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Misconduct leads to charges dropped

| January 11, 2005 11:00 PM

Accusations of manipulated evidence and sexual misconduct against two former Lincoln County sheriff¹s deputies have led to the dismissal of charges against the defendants in a drug case.

The charges against Austin Joel Zugg and Kevin Ray Neubauer were dismissed by District Judge Michael Prezeau last week following a motion from County Attorney Bernie Cassidy. Cassidy¹s motion to dismiss the cases came in response to a motion to suppress evidence filed by defense attorney Amy Guth, representing Zugg.

Zugg and Neubauer were arrested last February on felony drug charges after police executed a search warrant on a suspected methamphetamine lab in a trailer near the former Branding Iron bar and restaurant south of Libby. Zugg was charged with production of dangerous drugs, felony drug possession, possession of drug paraphernalia, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault on a peace officer.

Neubauer was charged with criminal production of dangerous drugs and possession of drug paraphernalia.

According to court documents, officers who executed the search warrant found a complete clandestine methamphetamine laboratory at Zugg¹s residence, and suspected methamphetamine components were also seized from Neubauer¹s residence.

The search warrant application hinged on information from an informant. Guth argued in her motion to suppress that the information was illegally obtained.

Guth referred to information gathered in an investigation by the state Department of Justice of two former sheriff¹s deputies who had been involved in the case. According to the investigation, deputy Chris Gardella manipulated evidence during an illegal search of the car of a woman who had been stopped following a tip that she was driving with a suspended license and was possibly in possession of illegal drugs. He was later fired from the sheriff¹s office based on evidence that he searched the car without consent, then placed drugs he found during the illegal search into a backpack, which the woman had given him permission to search. The state attorney general¹s office is pursuing criminal charges of official misconduct against Gardella, Cassidy said.

After the woman¹s arrest, her mother offered to provide information on drug cases in return for assistance with her daughter¹s case. According to the state investigation cited by Guth, the woman¹s mother engaged in a series of sexual acts with then-deputy Mark Jacobson over a series of weeks, during which time she was providing information that led to the search warrant in the Zugg/Neubauer case. Jacobson was suspended by the sheriff¹s office at the time of the investigation last summer, and the attorney general¹s office has started the process of having his certification to work as a police officer removed, Cassidy said.