Matthew Crull had just bought the van a few weeks before, a hulking gray Chevrolet Astro that set him back $1,400. On the night of Dec. 5, 2018, the 28-year-old swung the van into a KFC parking lot located amid the busy sprawl of strip malls and chain restaurants in Jensen Beach, Fla. He parked.
As Crull told WPTV on Monday, he took a slug of an open Budweiser sitting in the cup holder before falling asleep. The van and the driver — a young man with flowing blond, surfer-dude locks — apparently aroused suspicion. Soon, Martin County Sheriff’s Office deputy Steven O’Leary approached Crull’s window.
During a search of the car, O’Leary pulled a plastic bag cinched shut with a hair tie from the driver’s side door compartment. Inside was a white powder — Tide laundry detergent. But Crull’s world flipped upside down when the deputy announced a field test had determined the substance was actually heroin — 92 grams worth.
“I really freaked out,” Crull told WPBF. “I started panicking and didn’t really know what to think.”
Crull landed in jail. Because of the amount of heroin he was allegedly caught with, his bond was set at $500,000. He sat in a cell for 41 days, missing Christmas and New Year’s with his family while a weighty felony charge with a possible 25-year sentence hung over his head.
But while Crull was locked away, a scandal was unfolding within the local sheriff’s office. Earlier this month, Martin County Sheriff William Snyder announced the agency had discovered O’Leary had made arrests based on substances he claimed field-tested positive as drugs. But later tests showed those substances actually were not illegal.
The deputy was fired from the department on Jan. 15. On Monday, the agency announced 11 people have been released from jail — including Crull. According to Snyder, detectives are now combing through the 80 drug arrests O’Leary made in his 11 months with the sheriff’s office.
“I’m as bewildered as you are,” Snyder told a reporter Monday, according to Treasure Coast Newspapers. “We’re trying to undo whatever harm has been done.”
Law enforcement officers mistake benign substances for drugs at a fairly regular rate. In the past two years, faulty field tests have identified everything from cat litter to candy floss to Krispy Kreme doughnut crumbs as illicit substances. As The Washington Post’s Radley Balko wrote in a March 2018 column, studies have shown field tests may produce false positives anywhere from 1-in-5 to 1-in-3 times they are used.
But in the recent Martin County case, the deputy apparently purposely submitted false test results as part of his arrest reports. Now, those arrests, including cases that may have been for actual illegal substances, have all been tainted.
O’Leary — who has not publicly commented on the cases — started working for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office in February 2018. A former pastor, he spent time at two other Florida law enforcement agencies before starting with Martin County, WPTV reported. He had a clean record at both departments, according to the station.
According to a news conference Snyder gave earlier this month, O’Leary’s questionable arrests came to the attention of authorities after an assistant state attorney contacted the office Jan. 9.
The prosecutor informed the sheriff’s office that there were problems with three arrests the deputy had recently made. Although O’Leary had claimed in his report that substances found on the suspects field-tested positive for drugs, “the evidence collected did not test positive for narcotics after examination at the regional crime lab,” Snyder explained.
In one instance, the substance O’Leary documented as an illegal drug was simply a headache powder, Snyder said. Another substance submitted by the deputy was just sand.
On the basis of the original three cases, investigators began going through the dozens of drug arrests O’Leary made in close to a year on the job. According to Snyder, 120 substances identified as illegal by O’Leary have been resubmitted to the regional crime lab for follow-up testing.
So far, the agency has dismissed 11 cases based on the bad evidence — including Crull’s heroin trafficking case. He was released Jan. 14.
Martin County Sheriff Lt. Mike Dougherty told reporters that even though some of those defendants were found in possession of actual narcotics, O’Leary’s alleged pattern of behavior has made those prosecutions untenable.
“Some of them didn’t have as many drugs as what was said, but a lot of them did have drugs on them, and those charges were dismissed because we couldn’t find anything credible with anything [O’Leary] did, so we have to dismiss them,” Dougherty said, Treasure Coast Newspapers reported.
Snyder told reporters it did not appear O’Leary planted substances on suspects. The shadow of impropriety will probably undermine all his arrests, however.
“There’s ample reasonable doubt that all of his cases are probably destined for the ash heap,” the sheriff explained.
The sheriff’s office is offering to help the 11 falsely charged individuals expunge their records, as well as pay for any court costs, according to Treasure Coast Newspapers.
Snyder also said O’Leary could face criminal charges in the future.
Crull says he’s hoping the ex-deputy faces legal consequences. As he explained to CBS 12, when he was arrested, O’Leary showed him only a cellphone picture of the positive field test for his bag of Tide detergent.
Crull admitted he had had past run-ins with law enforcement, including disorderly conduct and possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, according to court records. But he had never faced the kind of criminal charge O’Leary allegedly attempted to pin on him.
“In the past, when I have gone to jail, it’s been something where I knew I wasn’t going to be there forever,” he told WPTV. “It’s a lot different than going to jail and the charge of trafficking of heroin carries a penalty of 25 years in prison.”
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