WILMINGTON — The city of Wilmington is currently in a five-year lease agreement, stuck paying $33,000 annually for a piece of unused testing equipment. There is nothing physically wrong with the state-of-the-art equipment but it’s never been used — and there are no plans to use it in the future.
The equipment, a combined gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer used to identify seized illegal substances, was ordered for the crime lab when it was managed by the Wilmington Police Department (WPD). But when the crime lab was transferred to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO), the equipment essentially stayed in its box.
This is, in part, because one year after the transfer the lab’s new staff isn’t yet certified to test drugs. Currently, the lab’s new director hopes to have drug testing up by July 2021.
But even after that, the Sheriff’s Office lab doesn’t plan to use the equipment and intends to lease or purchase its own version — meaning that the City of Wilmington will pay over $165,000 through Fiscal Year 2024, making payments through June 2024 for equipment that will never be used.
Lease signed before lab transfer
The lease is for an ISQ 7000 Single Quad Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS), manufactured by Thermo Electron North America, LLC The equipment was intended for use by the Wilmington Police Department crime lab to identify the chemical make-up of various substances.
The new GC/MS was intended to replace the original unit in the WPD lab, which was nine years old and reaching the end of its functional life span. The original unit had four months of total downtime in Fiscal Year 2017-2018 (from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018), and was impacting productivity, according to the city resolution requesting a replacement.
The lease $33,136.92/year for FY 2020 through FY 2024 was approved by Wilmington City Council in December of 2018. The GC/MS unit was delivered in the early spring.
The lease was signed prior to the revelation that WPD chemist William Peltzer had been violating lab protocols, mishandling evidence, and failing to calibrate lab instruments. This ultimately led to Pelzter’s firing, a review of numerous criminal cases, and — while public officials downplayed the incident — clearly influenced the transfer of the lab to NHCSO’s management.
Right now, no one’s testing drugs locally
At present, the use of the GC/MS is something of a moot point. While the transfer of the lab was initially predicted to take place “relatively quickly” by officials, including former WPD Chief Ralph Evangelous, the process has turned out to be expensive and time-consuming.
While the lab finally received the increased staffing and funding that it sorely lacked under Wilmington’s management, the $700,000 budget has gone, and will continue to go, to training and developing new protocols — not drug processing.
Part of this is due to the accreditation process for forensic labs (and many other facilities) overseen by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB).
Part of it also has to do with personnel issues. Peltzer was one of two full-time chemists at the WPD lab and was obviously not a viable candidate. A part-time analyst left to pursue another job after the Peltzer incident. The lab’s director, who was trained in both drug and blood-alcohol testing, was not re-hired after the transfer. NHCSO declined to comment on this and other personnel decisions.
After two full years, lab director Brian Dew said in an interview last month that he hoped to have drug testing up and running by July 1, 2021.
But Wilmington’s GC/MS will stay in the box.
Why NHCSO won’t use the equipment
According to NHCSO spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer, the lab aims to lease or purchase its own equipment once the lab receives drug-testing accreditation.
While Wilmington’s GC/MS is just over a year old and is still one of the leading models, Brewer said it lacks one feature: the ability to ‘communicate remotely’ with other crime labs, including the state lab in Raleigh and other major metropolitan labs, like the Charlotte-Mecklenburg facility.
Brewer said Lt. Lauren White, the detective who oversees CSI and re-established the lab under NHCSO, said this was an important feature for the crime lab to have.
Brewer didn’t fault the original purchase. He said Wilmington’s GC/MS was “probably a good choice at the time [in 2018],” but added, “it doesn’t do all the things that we’d like it to do. When the Sheriff’s Office does something, we want it to be the best.”
According to WPD, efforts to negotiate an early termination to the lease with Thermo Electron have so far been unsuccessful.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001