicion at all . . . That’s probably ignorance on my part.” 

Kent responded to Gustafson’s e-mail by going out to coffee with him and talking about battling the illness, which, in the reports is sometimes called in the documents lupus and sometimes the name is redacted. Gustafson said, at that time, it was clear that Kent was depressed and suggested he get professional help. “He was emotional. He was going in and out of really making good sense and not making such good sense . . .” 

Kent told him he was taking medication to fight depression associated with his disease. “And then I told him that I wouldn’t tell anybody because he asked me not to,” Gustafson told investigators, adding that he told Kent he would “Give him some flexibility, but I still needed him to do his job.” 

Another individual close to Kent, who did not recognize signs of drug abuse, was Lt. Dennis Ahearn, who described himself to investigators as “a personal friend.” Ahearn told investigators he noticed changes in Kent about 18 months earlier. Kent responded to his concerns by speaking of an undiagnosed medical condition that he didn’t want to talk about. Ahearn said he never suspected Kent of using either prescription or illegal drugs. 

As time went on, Kent was looking increasing unkempt and people in his unit talked about his poor work habits. Ahearn said he had conversations with Gustafson and Lt. Ed McBride about it, but they did not conclude he was using drugs until the very end of the process. 

“I knew that he was falling down at work and . . . I had just assumed that . . . was being addressed within his chain of command in . . . as far as his missing staff meetings and that kind of stuff,” Ahearn told investigators. 

This should have been handled differently, Ahearn said. “All of us I think are a little bit embarrassed that we didn’t push him a little . . . harder earlier or confront him sooner. You know do something like that maybe we could have headed this off or (at) least brought it to light earlier . . .” 

McBride was among the few that may have suspected drug use. 

“I wouldn’t say addicted,” McBride stated in response to an investigator’s question. “But my concern was where he was working and . . . he has a source if (he) wanted to use it. The longer this went on with no diagnoses (for the supposed medical condition) and his erratic behavior . . . I started to suspect maybe because where he was working that maybe . . . he was using.” 

McBride told investigators he expressed his concern to Capt. Gustafson verbally. “I brought it up to a higher . . . person in the chain. So, in my mind . . . things should have been done here. And I don’t think organizationally we did. I think we failed.” 

As a retiree returning to work in August 2002, Lt. Russell Lopes observed Kent with fresh eyes. “There’s no question that for the last couple of years . . . he’s markedly different,” he told investigators. 

When he was told that Kent was addicted and had been put on leave, he said he was “incredulous.” 

“He betrayed his wife, his children . . . his friends and he betrayed the Police Department that I’ve spent 35 years at . . . So my emotions are mixed in that I’m very sad for him,” Lopes said.