MONROE — As an evidence custodian for the Louisiana State Police, Sgt. Ronald Thomas enjoyed a staggering level of trust, even for a veteran trooper.
His supervision was so minimal, in fact, that he would disappear for hours, fishing the workday away at the Poverty Point reservoir or heading to the woods for an on-the-clock tryst.
Yet by the time his colleagues caught on to him, wiretapping his phone and installing secret cameras in his office here, they had grown far more concerned by Thomas’ misconduct when he was at work.
A nearly yearlong investigation exposed lax oversight in the way State Police purged evidence no longer needed in criminal cases. And it revealed that Thomas — for months, if not years — sold packages of cocaine that he was supposed to incinerate, padding his pockets with hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit drug proceeds.
Authorities can only estimate the value of the narcotics Thomas returned to the streets before his enterprise came to light, putting that figure at up to $1 million over less than two years.
For investigators, who felt betrayed by a longtime brother in blue, the most enduring image of their nearly round-the-clock surveillance may have been when Thomas counted some of his spoils at his desk, wrapping the cash in rubber bands and stuffing the bills into a pink- and purple-striped sock he later hid in his waistband.
“He took an oath to do the very opposite of this, and it was all motivated by greed,” Geary Aycock, the chief felony prosecutor for the 4th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, said in an interview. “We don’t know how many lives he’s destroyed.”
The scandal, which culminated in Thomas, 45, reporting to the Ouachita Correctional Center last week to begin a one-year jail sentence, dealt an embarrassing black eye to the State Police, an agency that prides itself on integrity and ferreting out corruption.
Thomas had been a trooper for 18 years when Col. Mike Edmonson flew to Monroe in March 2013 to confiscate his badge.
“He violated the public trust, and it’s simply unacceptable,” said Edmonson, the agency’s superintendent. “He didn’t represent what a state trooper is.”
If troopers were taken aback by Thomas’ scheme, they were floored by the outcome this month.
Thomas faced up to 20 years behind bars after pleading guilty to money laundering, malfeasance in office and obstruction of justice. Instead, 19 years of his sentence were suspended, meaning he will return to prison if he commits another crime. Judge Larry Jefferson also ordered him to pay a $15,000 fine and perform 240 hours of community service.
Defense attorney Darrell Hickman said his client received a just punishment and that Thomas has come to realize “that there are more important things in life than money.”
Thomas blamed his crimes in part on exposure to the fumes from the confiscated narcotics he handled for several years after being moved from patrol to the evidence room.
“This is a man who is probably not going to be in trouble for the rest of his life, and he’s completely changed from the person they arrested,” said Hickman, of Alexandria. “He lost his job, he lost his reputation, and he almost lost his family. That’s enough to bring any man back to reality.”
‘Not a perfect system’
The investigation began in mid-2012 with a tip the State Police hoped would prove false: that Thomas had been spotted delivering a duffel bag full of cocaine to a “known narcotics distributor” in Monroe, according to State Police reports. The tipster knew the distributor, Leonard Dunn, but had not realized — until visiting Thomas’ home for the third time — that the man supplying Dunn with packages was a state trooper.
The informant, who is not named in police reports, noticed a photograph of Thomas in his State Police uniform next to a Grambling State University football coach. Dunn bragged that his uncle, as evidence custodian, was “the one who puts it in and takes it out” at Troop F.
Thomas wasn’t just close friends with Dunn but was the man’s uncle by marriage, and the first phase of the State Police inquiry showed the two kept in constant contact. Phone records revealed the two communicated 189 times during the month Thomas was seen with the drug-filled duffel bag.
State Police sent an undercover informant to buy drugs from Dunn, who told clients he had access to a panoply of narcotics. The agency began an exhaustive surveillance of Thomas that lasted several months, hiding cameras in the ceiling of his office and the adjoining evidence vault. Troopers received court approval to attach an electronic tracking device to his State Police SUV.
In September 2012, Thomas drove to his office one evening and, in violation of State Police policy, removed two sealed cardboard boxes from the evidence vault before heading home. Authorities later determined the boxes contained 23.7 pounds of cocaine that had been seized three years earlier in Lincoln Parish. The evidence had been slated for destruction, and Thomas was scheduled to take it to an incinerator in Alexandria the following day.
State Police rules required that evidence custodians be accompanied by a witness when burning narcotics; the procedure also must be filmed.
Investigators suspected Thomas would fill the evidence boxes at home with some decoy material that gave the containers a convincing weight during trips to the incinerator.
One problem, said Aycock, the Ouachita Parish prosecutor, was that “nobody knew what was inside the box.”
