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Burglars break into Prichard evidence lock-up;

BYLINE: David Ferrara
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Prichard, AL

This photo taken Friday, April 9, 2010, shows a storage building at Prichard City Hall in Prichard, Ala. A room at the facility that was recently broken in to was used to store biohazardous evidence for the Prichard Police Department. The room is believed to be the door to the right of the loading ramp. Press-Register/G.M. Andrews

prosecutions could be compromised

A recent burglary at the Prichard Police Department's evidence storage facility could seriously damage the prosecution of some criminal cases in the city, according to one high-ranking state law enforcement official.

"There's a very good possibility that all the cases that had evidence in that particular storage facility could very well be compromised," said Wilbur Williams, the head of the Alabama Association of Police Chiefs. "The ramifications of that random burglary could very well be catastrophic in the prosecution of other cases."

Acting Prichard police Chief Jimmie Gardner discovered the burglary on the morning of March 22. Investigators found that at least three bags of evidence had been damaged, according to an incident report obtained by the Press-Register.

"It happened under my watch," Gardner said. "I've taken measures to make sure that a situation like this won't happen in the future."

Gardner said he doubted that the break-in would affect criminal prosecutions in the city.

Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr. said he was unaware of the break-in until contacted Friday by the Press-Register. He said that his office would have to review the situation and determine which cases could be affected before knowing if any of them were compromised.

"There's absolutely concern, especially after you've had a break-in," Tyson said. "We have to maintain and have this evidence secure or we'll lose every case."

A veteran prosecutor, Tyson said this is the first time he can recall a break-in at a police evidence room in the county.

Much of the evidence kept in the wooden trailer-like building near City Hall contained blood stains and DNA samples processed by the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences, and was stored in paper bags and boxes.

No evidence appeared to be stolen, according to the report, but a tiller, pressure washer and generator were taken. Gardner said that police have obtained videotape of someone trying to sell the pressure washer at a pawnshop.

The officer who filed the report wrote that he found "several bags of evidence that had been torn open," although he listed only three. Two were from assault cases, Gardner said, adding that he did not know the status of the criminal proceedings.

The third and most recent case, for which Gardner did not release the allegations, had been presented to a grand jury but an indictment was not returned.

Gardner said the undamaged evidence bags were "not tampered with" and were later moved to a room at the Public Safety Building at 743 Mount Sinai Ave.

There was no alarm system at the building, and no cameras monitoring the evidence room, Gardner said.

A reporter who walked around the building Friday did not see any air conditioning unit there.

Gardner said that the building was a temporary storage unit, and evidence had occasionally been moved back and forth between there and the Public Safety Building, a former school.

Williams serves as police chief for a similar-size department in Andalusia. He said what's known among law enforcement as "bio-hazardous" evidence is locked up at police headquarters there. A bloodstained shirt, for instance, would be locked in a cabinet and accessible only by unlocking three steel doors.

He said the evidence in Prichard should have been stored more securely.

"The only thing to consider is your ability to go into a court and say that this evidence has been protected to make it pure to bring to court today," Williams said. "And now they can't do that. Now that the evidence has been compromised, it's going to be fairly difficult for the state of Alabama and the city of Prichard to move forward with their evidence."

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