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Sheriff's Office beefs up security for evidence room

The Gainesville Sun,
BYLINE: Chad Smith, Staff writer,
Link to Article

Alachua County, FL

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell is shown next to a new, reenforced firearms locker during a tour of the department's evidence room Tuesday, May 8, 2012. The room pictured here is off limits to deputies. Doug Finger / Staff Photographer

Like a tidy hoarder's garage, the Alachua County Sheriff's Office's evidence room holds about 40,000 items, the oldest dating back to 1966.

There are shelves dedicated to bongs and computers. There are cages — requiring two people with keys to open them — filled with firearms and drugs. There's a cooler for DNA samples. There are racks for baseball bats, swords, brooms and myriad other tools — all used in or pertinent to crimes as petty as misdemeanor marijuana possession or as heinous as murder.

In 2010, the evidence room itself became a crime scene when it was discovered that someone had stolen about $14,124 in cash from a locker holding property for the Waldo Police Department.

The stolen items led to an internal investigation about how the evidence room was operating, and although the findings weren't pretty, Sheriff Sadie Darnell insisted that no evidence was ever tainted and that security was beefed up to prevent a similar theft from happening again.

“It's a much stronger area,” Darnell said in an interview this week after Charles Allen Smith, a former evidence technician, was acquitted on May 3 of the charge that he stole the Waldo money.

During the investigation, the agency added surveillance cameras to the evidence room and the hallways and offices leading to it.

A welded cage was put in front of the chain-link fence that protected high-profile evidence such as firearms, drugs and the Waldo evidence.

Investigators say they believe the thief was able to get through the chain-link door to the high-profile area by simply pushing on the door. The latch was loose.

Smith is the one who discovered the breach, according to testimony given during the internal investigation into the theft.

The investigation found there had been a number of breaches of policy in handling evidence, including changing the dates on when items were checked in to mislead defense attorneys and leaving the door to the evidence room open when no one was inside.

The most surprising findings, though, might have been that many of the items that were categorized as having been destroyed were actually very much intact, sitting there in the evidence room.

There were also 128 items missing, and another 286 others were in custody though they had been marked as having been destroyed, checked out or returned to the owner or there was no notation at all.

While defense attorneys wondered aloud about the ramifications the mishandling might have had on their clients' cases, Darnell insisted no cases were jeopardized because of the missteps.

The “chain of custody” for a piece of evidence, a paper trail documenting where it is and when and who has it, begins when it is collected at a crime scene and continues when investigators drop it off at the Sheriff's Office.

Then, evidence technicians take it from the locker and check it into the evidence room.

According to the internal investigation, Marie Knowles, the evidence supervisor who was fired as a result of the findings, had not been checking in the evidence right away.

But when she ultimately did, she would use the date the items should have been checked in.

Stacy Scott, the public defender for the state's 8th Judicial Circuit, which includes Alachua County, is scheduled to meet with Darnell later this month and wants to find out for herself how the process has been made more secure and whether any cases were in fact jeopardized.

“It's not as bad as if it was left out on a street corner, but part of the concern is that when the law enforcement people come to court, that's not what they tell the jury,” Scott said, alluding to testimony that deputies and officers give verifying the evidence against defendants. “It's an issue of integrity and truthfulness that is probably the biggest concern rather than actual forged evidence or people actually being wrongly convicted.”

For her part, Darnell said as soon as she found out about the theft — and that it was likely an inside job — she opened an investigation.

“I hate that it happened on my watch,” she said, adding that she held people accountable.

Smith was fired for not answering questions during the criminal investigation, and Knowles resigned.

“If people can't trust us, they can't trust anybody,” Darnell said.

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