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March 08, 2006
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Prosecutor: Evidence again stolen from East St. Louis Police Department

Associated Press Writer

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill.- Police evidence including guns, drugs and sexual assault kits has been stolen from the city's police vault, the third such heist in five years, authorities said Tuesday.

Officials were still trying to determine the extent of the theft and its effect on prosecutions involving East St. Louis police.

"I think there will be cases negatively affected. It's just a question of how many and to what extent," said Robert Haida, St. Clair County's state's attorney. "It's not a good situation, and there's no way to spin this (favorably). It's a very significant situation."

The mayor said he thinks the theft was an attempt to hinder corruption investigations.

Haida said about 130 felony cases out of East St. Louis are pending in St. Clair County Circuit Court, with up to 70 of those involving violent crimes such as murders and armed robberies. He said Police Chief James Mister promised to tell him in detail by the end of March what evidence is missing and how many cases may be affected.

"The first step is to tell us what, in fact, is there and what cases do we have problems on," Haida said.

He said prosecutors will need to evaluate remaining evidence and decide whether there's enough to press ahead with charges.

"Obviously, the worst-case scenario would be dismissal," he said.

"In some ways, the credibility of the East St. Louis Police Department is at risk," he said.

Mayor Carl Officer told the Belleville News-Democrat on Monday that he believes the theft was an inside job, calling it "an attempt to cover up and divert some ongoing investigations into police corruption."

The mayor and the police chief did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment Tuesday.

Former police chief Ronald Matthews was convicted in December on federal charges that he plotted to obstruct federal agents and that he lied to a grand jury investigating a felon who illegally carried a handgun as an auxiliary police officer. Matthews, who resigned after being indicted in 2005, is to be sentenced March 20.

Nine people, including the head of the city's Democratic Party, either have been convicted or have pleaded guilty to vote-fraud charges related to the November 2004 election, with five of them sentenced to prison terms ranging from four months to four and a half years.

The city of more than 30,000 people, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, became one of the nation's poorest cities with the decline of its smokestack factories. Its schools were broke for years and the deed to City Hall once went to a man to cover a multimillion-dollar judgment over a jail beating.

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