- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

JUNCTION CITY, Ore. (AP) - Call it the mystery of the vanishing gun.

The lead character: Mark Chase, the recently fired Junction City police chief.

The main prop: his city-issued Glock 21 handgun.

That handgun has been missing for more than a year, newly released public records show. Even a three-month investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice couldn’t find it, or determine if anyone stole it.

The vanishing gun is among key factors in Junction City Administrator Jason Knope’s decision last month to fire Chase, who had served as police chief for seven years, Chase’s personnel file shows.

The city didn’t fire Chase so much because the weapon went missing, but rather, in part, because he failed to tell city officials, including his boss, Knope, for several months that the handgun was gone, the records show.

Knope also faulted Chase for lax security at the police department’s weapons storage areas, from which the handgun apparently went missing. The state investigation found a wide range of employees and visitors to the department could have easily gained access to the safes where the department stored weapons - including, apparently, the now-missing gun - and that Junction City police mingled department weapons with criminal evidence.

Details of the mystery of Chase’s handgun are included in records the city provided in response to a public records request by The Register-Guard. After Knope fired Chase in April, the newspaper asked for his personnel file.

Through his lawyer, Chase said he had no comment for this article.

The case of the vanishing gun began in July 2014, when then-City Administrator Melissa Bowers, in the thick of a personnel dispute with Chase, put him on paid administrative leave and went to his house and took his city-issued gun from him, the records show.

She took the gun back to her office and handed it to Junction City police officer Mike Bonner to store during the chief’s absence.

Bonner put the gun in one of two gun safes at the police department, although when Chase returned to duty six months later, Bonner “couldn’t recall” which of the two safes he’d put the weapon in, Bonner later told an Oregon State Police investigator, who helped the DOJ conduct its investigation.

The keys to those two safes were in an unlocked box hanging on a wall next to the safes at the police department, the report states. The box included a legend indicating what each key was for, and was accessible to anyone who entered the police department, including janitors, computer technicians, other officers and visitors, the report shows. Under Chase’s leadership, this arrangement had apparently been in place for some time, according to the investigator’s interviews with department employees.

The department visitor log was rarely used, so the department’s tracking of people in and out of the building was incomplete at best, according to the investigator’s report.

On Chase’s return to work in February 2015, one safe was opened and found to be empty. The other had been sealed with evidence tape, because it stored a shotgun that was being held for evidence in a criminal case. At the time, no one opened that safe, to preserve the integrity of the shotgun evidence. Plus, the few people involved in trying to find the missing Glock figured if it weren’t in the safe, it would show up somewhere else in the department eventually, the investigation found.

The shotgun was being kept in the safe only because the proper evidence storage area, at a separate location, had water leakage that caused guns to rust.

On the day Chase returned to work, a sergeant who had been acting as chief during Chase’s absence issued Chase a department-owned spare Glock 21, the investigation found.

The second safe was unsealed in June 2015 after the missing handgun failed to just “turn up,” the investigation found. Officers discovered that the shotgun was still in the safe, but the chief’s original Glock was not, the investigation found.

Only in July 2015 did the chief alert the department, via email, that his original gun was missing. He asked every officer to check in their cars, lockers and bags to be sure they didn’t have the wrong gun by mistake. Word of that email reached Knope, the new city administrator who had replaced Bowers, according to the report. Knope was unhappy that Chase hadn’t previously informed him the weapon was missing.

Chase in October 2015 asked the DOJ to investigate, and the state agency in December opened its probe into the missing gun. Chase then alerted the City Council in an email: “My department-issued firearm was either very misplaced or stolen.”

But the state investigation has been unable to find the weapon or a culprit.

The long timeline and easy access to the safe and keys made the case all but impossible to solve. Co-mingling of department property and evidence, as well as disorganized storage of weapons, also did not help the investigation. At the department, firearms were kept in the chief’s office closet, in the safes and in the department armory, which is at a separate location, the investigation found.

“There is insufficient evidence to prove who took the firearm or that it was stolen,” OSP Trooper Jodi Shimanek wrote in her report. “All people who work at the police department were considered possible suspects,” she wrote. Shimanek interviewed 28 people, including officers, communication officers, reserve officers, Bowers and Knope.

