Federal court documents filed this week prior to a scheduled sentencing hearing reveal details about the case against former police chief Jason Cross.
Cross is accused of stealing more than $25,000 from the city during his last year as chief. He retired Feb. 28, 2021. He entered an Alford plea on June 9 in in Bowling Green before Chief Judge Greg N. Stivers. An Alford plea is treated the same as a guilty plea but does not require the defendant to admit guilt.
In a sentencing memorandum, U.S Attorney David Weiser writes that Cross was offered a plea agreement that would include probation if Cross pleaded guilty and paid full restitution. Instead, Cross entered an Alford plea.
After the court’s process was completed for sentencing recommendations, which includes sealed documents, Weiser writes, “Despite his desire to enter an Alford plea, the United States did not anticipate that Cross would climb to the mountaintop and fallaciously shout his innocence. Nonetheless, the United States feels bound by its promise, and will swallow hard during the sentencing hearing and recommend a probated sentence.”
The sentencing memorandum lays out three accusations against Cross:
In mid-2020, the evidence custodian notified Cross and Assistant Chief JR Murphy that certain evidence, including cash, was missing from the evidence room. Cross said there was nothing to worry about and the evidence would eventually be found.
A year later, Murphy told the custodian to change the locks in the evidence room and to keep a key for himself and give one to Murphy. No other keys were distributed. After the locks were changed, there were no further incidents of missing items.
In late January 2021, the Columbia mayor informed Cross she wanted to replace him, and Murphy would become the new chief. Cross retired on Feb. 28, 2021.
In early March, Murphy, aware of the recent discrepancies in the evidence room, ordered an evidence room audit. The audit revealed that $18,990 was missing, composed of cash seized in several different cases. For example, in February 2020 approximately $9,750 was seized during a search of a hotel room. The money was counted by several officers, photographed, and placed into an evidence bag. The officers subsequently gave the evidence bag to Cross for storage in the evidence room. That evidence bag and money were missing.
In mid-March, before the audit was completed, Murphy contacted Cross and told him about the audit and asked Cross if there would be discrepancies. Cross said the $9,750 missing from the hotel room search was located in a locked file cabinet in the police department. The cabinet was locked and Cross did not leave the key, so a locksmith was called and the cabinet was opened. The evidence bag was there, but it had been torn open and the money was missing.
Murphy asked Cross to meet to discuss the missing money and, after several postponements by Cross, he called Murphy and asked how much money was missing from the evidence locker. A week later, he called Murphy again and invited him to come to his house to pick up guns and clothing that belonged to the department.
On April 5, Murphy went to Cross’ house. The meeting was recorded. Cross had six torn evidence bags on the dining room table with piles of cash on top of each bag. The amount of money represented the amount each bag originally contained. There were two envelopes containing cash, which represented missing money but lacked the evidence bags. A Ziploc bag contained $9,742 in cash, the amount missing from the hotel room search. The serial numbers, however did not match the seized cash.
Kentucky State Police was asked to investigate.
Drug Buy Money Stolen
The city budgeted $10,000 a year for a drug buy fund. When the department needed money for a drug buy, Cross would request funds from the city clerk, who would write a check for the funds.
KSP Det. Scott Hammond discovered that between July 2020 and February 2021, Cross requested $9,000 but officers had only used $1,995 for drug buys, resulting in the loss of $7,005.
Hammond received a call from Cross’ attorney that the missing money was located under a safe near the chief’s office. Money was found under the safe. Cross did not explain why the money was taken and not used nor why it would be put in such an unusual location. Investigators believe Cross gave the bag of money to a friend who had access to the police department, who put the bag under the safe.
Cross Writes ‘Threatening’ Letter
In early April 2021, Columbia Mayor Pam Hoots found a hand-written letter in her mailbox.
The writer “threatened to reveal information about alleged misdeeds committed by various people in the Columbia city government if the investigation into Jason Cross’s conduct wasn’t closed,” the sentencing memorandum states.
The letter states, “…you know that nothing in this letter needs to come out and in no way do I intend for it to. It would destroy city government for years.”
Hammond obtained the letter and confirmed it was written by Cross, who admitted that he wrote the letter. He is recorded as saying the purpose of the letter served to let the mayor “know all the things that could happen if she tries to push anything.”
Federal criminal convictions are followed by a Presentence Investigative Report that weighs multiple factors to provide a recommended sentencing. This is designed to reduce disparities in sentencing. Using those guidelines, which include an enhancement for obstruction of justice due to the letter to the mayor, Cross’s recommended sentence ranges from 15-21 months of imprisonment.
During the investigative process, the prosecution states that Cross provided a “patently absurd story to the Probation Officer that basically proclaims his total innocence.”
Cross claims that when he retired he accidentally took home a plastic tote box and four weeks later discovered that it contained the missing money from the evidence room. He has not explained why the evidence would be in the tote instead of the evidence locker, why serial numbers do not match, why some of the bills turned over were $100 bills with consecutive serial numbers, nor why he told Murphy that money was in a locked file cabinet.
He also did not explain why he requested drug money that was not used in buys nor why there was no documentation for the missing drug money.
“Rather than clearly accepting responsibility for his criminal actions, he has tried to portray himself as an innocent victim,” the U.S. attorney’s office wrote. “Cross is no victim. He is a thief who desecrated his oath to serve and protect the citizens of Columbia.”
Even so, the U.S. attorney’s office stated that it had agreed to recommend a probated sentence and will do so. Cross is scheduled to appear in federal court on Friday at 11 a.m. for sentencing.
Much of Cross’ defense is included in sealed documents, but his attorney, Louisville attorney Frank Mascagni, states in a defendant’s sentencing memorandum that he does not dispute certain facts while others are disputed.
“The facts not in dispute are that the Defendant removed $18,000.00 from his office to his home and stored approximately $7,000.00 under the office safe which was never removed from the Columbia Police Department,” Mascagni writes.
He argues that Cross has taken responsibility by entering the Alford plea, which will leave him with a felony conviction.
When reached for comment, Mascagni said that it would be inappropriate at this time – prior to sentencing – to comment.
Chief Murphy was contacted for comment. Murphy said he regrets that Cross would not accept responsibility for his actions.
“At the same time, I want to commend the officers of the Columbia Police Department for upholding their oaths and showing the citizens of Columbia that we can hold ourselves accountable, and uphold the justice system.”
When asked about the decision to request the investigation, Murphy said, “It’s like asking for your own family members to be investigated. You work closely with somebody for a number of years and then develop friendships and then you have to turn around and do something like that.
“At the same time, I have my own integrity to protect, which means a great deal to me. These officers, it means a great deal to the other officers to protect their own integrity.”
Murphy said the investigation included funds from cases handled by different officers and it was important to clear up what had happened.
“When evidence is clearly there, it boiled down to one person’s mistakes and actions. So, it was very difficult, but at the same time, when we go back to that oath, my integrity and my oath meant something to me. And at the end of the day, I’ve got to be able to go home and look at myself in the mirror. As well as these other officers.”
Cross is scheduled to appear in federal court for sentencing on Friday at 11 a.m. for sentencing.
By Sharon Burton
CORRECTION: On Friday, Sept. 15, 2023 this artice was corrected to reflect that U.S Attorney David Weiser is the author of the sentencing memorandum.
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