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Baton Rouge Police stock photo, Friday, July 2, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La.

After Baton Rouge police barged into a downtown apartment and arrested a woman on drug possession charges last September, she had one simple question: How did her confiscated cell phone end up in rural Livingston Parish?

Turns out her phone tracker was pinging from the home address of detective Cpl. Jacob Cowart.

BRPD internal investigators spent months untangling a host of concerning details about the case, which involved sloppy police work and a questionable search. Cowart was ultimately fired last month for various infractions, including mishandled evidence.

By then, the missing phone had been discovered in the glove compartment of a squad car, and the drug charges had been dropped amid a widening corruption scandal inside the BRPD narcotics division.

Cowart said he was unsure what happened with that cell phone as well as another one confiscated during the same investigation and later found in his old department-issued vehicle. His attorney argues Cowart was a rookie narcotics detective receiving bad instructions from his training officer: a good cop caught in a flawed system. 

His disciplinary reports shed new light on how the division operated before the misconduct claims became public.

Department leaders are still investigating what went wrong, now several months after two detectives were arrested, four supervisors transferred to street patrols and hundreds of drug charges dropped.

The disciplinary reports are particularly damning toward former detective Jason Acree, who already faces prosecution in multiple cases, including accusations he stole marijuana from the evidence room. Now jailed without bond, Acree was training Cowart when the cell phones went missing.

Since assuming command of the embattled division, interim commander Lt. Kenneth Brewer cited several glaring problems, including "a serious lack of supervision, a laissez-faire attitude among the officers, obvious errors in procedure, and an unhealthy reliance upon officer Acree for direction within the unit."

Cowart is the third detective to lose his job during the probe. He recently appealed his firing to the local civil service board, which could reinstate him.

Department leaders are conducting a sweeping investigation of narcotics operations, including an audit dating back several years. None of their findings have been released.

Meanwhile, Acree remains behind bars in Ascension Parish, the location of his most recent arrest. State Police pulled him over for drag racing on the interstate, then found illegal drugs and guns in his car, court records show.

The missing phones case started with a tip about "illegal drug activity and prostitution" inside an apartment above the Third Street bar Boudreaux and Thibodeaux, according to police reports.

On Sept. 5, several officers decided to perform surveillance on the apartment. When they saw a man leave the address, they followed him to the nearby Hollywood Casino, then approached him in the parking lot and detained him for questioning, police reports show.

Next the officers returned to the apartment and knocked on the door, which a woman answered. Acree told investigators he immediately smelled marijuana and spotted some on a table. When the woman went to close the door, Acree pushed it open.

He then conducted a "protective sweep" based on exigent circumstances and instructed Cowart to prepare a search warrant application based on his observations, police reports show.

However, investigators later concluded his account was untrue because the table was "actually out of sight, behind the open door," a disciplinary letter says. BRPD leaders reprimanded Cowart, who was standing right behind Acree.

"Although you were new to the narcotics team, you had been a BRPD officer long enough to understand the importance of presenting factual information on a search warrant request," his superiors wrote in a disciplinary letter signed by Chief Murphy Paul.

The chief also accused Cowart of intentionally muting his body camera during the interaction. Paul called the search "questionable at best."

Glen Petersen, an attorney for the apartment tenant, said the bodycam footage shows officers knocking on her door and barging in without permission or a warrant.

"They immediately started ordering my client around and acted like jerks," he said. "It was really infuriating to watch that video, knowing they had no right to be there."

The officers nonetheless arrested two people on drug charges after finding meth. Both suspects later complained their cell phones had been confiscated by police and never returned.

Bodycam footage showed Acree taking a phone from the woman inside the apartment, and he told investigators "that was something he would do to keep the scene as controlled as possible" though he was unable to recall this specific incident, according to the letter.

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In the hours after her arrest, the phone "traveled through various parts of East Baton Rouge Parish before making its way to Livingston Parish," according to tracking software used by investigators. Then the battery died at the Denham Springs address, which was later linked to Cowart. 