The interviews revealed at least three possible suspects - the chief himself and two officers who at one time worked in the department, according to the report. The city received the completed report in March.

Meanwhile, a few Junction City police officers were assigned to complete an inventory of the department’s supplies, something that hadn’t been done since 2013, the report states. During the inventory, it was discovered that a pair of military-grade night vision goggles, given to the city by the federal government, also were missing.

The missing gun and goggles were just two of many problems Knope cited with Chase’s performance as police chief during Knope’s first year as city administrator, according to a review Knope gave Chase.

Knope also expressed other concerns:

- At a local school, Chase allegedly entered a mostly-Hispanic middle school classroom in uniform and stated “put your hands up!” in Spanish to the class, upsetting the teacher, who complained to the city that Chase’s visit was unannounced and scared the children.

- Chase attended only 40 percent of twice-monthly department head meetings with the city administrator.

- In interviews with reserve officer candidates, Chase allegedly asked a man if he was married; the man responded that he was not married and in fact was homosexual. Chase is reported to have dramatically changed his tone upon learning the man’s sexual orientation, the performance review states. Asking a candidate’s marital status is considered discrimination under federal law.

- During those same interviews, Chase brought out a compact mirror, printed with a Michael Jackson song lyric, “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make the change,” and asked the candidates to tell Chase what they saw when they looked at themselves, the review states.

- Chase “fast-tracked” a female candidate for a reserve officer position, instead of putting the candidate through the normal interview process. He then asked Knope to sign off on the new reserve officer, which Knope declined, telling Chase to put the candidate through the normal process. Chase then allegedly drafted but never sent a contingent job offer to that same candidate for a non-reserve officer position that did not exist.

Chase denied some of those allegations but not others.

Chase was hired as police chief in March 2009 by then-City Administrator David Clyne, who left a year later.

Chase previously was a sergeant for the Salem Police Department. During the next five years he had only one performance review, on his one-year anniversary with the city, and appears to have passed with flying colors.

By 2014, Chase was in conflict with Bowers. She put him on paid administrative leave for more than six months while two separate investigations were conducted as a result of nine police officers at the department complaining to the city about Chase’s “management and communication techniques,” Bowers wrote to Chase.

The investigations turned up no grounds for termination, and Bowers brought Chase back on duty with a written reprimand in February 2015. The reprimand listed three violations of the city’s personnel manual, including “conduct which is inconsistent with performance expectations” by regularly using a bullhorn or PA system to embarrass members of the public and employees, “offensive conduct toward the public or fellow employees” by belittling or yelling at past sergeants. Bowers also listed three ways in which Chase failed to fulfill his job description - by not communicating clearly, not maintaining effective working relationships and not proactively avoiding problems.

Just before Chase returned to work, Bowers announced she would be resigning in February.

Knope took the helm, first as an interim and then as permanent administrator in April last year. A few months later, Chase - still employed as police chief - filed a $300,000 federal lawsuit against the city and Bowers, claiming he was discriminated against by Bowers because of his Christian faith. That lawsuit is pending.

Once in the permanent position, Knope said he reviewed city records and discovered that a number of department leaders, including Chase, had not had job performance reviews for several years. In the year that followed, Knope tried to catch up, conducting seven reviews.

In Chase’s review, the chief passed in six of 14 categories, including technical knowledge, personal appearance, attendance, work habits, quality of work and workplace safety. He was rated “unsatisfactory” in adaptability, interpersonal skills, communications and judgment. He was rated “needs improvement” in knowledge, quantity of work, dependability and initiative.

Chase responded to the review by saying, “This evaluation portrays me in a very negative and derogatory way. I am a cooperative, diligent and dedicated person and strive to be a supportive and encouraging team member.”

Chase’s response to Knope was written in an unusually long 26-page format. Chase did not deny the assertions about the compact mirror, the gun or drafting a job offer that was never sent. But he denied ever asking someone their marital status, fast tracking candidates and the incident in the school.


Information from: The Register-Guard, https://www.registerguard.com

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