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OC district attorney drops drug case after allegations that deputies planted evi

Orange County prosecutors have dropped a felony drug case in the aftermath of defense allegations that embattled sheriff’s Sgt. Matthew LeFlore and his partner planted evidence.

The Orange County District Attorney’s Office dropped charges of possession for sale against defendant Ace Kelley after his attorney alleged LeFlore and Sgt. Arthur Tiscareno moved nearly 18 grams of methamphetamine from an unrelated case into Kelley’s case.

Deputy Public Defender Tammy Nguyen said the charges against Kelley were dismissed because the deputies manipulated evidence and got caught.

“If officers hide the truth about how they handled evidence, they shouldn’t be officers,” Nguyen said. “The dismissal is a relief for Mr. Kelley, but it’s reasonable to ask how many other times this has happened without the defendant ever finding out.”

The allegations of planting evidence have been cited in another drug case to support requests by attorneys to obtain the findings of a reported sheriff’s internal affairs investigation into LeFlore.

Sheriff’s spokesperson Carrie Braun would not comment on the Kelley case, other than to say LeFlore remains on active duty. Braun said police privacy laws prevent her from confirming whether LeFlore is the target of an internal affairs probe.

The District Attorney’s Office did not immediately comment on the case.

Meanwhile, LeFlore also faces highly publicized allegations of illegally eavesdropping on attorney-client phone calls from the jail.

Nguyen’s accusations add new light to a 2019 evidence scandal in which sheriff’s deputies were routinely booking evidence late and sometimes not at all, a problem that department officials have said has been corrected.

In the Kelley case, LeFlore wrote in a police report dated Oct. 20, 2020, that he collected and booked methamphetamine that he said was seized from Kelley’s motel room in Buena Park. LeFlore and Tiscareno had the room under surveillance and conducted a probation search.

In his official report, LeFlore claimed to have found methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl.

However, according to a court motion filed by Nguyen, the methamphetamine actually was seized that same day from a neighboring room at the Coral Motel, unrelated to Kelley. Staying in that room was defendant Royal Baker.

In Baker’s room, deputies from the sheriff’s South Narcotics Detail served a search warrant and allegedly found more than 52 grams of heroin, nearly 180 grams of methamphetamine and other drugs.

Baker eventually pleaded guilty to possession for sale and received no jail time, records show.

Two weeks after the search, 17.8 grams of methamphetamine was taken from the Baker case and placed into evidence for the Kelley case, Nguyen said in court papers.

Documents from the Orange County Crime Lab, obtained by Nguyen, appeared to confirm the methamphetamine was switched from one case to the other about Nov. 4, 2020.

The sheriff’s internal evidence tracking system shows no signs of the switch, only that the methamphetamine was booked into the Kelley case on Oct. 19, 2020, by Tiscareno, not LeFlore, as stated in his report.

Nguyen, in her motion, alleged LeFlore lied when he said he had collected 17.8 grams of methamphetamine from Kelley’s room and lied again when he wrote in his report that he booked the drugs into the evidence system.

Nguyen also alleged LeFlore and Tiscareno conspired to cover up the switch by failing to file a supplemental report to document the change. They also allegedly manipulated the sheriff’s evidence tracking system to make it appear the drugs were properly booked into the Kelley case, Nguyen alleged.

LeFlore has a history of allegedly mishandling evidence.  A sheriff’s audit in 2018 showed LeFlore failed to book evidence in a timely manner in 18 cases, although he wrote in some of his reports that he had properly stored the items.

In one case, LeFlore took custody of two full boxes of bullets, 11 grams of methamphetamine and a pipe stuffed into a pair of boots. He never booked the property and, two weeks later, placed the boots on a shelf in a sheriff’s substation, with a sign saying “Free.”

Court documents previously show LeFlore on five occasions wrote in his official reports that he had placed evidence — typically documents and photos — in a sheriff’s locker when, in fact, he had not. The evidence was booked more than 20 days late on three occasions.

LeFlore was among a group of deputies referred by the Sheriff’s Department to local prosecutors for mishandling evidence, but no charges were filed against him.

He later was promoted to sergeant.

Tiscareno also has had problems handling evidence. A Sheriff’s Department audit showed that he claimed in 40 reports that he booked evidence when he had not yet done so, the motion states.

In recent weeks, LeFlore also was accused in court papers filed by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders of illegally listening to confidential attorney-client phone calls mistakenly recorded by the jail’s telephone vendor.

An attorney at least twice during the recorded calls warned LeFlore — once by name — not to listen to the conversations, but notes kept by LeFlore indicate that he did not stop listening, Sanders said.