Once BRPD internal investigators started questioning him, Cowart did some digging himself. He contacted the officer now assigned the patrol car Cowart was driving that night. The officer had recently discovered two mysterious cell phones inside the glove compartment, according to the letter. Cowart collected the phones and turned them over to the interim narcotics commander.

"You lost track of the phones. You believe that Acree probably got in your car and placed the phones in the glove compartment," the chief wrote to Cowart. "You cannot explain why the phones would have been taken in such a low-level drug case."

Details from the letter add to a growing pile of questions about how the division devolved into chaos, including whether detectives were too focused on producing a high volume of low-level arrests while working massive amounts of overtime, instead of conducting more robust narcotics investigations targeting large-scale dealers.

Cowart received a 40-day unpaid suspension for his involvement in the Third Street case after BRPD leaders found he violated several department policies, including truthfulness, falsification of documents and warrantless searches.

A few weeks after beginning that investigation, internal affairs officers launched another, which ultimately got Cowart fired.

That case started with bodycam footage showing him and another officer laughing about suspected marijuana and heroin that Cowart had left sitting in the passenger door of his vehicle. Cowart referred to "some old ass … weed" that he needed to drop into evidence. The suspected heroin, which the officers later deemed fake, was seized while he and Acree were following up on an overdose death in Tigerland, according to the letter.

Investigators found several issues with their actions. 

They interviewed a man living in the Tigerland apartment where the woman died. He said he allowed Acree and Cowart inside because they asked to make sure no other people were present, but then the officers started opening drawers and cabinets without permission or a warrant, according to the letter. There was no bodycam footage of the encounter.

During the search, Acree found a baggie containing suspected heroin inside a spice cabinet, but when he tested the substance, it came back negative, the letter says. The man later told investigators it was baking soda.

Acree confiscated the bag without properly documenting the seizure, investigators found. After driving around with the fake heroin in his vehicle for several months, Cowart said he threw it in a dumpster.

During his interviews with investigators about the case, Cowart alluded to shady practices within the narcotics division, which he had recently joined after about three years in street patrols, the letter says.

"You stated that when an officer leaves Uniform Patrol and goes into a specialized division like Narcotics, he must assume that things are probably not done wrong, but a little differently," the chief wrote. "You stated that you were assigned to Det. Acree for training and when he told you to do something, you did it."

The chief nonetheless accused Cowart of significant policy violations, including failure to secure property or evidence, truthfulness and warrantless searches.

His attorney, Tommy Dewey, argued the discipline sentence was unfair considering the circumstances. He said Cowart is suffering the aftershocks of a scandal that revolves around Acree — "the fallout from one bad apple."

"This was a young officer training in narcotics, unfortunately under the direction of somebody who was later arrested," Dewey said. "Obviously some changes are needed, but to throw everybody under the bus, I don't think is the right answer."

He said Cowart had even taken action to distance himself from Acree, frustrated with what seemed like potential wrongdoing.

That contentious relationship surfaced in an internal memo penned by Jeremiah Ardoin, another former narcotics detective who was arrested for buying stolen electronics in December and later quit the department. According to the memo, Cowart complained to his supervisors in November 2020 about "the way Det. Acree had been acting, and stated that he could not be around him at the time."

The two supervisors told Cowart and Acree to go inside the narcotics processing room together and "either talk about their issues or fight," according to the memo.

Ardoin said their argument turned physical inside the processing room. A few minutes after they stopped fighting and came back outside, Cowart had his hands in his pockets when Acree reached around and "punched Cowart in the face," the memo says. 

Dewey declined to comment directly on the alleged altercation, but he said Cowart "did not see eye to eye with Acree" and requested to train with someone else. Dewey also said Cowart loves policing, was upfront with investigators about problems in narcotics and hopes to continue his career.

Brewer, the interim commander, told investigators during the first disciplinary case that he "could see Cowart being an asset to the division" in the future.

Cowart recently appealed his termination, and the local civil service board scheduled a hearing on the matter for November.


Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.