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Lawsuit claims authorities downplayed Wilmington crime lab issues, kept quiet about missing drugs

Former Wilmington Police Department Chief Ralph Evangelous and Sheriff Ed McMahon at the April, 2019 press conference announcing the transfer of the lab.
Former Wilmington Police Department Chief Ralph Evangelous and Sheriff Ed McMahon at the April, 2019 press conference announcing the transfer of the crime lab from WPD to the Sheriff's Office.

The former director of the Wilmington Police Department crime lab alleges that she was denied employment when the Sheriff’s Office took over the facility in 2019. The director claims this was retaliation, in direct response to her giving testimony under oath about concerns with the lab that authorities had not made public after WPD fired an ‘untruthful’ lab chemist.

A lawsuit filed by Wilmington’s former Crime Lab Director Bethany Pridgen against Sheriff Ed McMahon reveals new information previously kept from the public. That information includes allegations of missing drugs from the Wilmington Police Department crime lab and at least 100 cases potentially impacted by the work of a lab chemist who was fired in 2019.

At the time, the District Attorney and Wilmington Police Department announced they were aware of ‘untruthfulness’ by William Peltzer — but never mentioned the missing drugs or the significant number of cases possibly impacted.

And, if the allegations in the lawsuit are true, the missing drugs were excluded from the Internal Affairs investigation, as well.

The lawsuit was filed last week by Pridgen, who was hired in 2008 to build the WPD lab into a “comprehensive center for forensic testing of drugs and alcohol,” to provide more efficient analysis for local prosecution. Though the lab was never fully funded locally, it survived for over a decade on grant funding; a long-term plan to have the state take over and fund the lab never materialized.

Pridgen alleges that, following the firing of WPD chemist William Peltzer, she testified to concerns about his conduct in the lab — including concerns that Peltzer was responsible for missing drugs.

Though Peltzer’s termination was never identified as the sole reason, it did appear to be the immediate catalyst for the reorganization of the crime lab under the new management of the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO), although it physically remained located in the WPD headquarters building. Officials at the time cited funding and ‘staffing issues’ as the main reason for the transfer.

While two of Pridgen’s employees were hired by NHCSO, she herself was not. She alleges her application was not even considered, despite her qualifications, due to her testimony — which differed markedly from what other officials, including the District Attorney’s office, had said about the scope of Peltzer’s misconduct and how it might have affected the crime lab’s credibility.

What officials said about Pelzter’s firing

According to Peltzer’s termination letter, a public record, he was fired on January 25, 2019, following an Internal Affairs investigation that found he violated four policies: Property and Evidence Control, Member Obligations, On-Duty Performance, and Standard of Conduct. The letter doesn’t offer any specifics and the IA investigation was not made public.

The following week, on February 1, WPD announced Peltzer’s firing (however, as of June 3, 2022, Peltzer is still listed as a department employee online).

The post read:

An internal affairs investigation conducted by the Wilmington Police Department has resulted in the termination of a police chemist. 32 year old, William Peltzer was terminated on January 25th due to multiple departmental violations including; property and evidence control, member obligations, on-duty performance and standard of conduct. Peltzer had been with the agency since August of 2015.

The investigation began after the agency’s lab conducted an internal audit last month and discovered paper-work irregularities by Peltzer. Agency officials found no criminal wrongdoing, however they immediately notified the District Attorney's Office so that they could take appropriate action with any potentially affected cases. “While there is no evidence that any of the cases were compromised we realize that the actions of this chemist called the integrity of our process into question and that is unacceptable,” said Ralph Evangelous, Chief of Police. “To ensure the integrity of current and future drug testing we are working with the District Attorney’s Office.”

The same day, District Attorney Ben David sent a letter to the New Hanover County Defense Bar, notifying defense attorneys that his office had “learned of untruthfulness on the part of” Peltzer.

David wrote that “on several occasions Mr. Peltzer represented to his superiors that he had properly checked the calibration that he used for [testing drugs] when in fact he knew that he had not.”

David noted his office was reviewing current and disposed cases to see if there was any need for “dismissals, motions for appropriate relief, or re-testing.”

In response to follow-up questions in May, 2020, David’s office stated that no cases had been overturned, or even challenged.

According to David’s office, a limited number of cases had been shared with the defense attorneys involved. Those cases fell into two categories: more serious cases where the accuracy of the instrumentation could have been questionable and less serious, but still potentially problematic, cases where there was a failure to follow protocol but the actual instruments themselves remained accurate. Cases that Pelzter worked on, but that didn’t fall into these two categories, were not apparently shared with defense counsel.

