The FBI is investigating criminal activity at Lassen County's Sierra Army Depot (SIAD) for the third time since 2008, according to sources developed at the depot over the past six months.
News10 began investigating reports of theft and mismanagement at Sierra after a civilian supervisor was allegedly caught stealing high-tech military equipment last year.
That supervisor, Devon Biggs, was arrested by the FBI and is currently facing federal charges. However, more than 20 current and former depot employees say the depot's problems extend far beyond Biggs and the problems with theft persist.
America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down and billions of dollars of military equipment is coming home. That gear, from high-tech weapons systems to soldiers' boots, is stored at dozens of military depots across the country. Sierra is one of those depots, occupying 36,000 acres of Lassen County high desert between Susanville and Reno.
Most depots have a specialty and Sierra's is storing non-essential equipment. That is gear not included on a unit's standard list of authorized equipment – things like night vision goggles, rifle scopes, radios and generators.
James Bretney, an Iraq War veteran and former Sierra employee who was dismissed near the end of his one year probation period, said his team at the depot was finding evidence of missing equipment.
"It's a perverted moral universe," Bretney said. "There's just a lack of leadership, a lack of accountability. There's nobody there who's willing to do the right thing by the soldier and by the American taxpayer."
Bretney and other sources developed during News10's investigation say theft is commonplace at the depot. Several depot employees who reported Biggs say they were ignored by supervisors until a security guard demanded action.
A former depot employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity said there is currently a "huge federal investigation into this place" and that Biggs was just a small piece of a much larger problem.
That employee and other employees said they have been cooperating with federal investigators. Although the FBI won't comment on any current or previous investigation at Sierra, the FBI have been involved there since at least 2008.
Court documents describe the origins of the 2008 case.
"The FBI investigation of this case began in January 2008 when a confidential human source obtained information that a theft ring was operating at the Sierra Army Depot (SIAD), located in Herlong, California," documents state. "Source had been placed in an undercover position of employment at SIAD to look into allegations of employee theft and into drug sales on the base by SIAD employees."
Although Sierra employs about 1,400 people who watch over and maintain the military's property, only five are soldiers. The rest are civilian employees.
"The first thing that needs to happen is that the management should be fired and removed," Bretney said. "The second thing, you need competent managers, either Army officers or those with relevant industry experience. We need to stand up a loss prevention section within every warehouse that prevents spillage and theft."
He also believes a criminal investigation division should be established to investigate all instances of theft, fraud and waste.
Three months after the arrest of Biggs, Lt. Col. Robert Slosson took over command of Sierra. Employees say he's trying to do the right thing by improving transparency and security. However, they say Slosson is just one man and the depot's civilian leadership will make change difficult.
It is still unclear exactly how much material is missing from Sierra. Slosson says he's heard different numbers.
"The FBI, the ATF and all of those three letter agencies – they're conducting their own investigation and I hear all kinds of numbers and stuff like that as far as what it is," Slosson said.
He said he's working to improve security controls at the depot and believes they can recover from these incidents.
"Are we just at the bottom of the barrel now because we let this happen?" Slosson asked. "No. We can recover. We changed some processes, we put some other things in place so these things can't happen again."
Slosson said they're working hard to reestablish the principals of trust, integrity, honor, duty, discipline and professionalism.
Bretney said he hopes Slosson is able to follow through on these promises, but worries his efforts will be compromised by others at Sierra.
"The chain of command rests on the assumption that its officers are noble men," Bretney said. "If liars, rogues and scoundrels make up the chain of command, you don't have an Army, you have a mafia. Lt. Col. Robert Slosson is a good man - but he is one man."
Bretney's concerns are reinforced across the military by a history of government audits sounding the alarm about the U.S. Department of Defense's inability to protect and account for equipment over several decades. According to a 2000 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, these issues existed as far back as 1990.
"Since at least 1990, our office has considered Department of Defense (DOD) inventory management to be high-risk area because inventory management systems and procedures are ineffective," the report says. "A lack of control over inventory shipments increase vulnerability to undetected loss and theft and substantially increases the risk that millions of dollars will be spent unnecessarily."
In that same 2000 GAO report, the Army couldn't account for $900 million of shipped inventory in 1998 alone.
In 2011, while U.S. forces were heavily involved in Iraq, another GAO report found the same problems persisted in the Army.
"We also noted that officials in Iraq and Kuwait stated that, of all categories of equipment, they had the least visibility over contractor-managed, government-owned property, and that U.S. Army Central Command officials said they had low confidence in the accountability and visibility of nonstandard equipment," the report on warfighter support stated.
Hi-tech military equipment was stolen was the Sierra Army Depot, according to documents. (Thursday, May 1, 2014) News10
Last March, another government audit said the Army lost $586 million of equipment between 2012 and 2013 from Redistribution Property Assistance Team yards in Afghanistan. Those are the yards where equipment is stored before being handed off to new troops or sent back to the United States. The $586 million loss represented 37 percent of the total equipment at those yards.
According to the audit, some serious firepower disappeared, including 81 grenade launchers, 28 M240 machine guns, a sniper kit, and an unmanned surveillance drone valued at $100,000.
At Sierra, employees say they hope the latest FBI investigation and change in command at the depot will mean real progress.
In the meantime, Slosson says he's maintaining an open door policy and wants employees to report problems.
"If you don't speak up, you're part of the problem and I'll be happy to walk you out the gate myself," he said.