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APD evidence room inventory to begin

The Asheville Citizen-Times (North Carolina)
BYLINE: Clarke Morrison

Asheville, NC

A team of former officers led by a retired crime scene analyst is expected to begin the painstaking process this week of inspecting, cataloging and photographing some 13,000 pieces of evidence in the Police Department's discredited property room.

BlueLine Systems will work with the State Bureau of Investigation to help determine what evidence is missing, if court cases have been compromised and whether crimes were committed in the handling of drugs, guns and money.

"It's going to be quite an exhaustive process," said Mike Wright, director of the company he formed after leaving the Buncombe County Sheriff's Office in 2006.

"We're going to try to come out with a very accurate result," he said.

District Attorney Ron Moore on April 5 ordered the evidence room sealed and an independent audit to be conducted after learning about serious problems uncovered by a partial audit.

Moore requested an SBI investigation after an assistant district attorney and defense lawyer went to the evidence room in preparation for a case against a drug suspect and discovered that 397 pills of the prescription painkiller oxycodone were missing from containers inside an evidence envelope.

The discovery prompted Moore to drop drug trafficking charges against the suspect.

The partial audit found that of 1,097 items audited, 27 guns, 54 containers of drugs and 34 packets of money and valuables couldn't be located.

City Council approved spending up to $175,000 on the new audit. BlueLine systems will be paid an hourly rate for the work.

Wright calls the project a "forensic inventory." Two teams of four people each will wear gloves and face masks to prevent contamination as they handle the items.

BlueLine worked with the county's information technology department to develop a special database for the inventory.

Wright said a bar code system will be used to identify and track the items in the future. Court orders for disposition of evidence and lab reports also will be coded, scanned and cross-referenced in the database.

"As we encounter items, we will attempt to match up any paperwork with the property," Wright said. "We're going to examine each package to make sure the seals are intact and that it has the proper documentation."

Equipment used in the project includes three laptop computers, scanners, printers and digital cameras to photograph each item. Wright said the equipment and software will remain with the city to serve as the department's new evidence tracking system.

As the inventory proceeds, the SBI will be notified of any irregularities or tampering with evidence packages that are uncovered. Items that don't match information in the department's existing database also will be reported.

The company plans to develop an information sheet on each piece of evidence that will be available for testimony in court cases, Wright said. He expects BlueLine workers to be subpoenaed to testify in cases for years to come.

The inventory will take at least three months, but the time frame is far from certain, he said.

"The amount of time involved depends on how long it takes to locate each item," Wright said. "We will proceed as efficiently as possible, but we're not going to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of speed."

Wright said he expects that some of the items that turned up missing in the partial audit were just misplaced and will be located with the more thorough inventory.

"We're going into it with an open mind," he said. "We're going to do a careful job. The entire right to a fair trial depends on the evidence being handled properly."

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