Aspen Daily News, aspendailynews.com
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Carolyn Sackariason, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer
Complete inventory being taken of three decades’ worth of evidence
After an independent audit of Aspen Police Department operations earlier this month found an unusually high number of errors in cataloging and preserving evidence, officials have been working around the clock to track down missing items.
APD investigator Walter Chi spent all of last week combing through roughly 1,500 pieces of evidence, tracking how they were initially catalogued, and re-tagging and putting bar codes on each item. Chi said he said he’s about halfway done sifting through what APD chief Richard Pryor said is more than three decades’ worth of evidence.
In May, Denver-based Professional Police Consulting, run by former Westminster police chief Dan Montgomery, randomly inspected 172 Aspen criminal cases. Of those, 130 had pieces of evidence incorrectly labeled or missing.
The cataloged items that auditors could not find in the evidence room included a sword used in a 2004 assault, two miniskirts, lidocaine and syringes, a “victim’s white panties” from a 2009 case, a glass dove seized in 2003, and a sports drink stolen from City Market.
Chi said he hasn’t found much of what was missing in the audit, but Pryor said it was discovered that the panties had been returned to the victim.
The sword and other items will likely turn up since most of what Chi has discovered so far in the evidence room had been misplaced over the years.
“When I was going through the boxes, I was able to locate items that were in the wrong place,” Chi said of the 170 boxes in the evidence room.
In other cases, pieces of evidence have been returned to their owners or released to other agencies but not properly recorded.
“A lot of it has been released to its owner,” Chi said of computer and paper records not being updated to reflect that.
Chi said he found $6,000 from one case that had been improperly stored. Figuring out where it should go “will take a bit of digging,” he said.
Pryor said the municipal code allows money that is collected by convicted criminals to be diverted to educational programs, as long as the court costs and fines related to their cases have been paid.
Chi said it made more sense to do a complete inventory of the evidence room rather than find the missing items first, hoping that they turn up in the process.
“I’m trying to distance myself from what’s missing and just do a full audit,” he said.
Montgomery’s audit reviewed about 25 percent of what’s in the APD’s evidence room.
“We started immediately since the report came back to process everything,” Chi said.
Files in the Aspen Police Department’s evidence room, which is undergoing a thorough review after an audit found a high number of problems there.
The APD is following recommendations from the evidence portion of the audit, including cataloging all existing evidence, destroying old evidence, investigating missing items and money, and cross-checking what it actually has with what computer records says it has. Pryor also is implementing a bar code system that will keep track of where and when evidence is moved.
Chi’s work has been an investigation of its own, having to back track through the APD’s three different cataloging systems that have spanned decades, and determine whether pieces of evidence were released and to whom.
When he’s done, every single item in the evidence room will be documented and updated.
“By the end of the month, everything will have a bar code and a tag,” Chi said.
The auditors suggested that one full-time person be in charge of the evidence room and its contents.
“At the moment, we need three people to manage it,” Pryor said.
A larger policy issue that the APD will face once a complete inventory has been taken is whether to purge items that are no longer useful and the cases are closed. An exception would be DNA evidence, which could help identify a suspect and prosecute him or her in the future.
There is evidence from two different murder cases dating back to the 1980s and foreign money that officials aren’t sure what to do with.
“It’s a moving target on how to handle your evidence room,” Chi said. “You separate out the highest risk items — drugs, money and guns ... We need to be more security conscious about it.”
Drugs and guns from the APD’s evidence room were destroyed last year; currently there are five guns in the vault and eight BB guns.
The audit also reported that $4,683 in cash from a 2001 theft is unaccounted for. In all, the auditors reported counting errors or missing funds in 43 out of 54 currency cases surveyed — an 80 percent error rate.
In drug cases, the department erred 82 percent of the time — in 87 of 106 cases checked. Most of those mistakes were in incorrectly labeling or weighing seized drugs, the report states. Drugs were unaccounted for in just a few cases, totaling about a quarter ounce of marijuana and 1.7 grams of cocaine.
Out of six weapons cases surveyed, one weapon was reportedly stored unsafely with ammunition.
At the auditors’ recommendation, the department is changing protocol for the weighing, labeling and cataloging of narcotics.
Pryor asked for the outside audit — the first known in Aspen police history — earlier this year, following apparent APD evidence collection and preservation issues that proved problematic as the district attorney’s office prosecuted a high-profile sex assault case.
When he commissioned it, the chief said the department needed to be open with the public in addressing its shortcomings.
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