Chicago Tribune, chicagotribune.com
BYLINE: Steve Schmadeke, Tribune reporter
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Will County, IL
Missing drugs could hurt prosecutions, experts say
A large amount of heroin has been stolen from a shipping container that Will County sheriff's police were using to store evidence, police sources say, potentially dealing a setback to prosecutions, along with the county's efforts to stem surging heroin use.
One source said four individually wrapped kilos of heroin, potentially worth $500,000 or more, were stolen from the container, which was left outside a sheriff's substation and secured with a padlock. Other sources could not confirm the amount.
Marijuana and some small items, including a saw and a bow-and-arrow set, were also stolen.
The container was stored on a fenced lot near Laraway Road in unincorporated Joliet, where police keep impounded vehicles.
The thefts are another black eye for the department's evidence-handling procedures. Last year details emerged about shoes belonging to Scott Eby, who pleaded guilty in November to the 2004 slaying of 3-year-old Riley Fox, found near the Wilmington creek where her body was dumped. The prison-issued shoes had his name written inside them, but the evidence was overlooked for years.
Experts said valuable evidence like narcotics, cash or jewelry is typically stored in a much more secure area, sometimes in a locked space inside a dead-bolted evidence room.
Will County sheriff's police do have an evidence storage area at the substation, sources said, so it's unclear why the container was used and why such valuable items were stored outside. Sheriff's spokesman Ken Kaupas did not return calls seeking comment.
Whoever broke in apparently slipped through a gap in the fence and cut the lock off, said department spokeswoman Kathy Hoffmeyer, citing a police report. The report only lists a concrete saw and a bow-and-arrow set as missing, said Hoffmeyer, noting that an inventory was being taken.
Hoffmeyer said she was unaware of the drug thefts when contacted by the Tribune.
The break-in was discovered Oct. 14, she said. It's unclear when the container was last entered by police. There is a video camera at the site.
A spokesman for the Will County state's attorney's office declined to comment.
County authorities are working to contain what they've described as a heroin epidemic, with the number of heroin overdose deaths in Will County rising from to 26 last year from five in 2000. So far this year there have been 22 fatal heroin overdoses, according to the county coroner's office.
Legal experts said the thefts could torpedo any narcotics cases based on the stolen drugs, with the possible exception of drug conspiracy or solicitation charges, even if the missing evidence had already been tested by the state crime lab.
"In cases where these drugs were the basis for the charge, boy I think the state's out of luck," said Loyola University law professor Jamie Carey, who has written a book on courtroom evidence. "If they don't have the contraband itself, I feel that they're not going to be able to proceed."
Ronald Smith, a John Marshall Law School professor, agreed, saying defendants have a right to do their own testing of any alleged narcotics.
"Unless prosecutors can bring that stuff into the courtroom, they don't have a case," he said.
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