Lynnwood's Deputy Police Chief Paul Watkins was under investigation for stealing evidence from the department when he slipped away from...

Lynnwood’s Deputy Police Chief Paul Watkins was under investigation for stealing evidence from the department when he slipped away from his home late one night, just hours before the FBI planned to serve him with a search warrant.

Though Watkins didn’t know it at the time, FBI agents were already watching his home in preparation for serving the warrant the next day, Oct. 23, according to federal prosecutors.

They tailed him as he drove around Everett, stopping at four trash bins and depositing garbage bags that were later found to be filled with shredded papers, prosecutors revealed Friday.

Prosecutors say Watkins had gotten a tip that the search warrant had been issued and he was trying to destroy evidence.

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That’s one reason they said they intend to ask for an extraordinarily long sentence when Watkins is sentenced for one count of stealing from a federally funded local agency, the Lynnwood Police Department. Watkins, who pleaded guilty on Friday, could face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 at his sentencing Feb. 22.

Prosecutors said he remains on leave from his job. Watkins, 50, could not be reached for comment Friday. Messages left with a spokesperson for the city of Lynnwood were not returned.

Police and prosecutors allege Watkins stole between $70,000 and $120,000 over four years while he was commander of the department’s Criminal Investigative Division. The money had been previously seized by Lynnwood officers during criminal investigations and was supposed to either be forfeited to the city or returned to its owners.

Prosecutors said Watkins would ask evidence officers to sign over the seized cash to him, saying that he would return it to its rightful owners, but instead he would pocket it.

Investigators said on some occasions Watkins made bank deposits the same days he’d signed out seized money, and detailed how Watkins and his wife struggled financially for years and four times filed for bankruptcy.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Bartlett said Watkins succeeded for a time because he targeted money and property seized from drug dealers and others who would be unlikely to return to the Police Department to claim it.

The FBI was asked by Lynnwood police to investigate Watkins after an internal audit showed that cash released to Watkins between 2001 and 2005 could not be accounted for, including a package that contained more than $14,000 in cash, two handguns and 2 grams of cocaine.

Watkins was charged in federal court because the Lynnwood Police Department has received federal funds.

Bartlett said public-corruption cases are unusual in the Western District of Washington, but important.

“The public must be able to have faith in the honesty and integrity of public officials,” he said.

Christine Clarridge: or 206-464-8983;

Mike Carter: