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After 11-month investigation, it still appears hard drive in child porn case was lost in Sheriff's Department move

The Sonoma County Sheriff's Department reported Wednesday that, after an 11-month internal investigation, authorities don't know how or when evidence was lost in the child pornography case of John Mark Karr, the man once accused in JonBenet Ramsey's murder.

But it still appears that the computer hard drive seized from Karr's Petaluma home in 2001, alleged to contain images depicting children in sexual situations, was misplaced during the department's move in 2002 from Administration Drive in Santa Rosa to its current Ventura Avenue site.

Roughly 175,000 items of evidence were cataloged and relocated to new storage during that transition, department officials said, with the only known loss involving Karr's original hard drive.

"It seems likely that one computer went missing during the move," said Sheriff Bill Cogbill, who ordered the internal investigation two weeks before a Sonoma County judge dismissed Karr's misdemeanor case on Oct. 5. "We couldn't find any other evidence to the contrary."

The investigation revealed that three sheriff's employees -- including two who will face disciplinary action -- violated policies and procedures, Capt. Dave Edmonds said. The third will have the performance deficiency documented in personnel records, Edmonds added.

"These are not deemed to be termination violations," he said Wednesday.

The names of the employees were withheld by the Sheriff's Department, citing confidentiality for personnel matters.

Karr, a former substitute teacher in Petaluma and Napa, gained international attention in August 2006 when he was arrested and later cleared in the Ramsey murder case in Boulder, Colo. But five years before his arrest in Thailand and deportation to the United States, Karr was in custody in Sonoma County for six months awaiting trial on the child pornography charges.

Karr was released without bail in October 2001, but failed to appear in court two months later, triggering a warrant for his arrest.

The problems involved in the handling of his case came to light last year as prosecutors and investigators resumed local proceedings against Karr.

In addition to the internal inquiry, Cogbill hired an outside consultant to scrutinize property room and evidence handling practices, judging them against a 41-point list of industry standards. The consultant could not be reached Wednesday, but Edmonds said he rated the Sonoma County agency in the top 5 percent of all law enforcement property rooms in California.

"The thing he thought would help us the most is a barcoding system" to track evidence, Cogbill added, an upgrade the sheriff has planned to implement. "We've been wanting to do this before Karr even came to light for us."

Many of the other improvements the consultant recommended have been gradually instituted in the years since Karr's arrest, Cogbill said.

The internal probe -- which noted the 2001 Karr investigation was "extremely complex," involving five agencies and 11 investigators -- was completed Aug. 15. But it was made public only Wednesday, after Cogbill and his command staff deemed it sufficient.

"It had to pass muster, just like any investigation," Edmonds said.

The full report, which contains hundreds of pages compiled while two retired sheriff's lieutenants led the inquiry, wasn't released. A summary was made public by the the Sheriff's Department.

"We made public everything that we can, not withstanding the privacy protection employees have," Cogbill said.

In the summary, Cogbill expressed pride in his staff, but said law enforcement is "rightfully held to an exceedingly high standard."

He added: "When we fall short of this mark, we must hold ourselves accountable, learn from it, and improve."

You can reach Staff Writer Katy Hillenmeyer at 521-5274 or katy.hillenmeyer@pressdemocrat.com.

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