“I suspect (Thomas) was taking most of it,” he said of the cocaine.
Sgt. Keith Phenix, a trooper who often assisted Thomas in destroying evidence, told investigators he had “no knowledge of Thomas’ criminal activity,” according to police reports. But he said he had told Thomas to take “extra precautions in handling of the evidence because ... he found that the evidence custodian position did not have checks and balances.”
“It’s not a perfect system, and it never will be because there’s a human element,” said Maj. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman. “Ronald Thomas was a criminal, and he found a way to work around it.”
When Thomas returned from the incinerator in Alexandria, investigators noticed through GPS tracking that he headed to Dunn’s home. The two met in the street for less than 15 seconds, according to footage from a surveillance camera investigators had installed near Dunn’s home.
The brazen cash-counting scene unfolded the following day at the Criminal Investigation Division in Monroe, where the hidden cameras captured Thomas stuffing cash into a sock and then shoving the money in his waistband before leaving the office. Investigators believed the money was Thomas’ take from the cocaine he swiped from the evidence vault.
Months later, Thomas would raise further suspicions when he asked a colleague whether narcotics-sniffing dogs can detect money in someone’s pockets.
Troopers might have arrested Thomas far sooner if Dunn, the sergeant’s nephew, had not been shot in the leg in a drug-related assault in October 2012. Dunn had been carrying $16,000 in cash when investigators interviewed him; he refused to identify his assailants.
With Dunn sidelined from drug dealing, Thomas told his colleagues that he had decided to postpone a planned evidence destruction “until sometime in the coming weeks,” police reports show. State Police installed another surveillance camera outside Thomas’ home and quickly determined that he “would often spend the majority of his eight-hour work day” at his residence or “engaged in non-work-related activities.”
The investigation found Thomas would meet girlfriends or go fishing at times when he claimed to be working. In one two-week period, investigators highlighted one day in which Thomas did no work at all yet claimed eight hours of compensation; on another day, he worked just 55 minutes.
Cain, the State Police spokesman, said the Thomas scandal prompted the agency to decentralize supervision of evidence custodians, who now report to local bureau supervisors rather than to headquarters in Baton Rouge.
“This does give us a layer of local supervision that wasn’t there with Thomas,” Cain said. “But I still don’t think that would have deterred him from his criminal acts.”
Closing in on an arrest, investigators obtained a search warrant for Thomas’ bank records and learned he frequently deposited large amounts of cash, including nearly $75,000 over the course of one year. Thomas initially claimed the money came from gambling winnings and real estate he had inherited.
But troopers noted the deposits had been structured to avoid federal reporting requirements. Aycock, the prosecutor, said Thomas had a girlfriend at a local bank who failed to report the trooper’s suspicious activity.
Wiretapping the cop
In February 2013, troopers received court approval to wiretap Thomas’ phone and camped out in a secret office inside a nondescript metal building in West Monroe, where they intercepted thousands of calls and text messages. They kept a local judge apprised of their findings and soon overheard that Thomas and his wife, Olivia, who worked for the state Office of Motor Vehicles, had stashed $50,000 in cash at their house.
The case came to a head the following month, when troopers told Thomas they had a pending drug case against his nephew and were in the process of drafting warrants — a revelation that sent Thomas into something of a frenzy. With troopers listening in, he called his wife, warning her that his colleagues planned to search Dunn’s home and that someone needed to flush any narcotics on the property as soon as possible.
“They got me nervous,” Thomas told his wife during one call.
By that afternoon, Thomas was in custody, denying any hand in drug dealing and claiming he couldn’t recall stealing any evidence. “I can sit here and tell y’all this and tell y’all that,” Thomas told investigators, “but y’all still gonna walk me down them stairs and take me to (Ouachita Correctional Center).”
Investigators found the stash of cash in Thomas’ home and also seized a stolen pistol, a boat and several vehicles believed to have been purchased with drug proceeds. They determined Thomas and his wife actually had lost about $15,000 at casinos around Louisiana and Mississippi between 2010 and 2013.
Prosecutors also brought charges against Olivia Thomas, who pleaded guilty and was placed on probation, and Dunn, who awaits trial.
Dunn quickly implicated his uncle, telling State Police that Thomas had first approached him about selling cocaine in early 2011. He said his uncle provided him with narcotics on at least three occasions.
Ronald Thomas, meanwhile, entered his guilty plea last year on the day he was to stand trial.
No other State Police employees were disciplined in the case.
“You expect police officers to be honest,” said Edmonson, the State Police superintendent. “He was an exception and not the rule, but it was an exception we couldn’t tolerate.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.