HANCOCK COUNTY -- A key document missing from a Department of Human Services case has for months hindered the Sheriff's Office's investigation into allegations of DHS workers forging documents, but investigators learned last week they could submit a photocopy for forensic analysis in the hopes of moving the case forward.
The problem investigators struggled with was finding the original ink-on-paper document, which was used against Mindy Stiglet in court to take her child into state custody, Sheriff Ricky Adam said.
Rigo Vargas, Mississippi's leading expert in forensic document analysis and the only forensic document examiner for the State Forensics Lab, said it's often a "red flag" when the original copy of an important document is missing.
Stiglet was the lead complainant who sparked Adam's probe into the Department of Human Services office in Hancock County. She brought forth allegations that a DHS worker forged her signature on a document.
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Hers was the first criminal complaint investigators received shortly after the county's foster-care crisis became highly publicized in January and spawned a local Youth Court task force and a 100-page report by the State Legislature's investigative committee.
As similar complaints of tampered documents surfaced, the sheriff's office subpoenaed Stiglet's entire case file from DHS and found numerous documents.
"We got the whole file, the entire file," Investigator Steve Saucier said.
However, the only thing missing from the file, Saucier said, was the original document sought by investigators -- the key piece of evidence needed. Investigators even searched through Youth Court records but were unsuccessful.
The sheriff and his investigators believe the original document has been destroyed.
"I can't imagine anybody holding on to it for a souvenir," the sheriff said.
State Rep. David Baria, chairman of Hancock's Youth Court Task Force, said he's not familiar with the DHS policy on maintaining documents but said it seems unusual for such an important document to be missing.
"It seems to me like they ought to be keeping these documents," Baria said. "We're talking about documents that are likely confidential and oftentimes used in court proceedings, so it makes sense they would have an obligation to keep them."
Early on in the investigation, someone from the State Forensics Lab allegedly told the sheriff's office not to submit a photocopy because it wouldn't suffice for examination, Adam said. Upon that realization, the investigation ground to a halt.
But according to the Sun Herald's interview with Vargas, the State Forensics Lab does accept and analyze photocopied documents. "The original is what you always want," Vargas said. "If you can't get it, a copy can be used. Never ever say, 'You can't use a copy.'"
He said originals provide more handwriting characteristics, but good-quality photocopies can provide strong and unique findings such as trace markings that can link the document to the exact copy machine on which it was scanned.
"Of course it depends on the quality of the copy," Vargas said. "If you have a decent copy, you can tell a lot in your examination."
Sheriff's officials plan to submit the Stiglet case documents, including the photocopies, to the forensics lab on Tuesday.
Though the case may move forward, the sheriff's office's resources are tied up in what Saucier described as a "data dump."
After the sheriff publicly announced his launch of a criminal investigation into the county's DHS office, sheriff's investigators began receiving increasing numbers of case referrals and duplicates of case referrals, Saucier said.
DHS referrals are sent to law enforcement agencies whenever criminal activity is suspected in a child protection case.
Adam said the number of referrals and duplicate referrals coming to his office continue to steadily increase.
Baria said the increasing referrals could be the result of the additional DHS workers now employed in Hancock County, but he could not speculate on a reason for the duplicate case referrals.
"I don't know what to make of that," Baria said.
DHS spokesperson Julia Bryan did not respond to questions before press time Monday.