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Wilmington police technicians bring order to property and evidence warehouse
BYLINE: Brian Freskos,
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Wilmington, NC

2011-06-29_INT_Wilmington police technicians bring order to property_01
Phylisha DellaPia shows some of the steps that have to be taken when rpocessing evidence at the Wilmington Police Department. DellaPia and her co-workers process thousands of pieces of evidence every year at the department. Photo by Ken Blevins

Most law-abiding citizens never get to handle marijuana by the pound, plastic bags filled with thousands of ecstasy pills, blood-stained cash and AK-47 assault rifles. But for Phylisha DellaPia, this is just another day in the office.

As one of two technicians working in the Wilmington Police Department's property and evidence warehouse, DellaPia knows the resting place of some of the city's last-surviving remnants of past crimes, in some cases, from decades ago. In many ways, the 6,060-square-foot repository in the belly of police headquarters is like a private museum that testifies to Wilmington's darker side. Police work, after all, is not always pleasant business.

On one area lies the .44 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver that accidentally shot Brandon Lee, Bruce Lee's son, during the 1993 filming of "The Crow" in Wilmington. In another box sits clothes, track impressions and photographs of the scene in April 1978 when Officer James Nunalee Sr. was shot and killed in an ambush outside a convenience store on Wrightsville Avenue. Fixed along shelf E are 29 containers with evidence from the city's cold case homicides, items detectives occasionally sift through in hopes of solving unanswered cases.

These moments of Wilmington's history, told by the evidence that sits on those shelves, are part of what fascinates DellaPia about her job.

New evidence and recovered property pours into the warehouse daily, all with a story behind it. Most items are placed in heat-sealed plastic bags and handed to DellaPia or her colleague, Casey Ludlum, for storage. They mark each item with a bar code and store it on a shelf or on the warehouse floor, where it will stay until a case has been adjudicated or, in cases of found property, someone claims it.

Cold case evidence, however, must be kept indefinitely if it contains potential DNA.

Seized cash is only briefly kept at the department before it is deposited in a bank account. Once the case is wrapped up in court, the money is typically transferred to the local school board.

Criminal case evidence housed in the department's warehouse runs the gamut from machetes and golf clubs used in assaults to pirated DVDs. Last year alone, technicians processed 11,778 pieces of evidence and property, or about 981 items per month.

One box scheduled for incineration later this year contains about 2,000 clear plastic balls that you can get out of a vending machine at most grocery stores for a quarter. The only difference is that instead of a cheap plastic toy inside, the balls contained marijuana, part of a drug distribution operation police squashed in 2008.

"This was a vice operation," DellaPia said, laying down a clear bag filled halfway with dark marijuana seeds on the table where officers package their evidence for safekeeping.

Given the nature of what the department keeps locked in this room, officials are reluctant to discuss what kind of security features keep it protected. But it might suffice to say that since the warehouse is inside the police department, it is surrounded by armed cops all hours of the day.

It comes as little surprise that the technicians, some of the few people with direct access the evidence, are put through a rigorous screening process – the department even checks their credit rating – to make sure they abide by the utmost in ethics. There still exist numerous checks, like unannounced audits and oversight from internal affairs.

Progress made

Wilmington has come a long way in the manner in which it preserves evidence. Prior to moving into its current facility in 2006, officers worked out of an old railroad building turned makeshift police station on Red Cross Street. The evidence and property warehouse sat in what was essentially a basement never designed to house such vast amounts of sensitive material. The result was disarray, with boxes strewn about with little semblance of order.

"Stuff was everywhere," recalled Det. Lee Odham, who has served in the department for nearly 12 years.

When the police department moved to its current location on Bess Street, DellaPia faced the daunting task of restoring a sense of organization. She ridded the warehouse of evidence no longer needed, helped establish a tracking system so officers could more efficiently locate items and streamlined the paperwork process.

"She must be an angel from heaven," Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said. "What is usually a nightmare and an administrative headache has turned into a well-run entity."

Now, officers like Odham can easily pull up cases they want to re-examine. Recently, Odham paid a visit to the warehouse in order to comb through evidence in the case of Barbara Lewis, a woman strangled to death in 1977 and dumped in a parking lot in the 800 block of Princess Street. Given perennial advancements in DNA collection, Odham scours these cases for anything that could be tested with new technology.

"There's always something, we just have to figure out what it is and what it's on," he said.

Not all police department's operate like Wilmington's. DellaPia, who was recently named president of the N.C. Association for Property and Evidence, has leveraged what she has learned to advocate for property and evidence rooms statewide, particularly to adopt uniform standards for submitting and storing evidence. And she has openly called for technicians to be certified by some independent authority, a process not currently required.

For DellaPia, a jaunty, 41-year-old Carolina native who studied criminal justice at Cape Fear Community College and the University of North Carolina Wilmington, working in the property room affords not only an opportunity to learn about interesting cases but to act as a detective herself.

Part of her job requires tracking down the owners of lost or stolen property. One of her favorite success stories is the case of five antique Zippo lighters. Using a name inscribed on one of the lighters, patent numbers, property records and a will, she located the late owner's surviving family in another part of the state and got the items back to them.

"I like making sure people get their stuff back," she said. "I like when the victims come pick their property up and for them to have a good experience about their house or car getting broken in to."

Brian Freskos: 343-2327

On Twitter: @BrianFreskos

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