10 minutes reading time (1944 words)

Evidence vault holds it all

Calgary Sun, cnews.canoe.ca
BYLINE: Nadia Moharib, Calgary Sun
Link to Article

Calgary, AB, Canada

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Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility supervisor R.G. Hemlow among items stored at the facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. )(MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY

CALGARY - Found hot tubs, seized sex toys, the occasional body part and a pickled corn snake have been kept here over the years.

Right now, there are about 121,000 exhibits lining shelves and kept in fridges and freezers in the 85,000 sq-ft. facility housing everything from found bikes to crime-scene evidence.

While some are strange, others gross and several downright stinky, many ultimately are key to solving a crime, ideally seeing courtroom convictions, in cases from murders to muggings.

Exhibits aren't simply stockpiled but meticulously filed, each piece given a bar code, before being put in its place for safekeeping.

For the most part, that is pretty much where the item will stay, (some kept forever,) painstakingly protected, until it goes to court, is destroyed or sent to auction.

The goal is to ensure the exhibit is not tampered with and proves a pristine piece of evidence, absolutely unaltered from how it was found, should it go to court.

"We are the gatekeepers," says unit supervisor, R.G. Hemlow, one of 18 custodians at the warehouse.

"We are the continuity kings."

Even police officers require escorts here and it's not uncommon for veteran visitors to slip hands safely into pockets to prevent a fingerprint from inadvertently landing somewhere suspicious.

Cleaning staff undergo security checks and are fingerprinted, photographed and undergo a polygraph.

"It smells in there," Hemlow warns before offering a tour and detailing what is kept inside.

"There is stuff in there from cigarette butts to DNA and guns and there are screw drivers and bodily fluids."

On a slow day staff take in about 150 new exhibits while a busy one can see up to 500.

The annual intake has gone from nearly 70,000 in 2007 to 107,865 in 2010.

But very few exhibits actually have their day in court.

"Police officers are thorough," Staff Sgt. Gord Eiriksson who oversees the unit explains.

"If they have a file where they are not sure whether to take the sofa -- they'll take the sofa.

"Of all the exhibits, really only one percent will see a court room."

There is no downplaying, however, the potential value of those which do.

"People can end up going to jail for life because of what we have in here," he says.

Everything is carefully categorized before being filed in an electronic database and each and every movement of any exhibit, even if simply relocated from one shelf to anther, is documented.

There are pop cans fashioned into secret drug caches, weapons and a creepy musical doll seized in a fraud investigation where a woman allegedly went door-to-door with a sob story selling the items which were likely stolen.

"You name something and we've had it," Hemlow says.

"I've had complete fuel tanks, brand new fridges, a complete semi full of appliances and a hot tub," he says still befuddled at the latter exhibit.

"I just can't believe anyone has lost a hot tub -- we could use a hot tub in here," he jokes.

A custodian -- more typically tasked with finding rightful owners of bikes, wallets and purses -- shakes his head at the prospect of tracking down the owner of a bent and battered shovel recently turned in to police.

"Some citizen took the time to turn it in," he shrugs.

"I'll do my best."

About 200 bikes come into the unit a month, kept for 30 days bikes before going up for auction.

About 300 in any given year are refurbished by prisoners at the Calgary Correctional Centre for the Calgary Kiwanis to give away.

"I have to keep these moving," the custodian says pointing to neat rows of bicycles, and stressing his job would be easier if people took time to report thefts to police.

"I have really, really high end bikes in here that no one has reported as stolen .. everything belongs to somebody, it's our job to do our due diligence" to find them.

Boxes of licence plates, lost, never claimed or stolen, are cut into bits and destined for a shredder before being melted down for recycling.

Bottles and cans no longer needed to be kept are recycled with money going into city coffers while any clothing, which has second-hand potential, is given to charity.

Boxes of Lucky Beer, bloody clothing, computers seized as part of child pornography investigations, hub caps, bike helmets, broken glass, skateboards, lunch boxes and even moldy items tightly wrapped in plastic are stored on shelves where a posted sign mandates a 575-lb limit.

There are blood swabs in fridges, exhibits in freezers, rolls of copper wire, ski poles and newspaper boxes all taken in as part of criminal investigations in other parts of the warehouse.

Staff are on call should temperature in the walk-in refrigerator dip too low, surge too high or in the case of a power surge -- all potentially jeopardizing the integrity of exhibits ranging from DNA to urine and semen.

