Tainted San Francisco. Another scandal rocks Medical Examiner’s office

San Francisco is already living through the Pandemic this year and ongoing California wildfires which have blanketed The City in a toxic gray ash and soot.

Today comes the news that another employee in the Medical Examiner’s office has been arrested. In Utah of all places. Justin Volk, 40, has been charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. 

Volk’s arrest threatens hundreds of prosecutions. This is a self-inflicted headache that San Francisco can do without.  

Excerpted from San Francisco Chronicle 9.11.2020

A lab analyst for the San Francisco medical examiner’s office has been arrested and charged in Utah after he was allegedly found with an evidence bag of methamphetamine, a case that’s touched off a sweeping review by the district attorney.

The allegations against Justin Volk, 40, could potentially impact hundreds of criminal cases in San Francisco, as prosecutors work to determine the degree of Volk’s involvement in each case and whether they might be tainted.

An initial assessment shows Volk was involved with 2,500 cases in the past eight years with the M.E.’s office, including 500 death investigations, 1,200 sexual assaults and 800 DUIs.

“When individual law enforcement officers, or staff at the medical examiner’s office engage in serious misconduct or potentially criminal misconduct … it substantially undermines my office’s ability to prosecute cases,” said San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

“This couldn’t have come at a worse time for our office,” Boudin said, noting that the office is short-staffed and facing budget cuts. “We must now clean up a mess that implicates a vast number of old prosecutions.”

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In a Friday interview, Boudin said prosecutors are now undergoing a massive and labor-intensive review of cases that Volk had touched over the years and that were prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office. The highest priority of cases are those still open, he said.

The district attorney said his office has called Volk as a witness in approximately two dozen cases in the past eight years. However, Boudin added, “that number drastically understates the scope of his involvement in cases that the office has investigated and prosecuted.”

Not all of the 2,500 cases in which Volk played a hand resulted in a criminal charge, Boudin said. His office is still trying to determine the amount of those that did.

At least one, he said, involved a person convicted of murder.

Prosecutors will also need to determine how much of a role Volk played in each case that resulted in a conviction — whether other, independent evidence supports the verdict.

Prosecutors rely heavily on the credibility of the witnesses and investigators who help build each case. If that credibility is tarnished, it can have major impacts on the underlying case, including a dismissal.

Volk did not immediately return requests for comment. He’s been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation, said Bill Barnes, a spokesman for City Administrator Naomi Kelly, who oversees the medical examiner’s office.

On Aug. 31, Volk was pulled over on Old Highway 91 in Ivins, Utah, after a sheriff’s deputy recorded him driving 16 mph over the posted speed limit, according to the Sheriff’s Office’s probable cause statement.

Volk told the deputy he was headed back home to San Francisco when the deputy noticed a small backpack on the floor of the passenger seat, a lunchbox on the passenger seat, and a bottle “with what appeared to be urine inside,” the document states.

Volk was asked to step out of the vehicle while a K-9 conducted a search. The dog indicated drugs were present and Volk was placed in handcuffs.

During a search of Volk’s car, deputies retrieved an evidence bag inside a piece of luggage. The evidence bag contained a “large crystal looking item,” as well as some smaller bags of a crystallized substance and another small bag with a white powder substance. A later test confirmed the large crystal item was methamphetamine.

Deputies additionally found a paper from San Francisco medical examiner’s office, and two pipes “usually consistent with smoking methamphetamine.”

A separate bottle contained 14 pills later identified as acetaminophen and hydrocodone.

Washington County, Utah prosecutors have charged Volk with possession of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia. He was booked on Aug. 31 and released that same evening on a $10,000 cash bail, according to sheriff’s officials.

Tiergarten Murder I 8.25.2019

The allegations against Volk are reminiscent of the case against Deborah Madden, a former San Francisco police lab technician whose admission that she skimmed cocaine from the office resulted in the dismissals of hundreds of drug cases. The disclosure additionally led to a temporary closure of the lab in 2010.

Madden was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor cocaine possession. In 2013 she was sentenced to a year of home confinement and a $5,000 fine.

The forensics labs for the medical examiner’s office and San Francisco police are separate entities and handle different types of evidence. The police lab’s work includes evidence involving firearms and DNA samples. The Medical Examiner’s Office conducts investigations involving dead bodies and blood testing for DUI cases.