Indianapolis police chief resigns amid controversy over case involving officer

INDIANAPOLIS, IN &#8211 Who could have imagined that one blood sample would cause so much trouble?

It has raised suspicion about the competence of the city’s police department. It has raised concerns about whether justice can be served. And now — now that this blood sample has been mishandled yet again — it has toppled the chief of police.

Paul Ciesielski resigned Tuesday as chief, the same day that Mayor Greg Ballard announced that blood drawn from suspended Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer David Bisard had been improperly moved and possibly ruined.

Bisard is awaiting trial in the crash that killed one motorcyclist and injured two others on Aug. 6, 2010. A blood draw that was botched by IMPD had indicated Bisard’s blood-alcohol level was 0.19 when his patrol car hit the motorcycles, which would be well above Indiana’s 0.08 legal threshhold for driving drunk.

“At best, this matter shows gross incompetence; at worst, possible criminal intent,” Ballard said at a news conference with Indianapolis Public Safety Director Frank Straub. “I want to express how angry and disgusted I am that this happened.”

The FBI will probe why — despite a judge’s explicit instructions to preserve Bisard’s blood samples for further testing — a second vial was moved from a refrigerated compartment in a property room in the City-County Building to an unrefrigerated area of a backup property room at the IMPD Training Academy, 10th Street and Post Road.

Straub said Ciesielski will remain a captain with the department, but his assignment hasn’t been determined yet.

In addition to the resignation of Ciesielski, who did not return a message left on his cellphone Tuesday, IMPD Deputy Chief of Professional Standards Valerie Cunningham was placed on paid suspension.

Lt. Paula Irwin, who was in charge of the property room, and Teresa Brockbrader, a civilian employee, also have been placed on paid administrative leave.

Deputy Director for Community Affairs Rick Hite was appointed acting chief.

Ballard and Straub stopped short of saying the blood was intentionally tampered with, but its mishandling was met with disbelief by several observers, including Aaron Wells, whose 30-year-old son, Eric Wells, was killed in the crash.

“All of the so-called blunders at the beginning of this case, and a year and a half later to still have them butchering evidence,” Wells said, “it’s absolutely devastating to all of us.”

It’s also the second major shake-up of top police brass that was prompted by the Bisard case.

Straub demoted three commanders — John M. Conley, Ron Hicks and Darryl Pierce — on Aug. 21, 2010, for a “failure of leadership at the scene” of the crash.

Following the improper blood draw after the crash, this is now the second time Bisard’s blood has been improperly cared for.

“It is laughable,” said Fran Watson, clinical professor of law at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis. “And not in a good way. In a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me way. It’s the Police Department’s job to maintain evidence in a form that it’s admissible.”

Blood draw crucial
Prosecutors allege that Bisard was drunk when Wells was killed and Mary Mills and Kurt Weekly were critically injured as they sat on two motorcycles stopped at a light at 56th Street near I-465 on the Northeastside.

But Bisard’s lawyers succeeded in having the sample disqualified because investigators allowed it to be taken by a technician who wasn’t certified to draw it under drunken-driving laws.

That has placed his drunken-driving charges in limbo until a higher court rules on the issue, but Bisard still faces reckless homicide and criminal recklessness charges.

Marion Superior Court Judge Grant Hawkins ruled that evidence of intoxication could be entered to prove those charges, so prosecutors wanted to test the second tube of blood to prove the accuracy of the first.

“I issued an order in October 2010, thereabouts, saying, ‘Don’t touch the second vial, leave it alone, preserve it,’ ” Hawkins told The Indianapolis Star on Tuesday. “Sounds like not everybody’s on the same page with that order.”

Prosecutor Terry Curry said his office discovered that Bisard’s blood had been moved last week when Hawkins granted prosecutors’ request to test the second vial.

At first, Curry said, they weren’t sure whether it simply had been moved to another refrigerated area or whether it was unrefrigerated. Curry said his office confirmed Monday that the blood wasn’t refrigerated.

“We were furious,” said Curry, who notified Ciesielski.

