Legal Attics: Strange and old evidence piles up in police property rooms

 By Steve Garbacz

Daily Journal
GREENWOOD, Ind. (AP) — Police are still trying to figure out where a tombstone from the 1870s was stolen from, but for now it is being stored with thousands of other items that are waiting to be claimed, returned or destroyed.
The tombstone has been in the Greenwood Police Department property room for 12 years, property room manager Jack Napier said. Police suspect it is from a cemetery in Kosciusko County, nearly three hours north of the city, but it isn’t something they’d ever be able to sell at auction and not something that they’re going to destroy.

Now, the tombstone is one of more than 15,000 items that are being stored at the Greenwood Police Department and other local police departments, along with thousands of other pieces of evidence, found bikes and other property.

For some items, such as evidence taken in a criminal case, police are required to hold on to the samples, guns or drugs for decades, so those items pile up much faster than other items, many of which can be sold or destroyed, police told the Daily Journal. Found property, such as a bicycle someone discovers in their front yard, is easier to get rid of. If an owner can’t be found and no one claims it, police can sell it at auction or destroy it after 90 days.

Last year, more than 1,600 items were logged into the property room at the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, adding to packed shelves already containing more than 30,000 other pieces. By the end of the year, just 286 of those pieces were returned to owners, sold or destroyed. There’s so much stuff — drugs, bottles of alcohol, guns, preserved DNA evidence, clothing, marijuana smoking pipes — that in two years of managing the property room, evidence technician Mark Riley hasn’t even gotten around to checking the case files attached to some of them.

Evidence from criminal cases spends much more time on the shelf. The evidence needs to be held as long as a criminal case is going on, which could take years to resolve.

Even after a conviction, items might need to be kept for years in case of an appeal or court order. For example, one package of cocaine that was seized in 1985 has a court order requiring police to keep it for 55 years, Riley said.

Items from a homicide likely will be kept indefinitely, such as all of the evidence — including DNA, clothing and firearms — gathered in the case of Michael Dean Overstreet, who was convicted of abducting, raping and killing a Franklin College student in the 1990s, Franklin Police Sgt. John Borges said.

But he added Franklin police also have held on to items that people called in about during the initial investigation that may not be connected to the crime, such as empty beer cans, sneakers they found outside or various knives.

Evidence in cold cases is also kept, such as the 250 items collected in the Brookley Louks missing person case that Greenwood police haven’t been able to close, Napier said. Clothing, DNA and other items collected from the Dickus murder investigation in Franklin also will be kept indefinitely, Borges said.

“We try to stay on that and continue to re-evaluate what needs to stay and what needs to go,” Borges said.

Most of the items that get taken out of the sheriff’s office are either found property that hasn’t been claimed after three months, property that someone does claim or items the court directly orders police to release or destroy, Riley said. 

That could be returning a cellphone that was taken from a case that was dismissed or releasing a car from impound after it was seized in a drug case.

Police aren’t automatically notified when a court case is resolved by a guilty plea or jury trial, which makes it harder to keep track of all of the items.

Property room managers check on the status of court cases, and if one has been resolved, contact the prosecutor’s office to find out if it’s OK to destroy items, such as some drugs, or sell others, such a stolen TV. 

Napier starts on his “A” shelf and methodically works down through the “Z” shelf, looking up case numbers.

With more than 15,000 items to go through, one pass takes all year, he said.

“I start once per year, and every piece of evidence I will research. If he’s been convicted and not pleaded guilty, then I have to hold on to it for all the appeals, maybe 10 to 15 years. If he pleads guilty, I’ll contact the prosecutor’s office because he could only appeal the sentence and not the conviction,” he said.

Property room managers will more frequently check on cases associated with large items, such as big-screen TVs or car bumpers, since they take up more space than a plastic bag with an ounce of marijuana, a handgun or cellphone.

“There is a potential that we can have couches, mattresses, doors, windows. If it can be picked up and moved, it has a potential to come into our property room,” Riley said.