Technicians in command of chain for evidence

Technicians in command of chain for evidence

You name it, Thad Trimble has seen it, logged it, boxed it and stored it in a restricted area of the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office.

Bloody clothing. Every kind of gun. Drugs. Stolen TVs. Video game consoles. An iguana.

Wait. What?

"It's rubber, 28 inches long, sitting on my shelf," said Trimble, the longtime evidence technician for the sheriff's office. "That came in in 2012."

If ever there was an unsung hero in law enforcement, it's the evidence techs. They play crucial roles in the prosecution of criminal cases but are never the ones who the cameras focus on after a big win in court.

It's their thankless job to track every piece of evidence from the time it's delivered to them to the time a criminal case is closed. And some never are.

Their offices are usually corners of cramped, windowless rooms lined with shelves filled with the details of some person's sad tale of victimization.

"We have one and a half people to manage 110,000 pieces of evidence in both pending and closed cases," said Mark Huckstep, the recently hired evidence technician for the Champaign Police Department. "You have to be organized."

No catching up

The first order of daily business for the evidence technicians is to log in items. Officers put evidence in lockers for which only the technicians and a select few administrators have keys.

To prevent tampering, no one but the technicians is allowed in the rooms. Only if they are sick or on vacation do the designated back-up employees enter.

"Each morning, I clear the lockers and tag all the evidence," said Trimble, who's been in his job since December 1999. He was a correctional officer in the Champaign County Jail for four years before that.

From there, "Everything is logged into the computer," said John Lockard of the Urbana police department.

After 29 years as a police officer, Lockard retired on Aug. 1, 2000. He began serving as his department's evidence tech the next day. His institutional memory is phenomenal.

"After we sign the chain of evidence sheet, the evidence is logged in and a location is named and the item is stored in that location by case number," Lockard said.

"You have to be able to multi-task," said Huckstep, who also retired after 23 years as a sworn officer with the Champaign County Sheriff's Office, Champaign police and the Piatt County sheriff's office. He started his civilian job in April.

"You've got guys turning in evidence and talking to you while you are trying to make a computer entry," Huckstep said. "And if you put in the wrong location, you may be looking quite a while."

Said Trimble: "When it goes to court, (the prosecutor) will check the chain of custody and I can tell them that on this day, a piece of evidence went to Springfield to the crime lab and I can tell them when it came back."

Hardly riveting courtroom drama, chain of custody testimony is groundwork a prosecutor must lay to prove a case.

Another major part of the evidence intake is downloading digital photos or videos for storage and putting them into a format that can be used in court.

"What takes a lot of time are the squad car videos and store videos," Lockard said. "Every store now has a surveillance system. That takes a lot of time because of the volume and to make copies."

"We have a guy spending 30 hours a week doing downloads," added Huckstep.

The technicians also have to make the 180-mile round-trip drive with evidence to the state crime lab in Springfield, where forensic scientists examine it.

Those specialists might check for DNA or fingerprint matches, determine if suspected drugs are really narcotics, or match up shell casings to weapons.

"We transport everything to the lab and we have to bring it back," Huckstep said. "My days (going to Springfield) vary. You have to mix it up so you can get things back from the different scientists who may not work the same days we go."

Trimble and Huckstep go weekly with anywhere from 25 to 50 pieces of evidence per trip to try to stay caught up. Lockard said he used to go weekly "but I couldn't get anything else done" so he started going every other week. Getting the evidence ready for transport can take a day.

Trimble's job responsibilities also include taking fingerprints for anyone who needs them.

"I've done thousands: concealed carry applications, all school teachers, new liquor licenses, any new hires in the county, Urbana and Champaign. We offer that service all day Wednesday and all day Thursday," he said. "It will average 10 to 20 each day."

Given those demands on his time, staying caught up is a pipe dream.

"The problem I've always had is that when I'm gone, there is not a magic evidence guy who drops from the ceiling and says, 'I'm going to do Thad's job today.' When I get back, I'm really in a bad spot because I have a lot of catching up to do," he said, grateful for a supervisor who allows occasional overtime.

In this job, the never-ending workload is a common occupational hazard.

"We'll never be caught up," said Huckstep, who said he inherited an incredibly well-organized system from recently retired technician Michelle Jolley.

He also has help from another former police officer, Lori Phillips, whose part-time job involves only disposing of evidence. But Phillips, who's been on the job 17 years, will be leaving soon because her family is moving from the community.

Space jam

Getting rid of evidence is a science unto itself. State law dictates as much, Phillips said.

"There are statutes of limitations. Basic felonies are three years. Misdemeanors are 18 months but there are exceptions to those. Some, like homicide, arson and forgeries, have no limit. Anything that's used in a jury trial, we keep everything for the length of whatever the sentence is. It's a very cumbersome process," she said.

In rare instances, items of evidence can be photographed and returned to the owner, with the photo substituted for the item, Phillips said. That call is made by the state's attorney's office.

The circuit clerk, the court's record keeper, also has stringent guidelines to follow on retaining evidence used in trials. A judge must approve destruction of evidence, even in cases in which all the appeals are over.

Champaign County Chief Deputy Circuit Clerk Brian Kelly said the space in the basement of the courthouse for evidence is definitely crammed and includes such gems as a bench seat from a car, rakes, shovels and baseball bats.

"When I have extra time — that's a joke because I don't have any — I try to do dispositions, which is a long process," Lockard said. "You have to check on appeals, send letters to owners to come get evidence."

"If it's a guilty plea, we can get rid of it 31 days after the plea if there is no motion on file within 30 days," Huckstep said.

