Pinal Sheriff's office low on room for evidence - East Valley Tribune: News

Pinal Sheriff's office low on room for evidence

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Posted: Tuesday, March 18, 2008 10:39 pm | Updated: 9:47 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Buried in the stacks of the Pinal County Sheriff's Office evidence facility are guns, drugs and blood-stained clothes. There's also a guitar, vacuums and a prosthetic leg.

Each item tells a tale - some of murders, others of rapes and a few of bizarre crimes.

"I could tell you stories from a lot of these items," said Valorie Townsend, PCSO evidence supervisor, while walking down the aisles.

The evidence unit is an archive of the county's criminal history, and things from as early as the 1920s are tightly packed into boxes piled more than 20 feet high.

There's so much evidence, it's creating a storage problem for the sheriff's office. And with no money available to expand the facility, some older evidence is being discarded and additional space is being found for new evidence.

The Tribune toured the unit last week, and Townsend and Sheriff Chris Vasquez discussed the complex process for storing items involved in crimes.

"It's definitely one of the most important sections of our department," Vasquez said. "Everything has to follow a perfect order and chain of custody. Because if there's one mistake, a guy walks on a technicality and all the work we did goes for nothing."

Townsend, who has worked in the unit for 6 years, and two other employees handle all of the evidence. They are the only ones with access.

Others, including the sheriff, must be signed in and out and never leave Townsend's sight.

PCSO stores roughly 175,000 pieces of evidence.

Those items are spread throughout two warehouses, three armories (for gun storage), and a walk-in freezer.

There's also an auto yard with more than 200 vehicles and two shipping crates filled with drugs.

The auto yard is about half full, but the other areas are near capacity.

Every month, about 250 new cases are brought in, adding between 300 and 700 items. With Pinal County's explosive growth, those numbers are expected to continue to climb.

Vasquez has already requested money to build more storage, and plans for a $2 million facility were in the works.

But a budget shortfall delayed those plans, and Townsend is now sorting through old cases to find items that can be discarded.

In the past, PCSO was reluctant to get rid of evidence. "Holding on to old items was almost like a point of pride," Vasquez said.

But that has changed, and Townsend continuously works to clear out the unit.

She recently processed several cases from the 1980s, and she was able to trash some evidence.

To get rid of old evidence, a court order must be filed and a judge has to give approval. After clearance is granted, most items are put up for auction, taken to the dump or reused by PCSO.

In homicides and high-profile cases, the evidence is usually kept for as long as the suspects are alive.

For drugs, deputies hold large burns at undisclosed locations throughout the year. During the past two years, more than 50,000 pounds of drugs were incinerated. PCSO already has more than 15 tons of drugs now.

Three holding areas for guns are also getting tight. The SWAT team had to give up some of its storage to handle the overflow.

PCSO also has about 20,000 items locked up in a giant freezer kept at temperatures between minus 3 and minus 11.

Blood samples, body fluids and other sensitive substances are kept there to preserve DNA. If the temperature shifts too high or low, an alarm goes off.

A prosthetic leg also is kept in the freezer. Townsend and Vasquez said they weren't familiar with that case.

But they said it's just one of many interesting items they have. They have stolen ATMs, burned and left in the desert. A few old swords are sitting around.

There are also a handful of beer kegs resting outside one of the warehouses. They were ditched when deputies broke up desert parties.

One is still full. However, the brand of beer is under investigation.

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