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Former leader of a Pennsylvania drug task force is accused of taking $200,000 in seized cash

John E. Burkhart, the former head of Lancaster County's drug task force, was charged Tuesday.

A Lancaster Police Vehicle is seen in the city following a night of protests on September 14, 2020.

 Kate Landis / WITF

A Lancaster Police Vehicle is seen in the city following a night of protests on September 14, 2020.

(Harrisburg) —  The fired head of Lancaster County’s drug task force was charged Tuesday with stealing more than $200,000 in money seized or forfeited by court orders during drug investigations over a six-year period.

State prosecutors filed charges against John E. Burkhart, 56, of theft and tampering with evidence and government records, as a grand jury alleged he had been “secretly pocketing money and diverting it to his own use.”

He was arraigned before a district judge in Lancaster on Tuesday afternoon, with bail set at $25,000, unsecured. His lawyer, Hobie Crystle, declined comment.

The presentment said Burkhart’s paycheck had been garnished for child support starting in 2010 and that “several witnesses testified that Burkhart often complained about being in debt and discussed the fact that he was financially strained.”

Burkhart was a former Lancaster city police officer when he was hired as the officer in charge of the county drug task force in 2011. He reported to the district attorney and chief county detective.

Brett Sholtis / WITF

Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams watches the Sept. 13 police body camera video showing Ricardo Munoz with a knife running toward an unnamed Lancaster police officer at an Oct. 14 press conference.

He was fired by Lancaster District Attorney Heather Adams in March 2020, allegedly for poor management skills and falsifying a report. Three months later, Adams made public that some $150,000 in cash seized in drug cases was not accounted for and that she had brought in the attorney general’s office to investigate an “internal theft.”

“All of that money should have been destined for deposit so that it could have been used to help battle the drug epidemic,” the grand jury presentment issued earlier this month said. “Instead, it went into John Burkhart’s pocket.”

The task force member who took over after Burkhart was terminated could not locate tens of thousands of dollars from drug investigations, the grand jury said, and the internal probe eventually revealed a much larger theft.

The jury’s report said Burkhart regularly stole cash from the drug task force’s safe and that he skimmed money from cash deposits from the drug task force that should have been turned over to the county treasurer.

In one case, he is alleged to have stolen $30,000 as part of a $268,000 deposit. The grand jury listed other cases in which Burkhart’s alleged theft ranged from $1,000 to $24,000.

Only Burkhart and one other task force officer knew the combination to open the safe, the grand jury said.

He’s accused of making cash deposits, in some years dozens of them, often for $1,000 or more. His personal account’s cash deposits from 2014-21 amounted to $169,000, investigators claim.

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