Brighton police tighten evidence controls after gun destroyed in error

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BRIGHTON, Colo. -- It's a stomach-churning scenario for any legal gun owner: A thief steals your weapon and you hope it turns up before it's used for something bad.

rugerWhen firefighter Michael Frustaci saw the messy interior of his pickup early one morning, he immediately knew he had been robbed.

“My center console was flipped open. Stuff thrown around on the seat,” Frustaci said. “They got my spare change, then it dawned on me. Sure enough, they got my firearm as well.”

He hated the idea that his semiautomatic Ruger LCP 380 was now for sale on the streets to anybody with a little cash.

“It was guilt, really, that it was out there. To know that I wasn't responsible for it anymore," Frustaci said. "Not in control of it and that makes me nervous to think about.”

Records show the Lochbuie Police Department took a crime report for the missing weapon on July 27, 2013. Two months later, records show Brighton police recovered the gun after finding it inside an alleged bank robber’s car.

As a crime victim and legal owner of the Ruger pistol, Brighton police were supposed to return it to Frustaci, but a FOX31 Denver investigation discovered that’s no longer possible because Brighton police said they no longer have the gun.

Where did Frustaci's gun go?

“They said they needed it for evidence, the DA needed it. The Brighton police officers who recovered it assured me I'd have it, get it back as soon as the DA was done,” Frustaci told FOX31 Problems Solvers last fall.

Gun owner Michael Frustaci

Gun owner Michael Frustaci

He called for help in tracking his stolen pistol through a maze of bureaucracy. The main issue was simple: It had been more than two years since Brighton police secured his weapon into evidence and seven months after the Adams County District Attorney's Office ruled Frustaci could have it back -- and his gun was nowhere to be found.

FOX31 Denver started by gathering all the records available from police, prosecutors, the court system and federal agencies, like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In September 2013, Brighton police were investigating an armed robbery of the Public Service Credit Union on Kuner Road.

A tip led them to a suspect named Andrew Michael White. When they caught up to White for questioning, police found a black bag containing a Ruger LCP with a serial number matching Frustaci’s stolen gun.

An evidence technician locked the pistol inside a secure and highly restricted room inside the Brighton Police Department in case it was needed for White's trial.

On July 31, 2014, White pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery. On Feb. 5, 2015, records show, the Adams County DA notified Brighton police that it could give Frustachi's gun back to him, that they no longer needed it as evidence.

By September 2015, Frustaci was getting frustrated. Nobody told him the DA had released the gun and he was still waiting.

“Every few months, I'd give them a call to see where we were at with it and usually didn't get a phone call back,” he said.

What FOX31 Denver found out and Brighton police weren't saying is that the Ruger was no longer in the evidence room and Frustaci was never going to get it back.

The missing pistol was traced by its serial number to a list of “firearms destroyed.” The log book said the pistol was disposed of by July 2015, without notifying Frustaci or giving him a chance to claim it.

Gun destroyed

He wondered if police really destroyed the gun or if it was stolen or lost out of the evidence room.

“Because the gun is still associated with me, serial numbers are still registered to me, what kind of evidence can they give me, what kind of proof can they give me that it was actually destroyed?” Frustaci asked.

Brighton Pd and halsne

Brighton police crime analyst John Bradley

“Absolutely,” Brighton police crime analyst John Bradley said. “Due to a clerical error, we accidently destroyed the man's gun. It was a mistake.”

It turns out Brighton police have demolished 109 firearms in 10 years -- all but one for legitimate reasons. That one error was Frustaci's stolen pistol.

“Like any other mistake we make, it causes us to re-evaluate,” Bradley said. “How does this happen? Can we try to plug the hole so it doesn't happen again?”

As odd as it might seem, until this error with Frustaci’s gun, Brighton police were destroying old firearm evidence by placing them inside junked cars at the Evraz scrap yard, then sending the car and the gun through the shredder.

Although the scrap yard said nonemployees cannot be in the yard because of safety reasons, Brighton police said its policy is that an officer must see the gun go through the shredder to make certain the weapon is inoperable.

Bradley said the department did a thorough internal investigation and found no one in particular is to blame for releasing Frustaci’s gun for destruction.

However, the error has brought change.

Change comes after error

CHRIS HALSNEThe junk yard method won't be used any longer and the department has implemented tighter “chain of custody” controls.

If police need to save space in the evidence room and want to destroy firearms in the future, they will use a plasma cutter at a city-owned maintenance shop.

“We do the best job that we can,” Bradley said. “We're constantly re-evaluating our system of showing good stewardship over the property that's come into our possession.

It’s a juggling match. As you pointed out that in Mr. Frustaci’s case, we had a gun we destroyed in error. I’d like to point out we erred on the side of caution. Rather than turn a gun on the street and let it be out there causing trouble, if we can’t establish a legitimate owner, when it comes time to destruction, the gun’s destroyed.”

The city of Brighton paid Frustaci $350 so he could replace his weapon and the District Attorney's Office has issued an apology. ATF said it does not require police agencies to report when a gun is destroyed and that the gun’s serial number remains in the name of the original owner.

Final note of interest

Records also show that in October 2014, unbeknownst to Frustaci and the Adams County DA, Brighton police sent the Ruger to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to be test-fired.

A “confidential” supplemental report reads: “The test fired cartridge was entered into NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) and searched with no associations. The test fires from item #2 (.380 Ruger LCP) are retained."

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