WINTER HAVEN, Fla. — The Polk County Sheriff's Office says three of its deputies face felony charges and no longer work for the agency over "evidence tampering."
Sheriff Grady Judd says the investigation dates back to a traffic stop and arrest in December 2020.
In a news conference Monday morning, Judd explained former Deputy John Raczynski completed a traffic stop in Winter Haven that led to the discovery of drugs and cash. Due to the nature of the incident, former Deputy Jamal Lawson and Deputy Garrett Cook arrived as backup.
The woman driving the car was placed under arrest; and Raczynski in his report wrote that "the driver was found to have a large amount of US currency inside her right pants pocket." Sheriff Judd says that amount totaled to around $723.
A few days later, authorities say Raczynski placed 13 items of evidence into a storage locker at his substation. But not among those items was the $723, according to Judd.
"That money was taken from her and never made in the property and evidence," Judd said. "This is the craziest thing in the world because they wrote in their report that they took the money. They wrote in the affidavit that they took the money and then they didn’t put the money in evidence!"
Fast forward to March 2021, when Judd says the woman's charges were downgraded and she called about having her personal property returned.
When the money she insisted was seized during the arrest wasn't noted or found, the sheriff's office began an investigation. Judd says that investigation led back to the three officers who responded to her traffic stop months before.
"We started a criminal investigation immediately," Judd said.
According to a press release, the electronic notary on the arrest report was fraudulent. But it didn't stop there.
The sheriff's office says detectives interviewed the Property & Evidence officer who took a call from Raczynski at work asking her to call him back on her personal phone. When she did, he told her that all of the evidence in the December arrest was accounted for besides the money, according to a press release.
Authorities said Raczynski claimed Lawson moved the evidence from his trunk into Racynski's, and after that, the money could not be found. He also asked if there was something he could do to replace the funds, the sheriff's office said.
The evidence officer then reported the "suspicious phone call" to her supervisor, setting off a chain reaction.
In an effort to solve the issue of the lost money, "Raczynski told his Sergeant that he and Lawson were going to 'make it right' by submitting their own money into evidence to replace it." It's an action that both the sheriff's office and Judd say is not proper procedure.
Lawson and Cook were later interviewed and confirmed that, during the original arrest, a large amount of money was taken from the arrestee, according to a press release.
Judd says all three gave differing and conflicting stories of where the money was placed after it was taken.
Each faces felony charges related to the case and has since bonded out of jail.
All three officers were hired between 2016-2017. Sheriff Judd says all their arrests and seized property reports will now be audited. More charges will be filed if any other discrepancies or unlawful activity is found.
"Everyone at this agency knows that they are held to the highest standards, and they also know that if they break the law, we're going to hold them strictly accountable. I'm angry that these three violated the law, and in the process, betrayed the trust of our citizens," Judd said.
"Their actions are reprehensible, and do not reflect the mission and vision of the Polk County Sheriff's Office. I also commend the agency members who immediately took action to do the right thing and correct this unlawful conduct."
The State Attorney's Office has been contacted, and a request was made for the charges to be dropped against the woman arrested in this case.
"We can’t vouch for their credibility any longer," Judd said. "They didn’t just risk their job. They risked their reputation. They risked any future opportunities to work in law-enforcement. They risked everything over a tiny amount of money."
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