"With DNA, you can't get rid of evidence like you could a long time ago," Lockard said. "You have to keep it almost forever."

"Anybody convicted of criminal sexual assault, we have to keep the evidence for 20 years. Homicides are kept forever," Trimble said. "That's a big problem for us because we have space issues. This building was built in 1980 and the evidence room was built for the '80s. We're bursting at the seams."

Trimble and Sheriff Dan Walsh have gotten creative with their use of space. They actually have five different rooms at 204 E. Main St. designated for different types of evidence — like guns, drugs or long-term storage. Boxes are tucked in locked spaces in mechanical areas. Long guns are in one space; strong-smelling cannabis in another — as far away from employees as possible.

The former county highway garage is now used by the sheriff's office. A car, taken in a homicide investigation, is currently their largest piece of evidence.

Lockard has similar storage deficit issues. He uses two rooms in the basement of the police department at 400 S. Vine St., as well as off-site storage for older cases.

"This area was not designed for expansion so you can't go up, down or sideways. We're stuck with the room we have. If you don't do dispositions regularly, I'm sitting out in the hall with the evidence," he said.

Deep in the archives

The oldest evidence in Urbana is from the 1968 murder of a cab driver (the perpetrators were caught).

Champaign's oldest involves the still-unsolved 1967 homicide of Officer Robert Tatman, who was shot with his own gun in west Champaign.

Trimble's quirkiest piece of evidence is the iguana. Two pieces come to mind for Lockard: an artificial Christmas tree seized in an arson investigation and a door from a University of Illinois building taken in a sex assault. The victim had been pushed against it, leaving an imprint with her buttocks.

"We cut it in half and took it to the lab to be processed. They didn't find anything (suspect fingerprints). The UI didn't want the door back cut in half," Lockard said.

Trimble said much of what he's allowed to dispose of may not have known owners.

"Say you have two guys who have done several residential burglaries and there's lots of evidence — TVs, PlayStations — a lot of stuff nobody can identify," he said. "Once the case goes to court and is over, we will try to find out if there is anybody we can call to see if they're missing that. If not, we keep it an additional six months, then it goes to unclaimed property and to auction."

If an insurance company has paid a claim, the technician contacts that company to see if it wants the recovered item.

"If it's a big case, I can work on one case for an entire week on the phone trying to return evidence," Trimble said.

Guns are particularly hard to dispose of, he said, adding it's not uncommon for multiple guns to be confiscated in a domestic battery. If that person ends up being convicted, he or she can no longer legally own the weapon and the threatened wife usually doesn't want it, Trimble said.

"I have to get a court order for destruction," he said, adding guns cannot be sold at auction.

'The birds fly backwards'

So, twice a year, Trimble takes evidence that may be destroyed to Keystone Steel & Wire Co. in Peoria, which disposes of it at no cost to police departments.

Other local departments also take advantage of their beneficence.

"They take crack, cannabis, heroin, guns and melt it all. The birds fly backwards on those days," Trimble said. "That's a big day. When we go, it's major. You're talking a van and a trailer."

Huckstep said he probably fields 20 calls a day ranging from attorneys wanting evidence to victims inquiring about why police still have their stuff.

"I was just telling Lori how much more polite people are when they are calling to get their stuff back," Huckstep said with a laugh.

Some, said Phillips, are not so nice.

"They're upset and will say, 'I don't know why they took it to begin with.' And I tell them I don't know why either but it has to be kept," she said.

Having police officer backgrounds is helpful to the technicians because they can offer insight as to why things might have been taken.

"In this job, you have to be able to talk to everyone from the officer to the public and delivery is very important," Huckstep said. "It's about customer service."

What's in your locker?

There's nothing too unusual at Hoopeston police headquarters these days — human hair and a 2-iron, chief Mark Drollinger says — but his evidence room has housed its share of offbeat items. A few of Drollinger's most memorable:

— False teeth that were found and turned in.

— Cooking utensils used in domestic battery complaints.

— A mannequin, which was hanging from a street light.

— A machete and garden gnome, both involved in a murder.

Man's wait for gun drags on

After Pat Sleyvin's home was burgled in 1983, he got in the habit of carrying a loaded, cased gun in his car should he ever happen on people trying to take his property again.

In September 2011, the retired Caterpillar worker made the mistake of leaving his car unlocked in his driveway. Someone got in and stole his 9 mm Glock handgun.

"About four or five months later, I got a call from a (Monticello) officer saying that they had found the gun," Sleyvin said.

Visiting with that officer, he learned that the gun was found in a police search of a home in Champaign County and that he couldn't get the gun back until the man went to court.

"I understood that so I waited a while and nothing seemed to be going forward so I started talking to the officer in charge of the evidence locker," he said.

"I started calling Champaign people and they kept telling me it hadn't been adjudicated and I couldn't get my gun back until things had been adjudicated. Here we are, (more than) two years later, and we still don't have it," he said. "I've tried to shed light on this a long time but I'm running up against a brick wall."

The man Sleyvin believes took his gun has past criminal convictions but is not currently charged with a crime in either Champaign County Circuit Court or U.S. District Court, according to court records.

The gun remains in evidence at the Champaign County Sheriff's Office, Lt. Curt Apperson confirmed, declining to comment further.

Sleyvin said a Monticello police officer told him the man might be cooperating with police in other investigations, which could explain why Sleyvin can't get his gun back.

Sleyvin said he's placed several calls to prosecutors in both offices but no one will return his call, much less his gun. He got a return call one time from a Champaign County prosecutor who promised him he'd look into it.

"It is ridiculous. I don't know what they're doing. It's like a black hole," said Sleyvin. "I just want my property returned."

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