Sanford, N.C. — The biggest drug bust in Lee County may be in jeopardy because crime-scene video appeared on the Internet.
Worth nearby $5 million, 1,900 pounds of marijuana was seized on White Road near U.S. Highway 15/501 on Jan. 25. Instead of being submitted into evidence, the video turned up on YouTube.
Investigators, prosecutors and defense attorneys claim they didn't even know the video existed until word spread that it was online.
“It's my understanding that there were two Sanford police officers who came to the scene and did record part of the crime scene,” Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter said.
Carter said he does not know what the officers were doing there. Federal and state agents were on the scene, he said, but local police were never called.
"I'm upset that this happened,” Carter added.
Auturo Elizalde, 27, and Thomas Ayala, 32, were arrested during the bust.
"I couldn't believe that there was a videotape that had not been given to me,” defense attorney George Whitaker said.
Whittaker, who represents Ayala, filed a motion in court Tuesday, asking for the case to be dismissed. The motion argues that the video – which he said could help clear Ayala – should have been submitted as evidence.
“This video, showing the efforts that the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) agents had to go (to), to fish packages of marijuana out of the boxes, would tend to corroborate Mr. Ayala's position ... that he didn't know there was marijuana in those boxes,” Whitaker said.
The sheriff disagrees.
“I feel like it's not going to have any bearing on the case. It's not going to change the fact that these individuals were caught in possession of marijuana. But that is going to be ultimately up to the courts to decide,” he said.
The drug bust was part of a joint investigation with ICE, a federal agency, and the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. The marijuana was tracked from Mexico to Lee County.
The video has been removed from YouTube. The officer who submitted the video is no longer with the Sanford Police Department. Officials withheld his name.
Elizalde and Ayala are each being held on $500,000 bond.