CARBONDALE — When SIU Police detectives Justin Emery and Renee Eberhard confronted Associate Professor Jeremy Davis with evidence he’d stolen thousands of dollars of lab equipment from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, he put his head in his hands.
“I f----- up,” he said in an interview room at the SIU Police station. “I totally f----- up.”
The next day, March 29, Davis was charged with one count of theft of governmental property, of total value between $10,000 and $100,000, according to a news release from Jackson County State’s Attorney Mike Carr, an accusation to which Davis pleaded not guilty.
Incident reports from the SIU Police Department, obtained via Freedom of Information Act request, portray a man deep in debt who resorted to stealing even beakers and pipettes to pay it off.
The investigation began in December of 2018, when an SIU student, whose name appears redacted in the documents obtained by The Southern, reported equipment missing from a laboratory in the Agriculture Building.
Meanwhile, investigators found that an expensive machine called a NanoDrop, which analyzes DNA, RNA, and other proteins, had gone missing from another campus lab: that of Jeremy Davis, in the Center for Environmental Health and Safety.
But Davis knew nothing about the NanoDrop, he told police, and neither surveillance footage nor serial numbers were available for the other two items detectives sought.
The investigation appears to have stalled for about a month, as no new incident reports were filed.
Then, on Jan. 14, 2019, Detective Emery got a call. A DNA amplifier machine called a PCR had gone missing from the Center for Environmental Health and Safety. It had been in its rightful place as recently as June 2018, a source told him.
Emery asked the CEHS office manager to ask colleagues what they knew. Davis responded in an email.
The machine was “busted,” he wrote, and lab equipment company Bio-Rad had recommended he send it in for repair.
“Since it’s an older model they’re having trouble finding the right part,” he added. “I’ll let him know as soon as I get any info on it.”
But when a source asked around, no one else in Davis’s work area knew he’d sent the machine in, he told Emery. It was a large item that could’ve been costly to ship, yet the source believed Davis had no funds in his research account to do so. The witness doubted Davis even knew how to operate the machine, he told the detective.
Eight days later, when Emery contacted Bio-Rad and provided the serial number of the machine, the company reported it hadn’t been sent in for repair since 2015.
That’s when Davis became a suspect, police records indicate.
By late January 2019, detectives were going through Davis’ university email account. There they found multiple indications he was in debt.
A January 2019 email showed that Davis was rejected for a personal loan through LendingClub, a peer-to-peer lending company. An email from November 2018 showed he owed $7,513.14 to PayPal Credit.
Emery got a search warrant for the PayPal account, and used data gathered there to identify Davis’ eBay account for a possible future warrant.
Then, he called Davis, who agreed to stop by the SIU Police Department on March 28.
First, Davis told officers the PCR had been damaged by a leaky roof, and that he mailed it to Bio-Rad for repair with his own money, police records indicate. Then he changed his story, saying he sent it to another company, because Bio-Rad was too expensive.
As Emery brought up phone records, past internet searches and receipts from shipping, Davis broke down, and admitted he had received payment for the PCR.
“Davis appeared extremely stressed out, leaned back in his chair, put his hands on his head and said, ‘I will get it back,’” Emery wrote in his incident report.
Shortly after, Emery wrote, he stated plainly: “I sold it. I sold it, OK.”
Davis had been stealing from the university for probably longer than two years, he told investigators — mostly small, low-value items.
A printout from Davis’ eBay account, which he verified, showed that from January to March of this year, he’d sold over 20 university items, taken from Agriculture and CEHS facilities, earning him $2,549.62.
They included sets of glass beakers and lab chemicals, sold for less than $100.
In total, the supplies taken in those three months would cost the university about $6,161 to replace, according to a quote obtained by SIU Police from a supplier.
At some point, Davis also sold at least two higher-cost machines, State’s Attorney Carr alleges, the PCR and the NanoDrop.
For the PCR, which was valued around $10,000 in the documents obtained by The Southern, Davis earned about $200, the police reports indicate.
The value of the NanoDrop, which Davis also admitted to selling, according to the police reports, is not clearly stated; however, equipment retailer Fisher Scientific lists new NanoDrop machines online for $9,700 each.
From the moment he admitted his actions, records show Davis expressed remorse and intentions to cooperate with investigators and to repay what he had stolen.
“I did it, so I should have to be accountable for it,” he told detectives, before assisting them to identify stolen items and where they’d been taken from.
He apologized for lying to the detectives, and later contacted his program chair at SIUC to apologize for the damage he’d done to the program and its students.
“Due to a bad economic situation I placed myself into I started to look for other ways to support myself. So I started to sell items from the university. Most of these things were just sitting around and not in use; that’s how I justified it anyways,” he wrote in a statement taken by the SIU Police Department.
Davis was placed on leave from SIUC the day after his arrest. He resigned effective March 31, according to SIU Carbondale spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith.
On April 1, the SIU Police Department served a search warrant to eBay for Davis’ account information, documents show.
"The search warrant indicates we have more investigative work to do. It’s likely that more items belonging to the university were stolen," said SIUC Police Chief Benjamin Newman.
Davis’ lawyer, Thomas Mansfield, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
Davis' jury trial is scheduled for July 15, 2019, in the First Judicial Circuit Court in Murphysboro, Illinois, according to Carr’s office.