Lost Evidence = Long Shot??
“The best advice I can give though, for people who are looking for evidence: be persistent and be creative. Many times I was told something was lost, and it was later found by simply looking everywhere.”
–Stacy Horn, The Restless Sleep
As everyone who reads this blog knows, much of the evidence from Theresa’s case has been lost. We’re not sure if it was thrown out or misplaced. There is a slim possibility that the evidence could be languishing in a box in the basement of some property warehouse. If so, then efforts will probably be made to locate it. This could take awhile.
In the meantime, I’ve compiled a few excerpts from Stacy Horn’s book that explains how evidence is stored/processed, and why evidence was often destroyed or lost in New York City. I’m sure NYC’s problems are symptomatic of most other jurisdictions throughout North America:
— The people at the Property Clerk may have figured, what’s the point? The chances of solving a cold case even as little as a few years after it happened are slim. Before DNA became a serious factor in clearing cases, they must have really believed there was no point in holding onto evidence. Few detectives came back for anything from these older cases. Plus, there are storage issues.
— When someone is murdered in New York, the first thing a detective does with the evidence is go to the precinct to see the Property Officer, who will give the detective vouchers with serial numbers for each piece or group of evidence. The voucher lists each object and describes it as either investigatory (needs tests), property (needs to be stored), or arrest (will be needed for court). Belongings of the victim that do not require testing are left with the Property Officer. From there it will either go to the Property Clerk’s office in that borough, or to one of four large Property Clerk warehouses located around the city.”
–…the new controls that were effectively applied to drugs and money were not applied to evidence from homicides until the 1990’s. No one was trying to walk off with old bloodstained shirts. They weren’t particularly interested in saving them either. If Tommy Wray [a cold case detective] needs old evidence for further examination or testing or for an appearance in court, he has to get the storage numbers from the Property Clerk or the Police Lab, and then go down to the warehouses himself to get it. That’s when his problems begin.
“First, was the evidence ever really stored there in the first place? A retired detective described what it was like at the Property Clerk’s in a 1972 New York Times article. “You can walk into that office and you have to wait with maybe 50 or 60 other guys in order to get to a little window and take out evidence or return it.” It wasn’t worth the trouble. If the evidence was important, they held onto it, he said. I recently stood with Steve Kaplan at the Property Clerk window in Manhattan and waited. Nothing has changed. We stood for two hours, unacknowledged. When I argued that we should complain Kaplan said, “Then we would wait forever.”
Next, even if the evidence was stored there, did the Property Clerk save it or throw it out? “I saw a guy in there with a pitchfork, throwing old evidence out into a dumpster,” one Cold Case detective remembers. It’s difficult to find evidence from cases earlier than 1990. “Whenever they can’t find something they always give one of the same three excuses,” one frustrated detective said. “The fire, flood or the move.”
–The warehouses look like that final shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when they are putting away the Ark of the Covenant, amongst endless stacks of wooden crates.
–The inventory and storage operations at the warehouses are crude. They don’t use computers. They’ve got pens and logbooks and file cabinets. If there’s anything on a computer it’s because an individual who knows the software program Excel took it upon himself to put it there for his use alone.
–“Find it yourself,” the officer at the Property Clerk’s warehouse told Wendell Stradford and his partner Carl Harrison (aka Chuck), when they came looking for evidence from a 1988 case where a nine-year-old girl and her mother were raped and murdered. Harrison had just picked up the case and was trying to track down about a dozen Property Clerk vouchers. He called the Property Clerk two or three times a day for a month asking about them. They finally gave him some storage numbers and told him he’d have to find the rest himself. Chuck was most interested in a vaginal swab that had been taken from the little girl. According to a piece of paper in the case folder, there was a possibility that the vaginal swab was at a private DNA lab in Maryland called Cellmark Diagnostics. The people at Cellmark told Chuck that they had extracted DNA from the swab and sent it back to the Police Lab in small tubes. The Police Lab said they sent them back to Property Clerk. Chuck and Wendell went back to the Property Clerk and looked themselves. No tubes. They went through the Police Lab logs books for that week looking for a clue. Then they found the answer. The Lab was supposed to send the evidence back to the Bronx Property Clerk, but they gave the package a Manhattan storage number. It never got to the Bronx. Chuck and Wendell found the tubes sitting in a box at the Manhattan Property Clerk. They took them to the OCME and got a hit. They now have a new suspect.
–The ME’s office stores samples when they conduct serological tests, and they have a warehouse, too.