Jury selection in the criminal trial of a fired Huron County sheriff's detective was supposed to start this morning. Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter said he had subpoenaed 15 to 20 witnesses.
Instead, Matthew S. Spencer, 34, most recently of 420 High St., Willard, entered a last-minute plea late Friday afternoon.
Spencer, who remains free on bond, was charged with theft in office, tampering with records, tampering with evidence, insurance fraud and falsification. The charges stem from incidents from July 2004 through the end of July 2006. He oversaw the evidence room until Sheriff Richard Sutherland fired him in August 2006 after an investigation of suspected wrongdoing began.
Erie County Prosecutor Kevin Baxter said Spencer was convicted of all eight charges on an "Alford plea." Baxter described the plea as the equivalent of a "no contest" plea, in which there is no admission to wrongdoing, but there is "overwhelming evidence" if the case had gone to trial.
"There was not one charge or count dismissed or reduced," Baxter said about Spencer's plea.
Baxter said Spencer stole between $10,000 and $11,000 from the evidence room. The prosecutor also mentioned there was "several hundred dollars" missing from the money for impounded vehicles.
Investigators have said the ex-detective made a false insurance claim about the theft of two firearms, a Fraternal Order of Police emblem, some golf clubs and seven personal checks from his personal vehicle.
Sutherland, when asked for his reaction to the plea, said he was happy with Spencer's choice "to get it over and done with." Since the first hearing, the sheriff had heard there may be a possible plea deal.
"It's been a long time. It took too long. You've just got to wait your turn," he said.
Spencer waived the right for Baxter to read the factual basis of the conviction, a standard court procedure.
"We were prepared to do (so), but it was not necessary," Baxter said.
The prosecutor believes Spencer took responsibility for his actions by pleading to the indictment. The Reflector asked Baxter if he thought the plea was the result of feeling pressure from the trial.
"You'd have to ask Mr. (Greg) Shell about that," Baxter said. "Obviously, he was looking out for his client's best interests."
Shell, Spencer's lawyer, declined to comment on the case Friday. He couldn't be reached for an interview this morning.
As part of the plea agreement, Baxter said he agreed to take no position on a possible sentence during the March 10 hearing.
"We leave it up to the discretion of the court," he added.
About July 2006, Sutherland appointed Sgt. Mike Martz to be in charge of the evidence room. Chief Deputy Col. Bob Sutherland, the sheriff's twin brother, does a random audit each month. The chief deputy pulls a case and asks Martz to present him with the respective evidence.
When Martz was reorganizing the room in mid-November, he discovered a case file was missing as was some money, Baxter said. The prosecutor said the money already had been accounted for and investigators later determined the case file had been "placed in another bin."
Baxter also said Richard Sutherland maintained the integrity of the investigation by first turning it over to prosecutors and then an outside agency, the Ohio Bureau of Identification and Investigation.
"As soon as this thing broke, he did the right thing," Baxter said.
Sutherland briefly reflected on his former employee this morning. Spencer became a deputy in March 2000. He was the Greenwich police chief for about a month in May 2003 and resigned for personal reasons before rejoining the sheriff's office.
"Matt did a great job when he first (started). My only question is why. We still don't have that answer," Sutherland said.