Still, Curry said the mishandling likely won’t affect prosecutors’ case against Bisard. Storing the blood in an unrefrigerated area means the alcohol content might be compromised, Curry said, but the DNA should still be intact. Testing the second vial was a precaution, he said, and there’s enough blood in the first vial to have an independent lab retest it.

“We are currently working with an independent lab to clarify the implications of testing the blood from the second vial,” Curry said.

But now that the second vial of blood has been mishandled, Bisard’s attorney, John Kautzman, might ask Hawkins to reconsider his decision to let them test it.

“There can be no doubt that this blood sample is tainted beyond repair and a test of the blood would produce an unreliable and unusable result,” Kautzman said in a statement.

Straub said the second vial was moved with “several” other unrelated blood samples from the City-County Building to the academy in November.

He said police know who signed in and out for the blood but would not disclose their identity. Straub said the property room at the academy is for overflow evidence that is usually not planned for any imminent court cases.

“It could have been a storage issue,” he said.

Straub could not say whether moving the other vials would affect other criminal cases.

Fraternal Order of Police President Bill Owensby declined to comment on whether he thought the misplacement of the blood was intentional but contended Ciesielski was a scapegoat.

“I think the director (Straub) should tender his resignation,” Owensby said. “The head of the Police Department has been director Frank Straub. At least he’s the head when things go well. When they don’t, he’s not.”

But Straub said he has no plans to resign when the department is in need of reform.

“I was brought here to make this the best police department in America,” he said. “There is a pattern (of malfeasance) here that keeps happening over and over. This is 30 or 40 or 50 years of neglect, and it’s been known in the department. Officers drinking on duty, going to strip clubs.”

Since Straub took over in January 2010, more than 20 IMPD officers have been arrested, disciplined or fired for wrongdoing. In the past two weeks, two officers were arrested on charges of drunken driving.

Public skepticism
From the beginning, victims of the Bisard crash, their families and the public expressed suspicion about the thoroughness of the police investigation.

Critics questioned why Bisard was not given a roadside sobriety test or an alcohol breath test at the scene, despite the presence of dozens of police officers. Suspicion turned to anger when the blood draw of Bisard hours after the crash appeared to show he was drunk.

At a series of marches, rallies and motorcycle rides Downtown, residents accused the department of a cover-up.

“From the beginning of this, what was termed as blunders we have always thought was an obstruction of justice,” Wells said. “I don’t know that these vials being set out of refrigeration was part of it. . . . I think it’s very, very possible that it was an obstruction of justice.”

Curry said he doesn’t know whether the mishandling would rise to a level where criminal charges would be necessary.

“At this point, I have no reason to believe one way or another,” he said. But he added that an FBI investigation is merited because it would put an impartial third party in charge of the process.

The FBI findings would go to the U.S. attorney’s office, which would then make a decision whether to charge officers who handled the blood.

For some, Tuesday’s developments only reinforced suspicions about the legitimacy of the entire investigation.

“I don’t think this is incompetence; this would have to be deliberate,” said the Rev. Richard Willoughby of Promise Land Christian Community Church, who has worked with IMPD on department and community issues. “It’s hard to even come up with a word besides ‘unbelievable’ for all that has happened in this case.”

This is the second time the FBI has intervened in this case. The FBI and IMPD conducted a joint investigation of how police handled the crash in 2010. They found that investigators erred by treating Bisard as a victim rather than a suspect after he crashed and didn’t collect or ruined evidence.

Some City-County Council members also were skeptical that the latest blood foul-up could be a mistake.

“Surely the police cannot be that sloppy,” said Vernon Brown, a firefighter who also is the council’s Democratic majority leader. “We all know the initial investigation wasn’t very by-the-book.”

Michael McQuillen, the council’s Republican minority leader, said Tuesday’s revelations about an already-difficult incident were proving tough to digest.

“We thought we were going to be getting answers (about the Bisard case) soon, but it looks like we have even more questions than answers at this point.”

From The Indianapolis Star.