“The Wilmington Police Department presented a series of cases that were analyzed by William Peltzer between 2016 and 2018. The District Attorney’s office has completed its review of these cases. There were nine cases where the instrument was not calibrated, calibration was not checked, or the functionality of the instrument was not checked. With another group of cases, the quality control check did not meet lab specifications but the instruments were confirmed to be calibrated and/or functioning properly,” David’s assistant, Sam Dooies, wrote at the time.

However, Pridgen testified she found at least 101 cases Pelzer handled where he had been ‘untruthful.’

Lab director’s testimony about Peltzer

On February 21, 2019, several weeks after the initial announcement of Peltzer’s firing, Pridgen was called to testify in a Superior Court criminal case involving drugs that had originally been tested by Peltzer.

There, under oath, she was cross-examined by defense attorney Thom Goolsby. Goolsby was clearly aware of some of the issues leading to Peltzer’s firing, having provided ‘expert commentary’ for a WECT article on February 1, saying, “[i]t calls into question everything about the testing."

Pridgen testified that, as WPD and the District Attorney’s office had indicated, Peltzer had in some cases indicated that he’d performed calibration checks without actually doing them. Pridgen indicated that there were 101 cases of dishonesty, including 24 with “some type of failure in our QC [quality control]" — seemingly more than the “several occasions” described in David’s letter.

Pridgen testified that the lab had specifically audited heroin cases and “found that there were cases where he returned certain numbers of items of evidence but when we actually performed the audit, the number he said he returned did not match what he claimed to have returned.”

The Wilmington Police Department and the District Attorney have declined to comment on the missing drugs.

According to Pridgen’s court filing, after answering Goolsby’s questions, she could see “prosecutors and law enforcement personnel in the gallery attending the trial looking at each other with shocked expressions on their faces.”

In her court filing, Pridgen reaffirms she had “direct knowledge that drugs were missing” and claims that the IA report on Peltzer did not mention it. None of the public announcements about Peltzer mentioned missing drugs, either.

That disparity, Pridgen alleges, led to her being denied employment by Sheriff McMahon when the crime lab reopened under NHCSO management.

Fallout from lab director’s testimony

According to Pridgen, she was “castigated” for endangering the successful state and federal prosecution of “all pending drug cases” in which Peltzer had handled evidence. It’s unclear the exact number of cases at stake, but according to sources familiar with the crime lab’s operation, it would have likely been hundreds.

According to Pridgen’s complaint, she was not prepared on how to respond to questions about Peltzer’s behavior or how it might impact the lab’s credibility – and, when Goolsby “dove hard” into those issues, Pridgen claims the assistant district attorney did not object (the court transcript does not indicate any major objections to Goolsby’s questions about Peltzer).

Still, several weeks after testifying, Pridgen says she was called into a meeting with members of the District Attorney’s office, several U.S. Attorneys, and top WPD brass, including then-Chief Ralph Evangelous. One member noted that defense attorneys would now call Pridgen as their first witness in every affected case.

According to Pridgen, Evangelous suggested the best course of action was for state and federal prosecutors to dismiss all of the cases touched by Peltzer — a proposal she says was rejected.

Pridgen claims “a new plan was devised to reopen the Internal Affairs investigation to establish whether any drugs were missing. The clear goal was to discredit [her] testimony and sanitize the work of the fired employee.”

Unlike the original audit, Pridgen says she was not part of the reopened investigation. She was also never called to testify again – she would end up losing her position as lab director.

In April, 2019, during the lead-up to the lab transfer from WPD to NHCSO, Pridgen claims Sheriff Ed McMahon promised “she and her direct reports would continue in their jobs with the transfer, but they had to apply under official policy.”

During the press conference announcing that transfer, McMahon said, “with our existing personnel, what we hope for is a long-lasting relationship … Hopefully, that puts any of the current employees at ease, our plan is to continue employing them.” Pridgen’s two employees were eventually hired, but not Pridgen, despite being well qualified – and having run the lab successfully for a decade.

Pridgen claims that McMahon effectively froze her out and, when she turned to long-time supporter Ben David, he told her “to leave Wilmington and find work elsewhere.”

A subsequent application for another open position, forensic chemist, was denied, despite her qualifications for the position. Pridgen claims she acquired screenshots indicating it was never considered.

According to Pridgen’s lawsuit, the refusal to consider her for either the lab director or the forensic chemist position was retaliation for her testimony in February 2019, specifically her “insistence that drugs were missing from the cases that [Peltzer] had worked.”

Editor’s Note: Evangelous, now retired, did not respond to multiple attempts to contact him. A spokesperson said the U.S. Attorney’s office had no comment on the matter. Though it is not named as a party in Pridgen’s suit, WPD said it would not comment on pending litigation. A statement from Ben David’s office on June 3, 2022, was provided and nearly identical to the previous statement issued in 2020. 

Below: Transcript of Pridgen's 2019 court testimony and her lawsuit filed last week.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.