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5,000 pounds of seized marijuana disappears

After being impounded more than a year ago, the marijuana has now disappeared, much to the chagrin of law enforcement officials.

Chatham County, N.C., sheriff's deputies seized 5,000 pounds of marijuana in an undercover sting last year, stacked it high, called the media and showed it off.

But now, the marijuana is missing, the alleged dealers have vanished, the FBI is investigating, and the department can't explain what happened.

The big drug bust has turned into a big embarrassment.

"It's the sort of situation where it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry," said Gary Phillips, chairman of the county Board of Commissioners. "It's really absurd as far as it goes."

In September, someone stole 3,000 pounds of the marijuana from a 2{-ton Army truck parked behind the Sheriff's Department, where it was being stored as evidence. Soon after, deputies buried the rest near an old landfill, but that, too, has disappeared.

"What a nightmare!" said Sheriff Ike Gray, who was appointed after an ailing Donald Whitt retired in November.

County officials are questioning the department's handling of the $5-million worth of marijuana, saying deputies stored it in an unsecured place and kept it for too long.

"That's 5,000 pounds of dope that's loose in our community that was taken off the streets," said Commissioner Rick Givens, who has been flooded with calls from disgusted constituents.

In an effort involving the FBI and several Chatham County law enforcement agencies, a narcotics team seized the marijuana Feb. 8, 2000, at a barn. Officers watched a group of men unload 163 plastic-wrapped bundles from a semitrailer truck.

Two men were arrested. At least three other men escaped in the truck and were never captured.

Deputies loaded all the marijuana into a surplus Army National Guard truck on loan from the Siler City Police Department, said Chief Lewis Phillips, whose department participated in the operation.

From there, deputies drove to Pittsboro, where they parked the truck behind the Sheriff's Department. "At the time," Gray said, "there wasn't enough space to store it anywhere else."

The arrested men were charged with felony trafficking of marijuana. Those charges were dismissed in March 2000 so that the men, both Mexican nationals, could be turned over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. But INS officials at the district office in Atlanta have no record of the men. And no federal charges have been filed against them, according to the U.S. attorney's office in Greensboro.

More than seven months after the marijuana was seized, deputies noticed that most of it was missing. Gray won't comment on how deputies discovered it was gone or whether it was checked regularly.

Whitt called the FBI immediately, Gray said.

Deputies buried the remaining ton of marijuana. Gray couldn't say why deputies chose an unsecured spot, but he did say they saved samples for court purposes.

Gray said he doesn't know when officials discovered that the rest of the marijuana was missing.

Last month, Gray said deputies destroyed the remaining marijuana shortly after the first theft was discovered. Last week, however, he acknowledged that the drugs were buried and then stolen.

Gray wouldn't comment on why deputies would bury a ton of marijuana rather than burn it.

Special Agent Joanne Morley said the FBI could neither confirm nor deny that there is an investigation. But Gray said no one in his department, which has 52 sworn officers, stole the marijuana.

"The agent in charge has said at this point he has no reason to suspect any of our people," he said.

Reached at his home, former Sheriff Whitt declined to comment.