BYLINE: By Lolly Bowean, TRIBUNE REPORTER
Cook County, IL
There were chrome handguns, revolvers, Uzis and broken down rifles held together with duct tape. There were machetes, swords and rusted kitchen knives.
When Cook County sheriff's officials opened the evidence vault at the tiny Ford Heights Police Department -- a department it took over about a year ago -- they found hundreds of weapons, along with drugs, molded sexual assault kits and other items stacked on shelves and sealed in boxes, said Cmdr. Brian White.
Problem is, no one knows why the items were confiscated by Ford Heights police. None of the evidence was properly tagged or marked, meaning authorities don't know if they are connected to crimes -- and if so what crimes -- or even how long they've been in police possession.
That means there are possibly crimes in Ford Heights that will never be solved, said Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. "This is serious. This is horrible. This is devastating," he said. "There is no way to put a cheery spin on this. ... We'll never know where some of these guns are connected to or where they come from."
Dart said he doesn't want to assign blame for what happened. He said it's just a sign of the level of dysfunction in the Ford Heights Police Department. Ford Heights' last police chief said he was hamstrung by a small staff with a high turnover rate. While taking partial responsibility, he also took a shot at the previous administration.
However it came to be, sheriff's police now are charged with the tedious task of researching each item, all of which have been tagged and sent for forensic testing. They still must dig up a paper trail based on serial numbers to find out the history of each item -- a process that could take weeks, with no guarantee that the results will lead to anything.
For years, Ford Heights has been plagued with poverty, corruption, high foreclosure rates, unemployment and a sense of hopelessness. The village of about 3,200 is one of the poorest in Cook County.
In April 2008, the sheriff's office took over police duties after the local government could no longer afford to keep its own department. There are at least four sheriff's police officers patrolling Ford Heights each shift, working out of a satellite office owned by the county, said Detective Lt. Matthew Rafferty. For months, the Ford Heights Police station has been locked and closed. But in May, the sheriff's office decided to look through the department's records and evidence room to see if there were any outstanding violent criminal cases. In a vault, which was inside a tucked-away closet, they were surprised at how the items had been kept. "It resembled a junk yard," Dart said. "You had 188 guns in barrels, boxes, not marked, not labeled. Rape kits sitting in a refrigerator that had been unplugged. Rubbermaid bins that held narcotics."
White said they don't know if the evidence represents solved cases, open ones or cold cases. "We have a lot more questions than answers," White said at a meeting where detectives laid out each of the 188 guns they found, the 31 unprocessed sexual assault kits, dozens of knives and a Driving Under the Influence test kit. Officials said the rape kits were packaged so they aren't sure if they were ever processed or, if so, destroyed. To be safe they sent them to the crime lab.
No calls have come in from victims asking about reported crimes, sheriff's police said.
The last police chief, Earl Bridges, said he inherited the mess. "It should have been more in order than it had been," said Bridges, who is now a village code enforcement officer. "With the lack of manpower I had, I didn't have activity in filling the vault up. That was left from previous administrations." Bridges was police chief from 2005 until Dart's office took over. In recent years the Police Department shrunk from about 16 officers to only four, he said, adding that salaries were too low to keep dedicated officers. When Bridges took over, he was supposed to sort through the evidence, but it was a task he never got to, he said.
"Overall it was just an unkept vault," he said. "I'll take a little of the responsibility because I didn't get a chance to get in there and find out what was there." Mayor Charles Griffin did not return calls seeking comment.
Dart said there's only one year left on the sheriff's contract to police Ford Heights full time and a long-term strategy needs to be developed.
"To have a town with law enforcement issues this pronounced that their police department vanishes and in the wake there are unsolved cases, something needs to be done," he said. "[But] I don't have the exact answer.
"There are good people who live there and have the right to walk the streets and feel safe," he said. "They don't deserve to keep going through this over and over again."
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