"It's pretty disturbing," Hemlow says, his breath visible, as he points to shelf after shelf lined with sex kits.

"All that is sex assaults.

"I amazes me, it baffles my mind," he says of the sheer volume of exhibits.

"And it's ongoing."

Work isn't simply confined to the warehouse.

Custodians often work with police green teams, suiting up in hazmat outfits to tear down marijuana grow ops.

They bag plants in the illicit operations, seizures later audited before paperwork is sent off to Ottawa.

A 'Please Keep Off The Grass,' sign hangs on the wall above several black bags containing a recent crop hauled in to the unit.

Soon it will all, literally, go up in smoke.

Custodians, escorted by the TAC team, cart plants to undisclosed rural locations where they are put in incinerators.

"We don't leave until 30 minutes later," Hemlow says.

And it's a pile of dust when they are done.

A strong stomach is optional, but certainly a good asset for custodians to have.

And a thick skin doesn't hurt either.

The first offers a defence to dealing with the actual "stinky stuff," while the latter might insulate against tummy-turning, often heartbreaking, details associated to exhibits.

Over the years many would easily fit in the 'gross' or "utterly odd" category, including a fetus in a pizza box, a partially-dressed, headless mannequin staff dubbed 'No-head Norman,' and that pickled corn snake picked up in a Hells Angels' file.

"Three or four months ago, an officer came in with a thumb in a jar and asked if we could dispose of it properly," veteran custodian Todd Neis says matter-of-factly.

"Stuff like that doesn't bother me, the only thing that really does is just the smell of stuff, rotting stuff."

A section where homicide exhibits are kept, including one dating back to the 1970s, is an area where many find it tough to ignore real-life, often life-ending, stories behind the exhibits.

"Some people say the hair on the back of their neck goes up, they just have an eerie feeling," Hemlow says.

"You'll see people in the news and you know what happened to that person, how they were killed -- you see some of their pictures and you connect with the victims. It's not just a name to us."

It's those type of exhibits, especially, which are a reminder this massive warehouse isn't simply a storage facility -- victims hoping on a courtroom coup often count on evidence kept here to make that happen.

"You would see the whole team crushed if we did something wrong," Hemlow says.

"We don't want to make a mistake."

Being a small part of the pursuit of justice is rewarding, custodians keenly aware safeguarding exhibits helps put criminals away.

Recently, a man was convicted of raping a woman in her own home 25 years ago based largely on DNA.

For many years, file number 87019230 sat inside a walk-in freezer, filed beside more than 1,000 other so-called sex kits -- ultimately leading to the conviction of James Parent a quarter-century later.

On the job for more than a dozen years, Neis, says seeing criminals held accountable never gets old -- that conviction a prime example.

"We were happier than hell when he was found guilty," he says.

"Everybody let out a big cheer."

"Sometimes we get to see there's a 'guilty,' that's deserved and we get that smile," Hemlow adds.

"It's meaningful work."

The weathered headstone with the name John T. Mitchell engraved on it is among many mysteries at the property unit, staff trying to find out where it belongs.

"We've had a couple of urns full of ashes," Neis says.

"A fisherman reeled one in on the end of his fishing rod, a wooden urn which had a guy's first name on it."

While some exhibits literally embody the smell of death, others brim with life.

"We actually had a bird in lost and found and held it until someone picked it up," Neis says.

Several years ago, a rat crawled out of a backpack, he says, and "we had a corn snake in a pickled jar which kind of freaked people out.

"I'm not sure about the story with that."





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Racks and racks of evidence in the Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



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Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility supervisor R.G. Hemlow among items stored at the facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 



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Recovered bikes in the Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 
 



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Assault evidence in the Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



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Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility supervisor R.G. Hemlow with some of the odd items stored at the facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 



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Metal, including weapons, chopped up to go to recycling in the Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 



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Racks and racks of evidence in the Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 
 



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Bags of pot waiting to be destroyed in the Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 



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Homicide section among the racks and racks of evidence in the Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 



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Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility supervisor R.G. Hemlow among items stored at the facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. These items are all from a single seizure of stolen goods. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 
 



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Metal chopped up to go to recycling in the Calgary Police Service evidence storage facility in Calgary, Alberta, on November 12, 2011. (MIKE DREW/QMI AGENCY)
 
 

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International Association for Property and Evidence
"Law Enforcement Serving the Needs of Law Enforcement"
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