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Evidence room holds key to illegal activity

St. Paul Pioneer Press (Minnesota), SECTION: WISCONSIN
BYLINE: PEDRO OLIVEIRA JR. The Janesville Gazette

Walworth County, WI

ELKHORN, Wis. Detective David Fladten is Walworth County's evidence guardian.

His well-protected and carefully cataloged collection includes answering machines, doors with bloody handprints, pieces of clothing and computer hard drives.

There is unclaimed stolen property namely two garden gnomes and drug paraphernalia that includes a vast collection of smoking pipes sheriff's deputies sometimes use as educational tools.

Also locked away are slippers, pieces of glass, pry bars and a flat-screen television.

More than 870 packages of drugs.

At least 221 weapons.

As Walworth County's three property officers, Fladten and his staff are charged with safeguarding one of law enforcement's most precious belongings: evidence.

"Some of these cases could be pending, going to trial," Fladten said while walking through the small but well-lit evidence room crammed with computers, packs of marijuana and fingerprinting powder. "Some have been here for 12, 15 years because we still have warrants out."

Walworth County's evidence complex, a combination of several rooms containing items from ongoing and cold cases, comprises about 5,430 items. Vehicles and larger quantities of drugs are stored off site.

In Rock County, sheriff's deputies took in 1,800 pieces of evidence in 2009, ranging from money and boats to blood samples and guns, said deputy John Paulson, the Rock County Sheriff's Office evidence custodian.

The Walworth County Drug Enforcement Unit last year seized a 416-gram block of cocaine, $31,000 in cash, a 2006 Chrysler 300, a 1999 Chevrolet Blazer, a 1999 Dodge Intrepid and a 2000 Chevrolet pickup truck.

Sgt. Jeff Patek, who heads the drug unit, said the block of cocaine, seized from the Darien home of convicted drug dealers Jorge and Roberto Quinonez, is estimated to be worth $9,000.

Each of the items will be destroyed, returned or reused depending on its category.

Evidence is kept until the case it relates to is finished, Paulson said. Then letters are sent to owners or family members asking them to retrieve their property.

If the property isn't claimed, an auction is held to sell the items. That's usually the fate of unwanted vehicles, unless they're usable. Sometimes, cars can be recycled as undercover vehicles for sheriff's deputies.

Firearms are not sold. If the owner of the weapon used it to commit the crime, the weapon is not returned. If the crime was not committed by the weapon's owner, the weapon usually can be returned. Firearms not returned are destroyed at the State Crime Lab.

Drugs taken as evidence are destroyed locally after a case is done, Fladten said. At one point, the sheriff's office burned nearly a ton of drugs after a series of massive drug seizures, the detective said.

And what about cash?

In Rock County, any cash seized in arrests is held for evidence, and the district attorney's office decides whether the cash is returned, kept or donated, Paulson said.

Recently, the Rock County District Attorney's Office decided to give $600 seized in a drug bust to Janesville Area CrimeStoppers, Paulson said. Money that isn't donated goes to the Rock County Treasurer's Office.

In Walworth County, the fate of seized money depends on the amount, said Diane Donohoo, the assistant district attorney who handles most forfeiture cases.

If the dollar amount is less than $2,000, the local police agency can keep up to 70 percent of it, Donohoo wrote in an e-mail. If the amount is $2,000 or greater, the local police agency gets to keep up to 50 percent, and the remainder goes to schools.

Federal authorities use a different calculation, but some of the money still remains in the community.

After 30 years, Fladten has accumulated a strange array of objects as Walworth County's evidence protector.

"I think we still have a frozen dead goose stored somewhere," Fladten said. "After this many years, nothing seems bizarre anymore."

Information from: The Janesville Gazette,

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