• The Stuff of Crime: Evidence Piles Up in Police Property Division Warehouses 

The Stuff of Crime: Evidence Piles Up in Police Property Division Warehouses 

LOS ANGELES, Jan. 10 — They had seen it all, they thought: evidence from jewelry heists, blood-stained clothing and hold-up guns, narcotics and urine samples.

Into the Los Angeles Police Department’s massive property division had come hara-kiri knives and ransom notes, machine gun ammo and mounted animal heads. Over the years it had amounted to a staggering legacy of crime and punishment — car bumpers and hypodermic needles, stolen stereos and leather whips, chain saws and brass knuckles.

And then employees were handed…the finger.

“A woman was in her carport and she was accosted by a male suspect,” recalled Sgt. Peter M. Despard, who helps run the vast police storehouse for evidence to be used in court. “So she bites off the tip of the guy’s finger, right at the joint. That had to be booked as evidence. So we were asking ourselves, ‘How do you preserve the tip of a finger?’ ”

Such is life in one of the oddest warehouse operations in Los Angeles — the dark, secluded chambers where police catalogue and store evidence until it is needed at trial.

Just where the finger has gone, or what became of the suspect, is something police can no longer put a digit on after four years, Despard said. After all, evidence to new cases has been piling up in record volume.

The city’s rapid growth and escalating crime have been felt in the basement storage room at police headquarters on Los Angeles Street, at a second warehouse nearby and at 17 other locations where police keep confiscated property. The haul for 1987 will likely involve more than 112,000 criminal cases by the time the books are balanced, a 26% increase over the caseload of just a decade ago, according to LAPD figures.

Altogether, the cases will yield about 320,000 catalogued bits of evidence, some as simple as a joint of marijuana, others as spectacular as a car roof or a multimillion-dollar cocaine haul. Police must keep the property on hand until a case is decided in court or closed to further investigation.

For some unsolved murder cases, the stuff goes back 50 years or more. The total property list now runs to hundreds of thousands of items. Police are running out of room for it all.

“We’re being overwhelmed by the property,” Despard said on a recent warehouse tour, strolling past fishing rods and car doors, TVs and steel drums, air compressors and garden hoses. “The numbers just keep going up and up and up.”

Unless ways are found to reduce the inventory, police soon may be forced to open up additional storage space for the load, as the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department recently did in Whittier, Despard said.

The Sheriff’s Department invested $2 million to open a giant new warehouse last year because half a million items became too much for the cramped, bug-filled storehouse downtown, Sgt. Joe Hellmold said. “It just became intolerable,” he said. “There was no place to put anything.”

With 55,000 square feet of room, the Sheriff’s Department facility now is the envy of police agencies everywhere, Hellmold said. Meanwhile, the LAPD’s two downtown facilities total 32,000 square feet, stacked to the ceiling with shelves and boxes. Each is a veritable museum of stolen property and crime weapons.

In one corner of the huge warehouse near East Los Angeles sits a package containing photographs, letters and fingerprints from the unsolved “Black Dahlia” murder of 1947, a case in which would-be starlet Elizabeth Short was found stabbed and mutilated in a vacant Los Angeles lot.

The evidence has sat unused for years. Some time ago, the warehouse also held evidence from the Sen. Robert F. Kennedy assassination of 1968, the Charles Manson murders of 1969 and the Symbionese Liberation Army shootout of 1974. Those items have since moved out, making way for other, more mysterious items.

A metallic green coffin is believed to be the remnant of a gang war. Records somewhere would say for sure, but to the employees of the property division it is just another item to be catalogued, another oddity of the trade. There is not time to keep up with the case files, Despard said. Raymond Chandler could have spent a lifetime imagining ways to account for the strange inventory.

“I was told, and this is hearsay, that a gang killed this member of a rival gang,” Despard said of the coffin. “And after he was buried they dug him up and dumped him — or dumped him and the coffin — on the mother’s lawn.

“There are lots of stories,” he said. “But what they are, I don’t know. We don’t question why they’re bringing the stuff in.”

Decisions on when to store property are made by police in the field, acting with permission from supervisors. Each item is numbered and indexed by old-fashioned paper and typewriters. Small items such as diamonds or cash — the department took in $5.2 million in bills last year — are sealed in envelopes; larger items such as crowbars and wheelchairs are put in cartons or paper bundles or tagged and stacked on shelves.

Despard has seen fruit and nuts booked as evidence; also a stuffed armadillo and the monster head from a sci-fi horror movie. One neat yellow envelope — one of thousands on the shelves of just one wall — contains the withdrawal slip from a local bank, an ordinary slip except for the message scrawled across the bottom: “This is a robbery. Don’t say a word.”

One can find a .38-caliber revolver, six shells and four keys from a 1924 murder on West 99th Street. A murder from 1939, also unsolved, has left behind a hammer, an iron rod and a watch chain.

“If you can think of it, we either have it, have had it, or are about to get it,” the sergeant said.

The only exceptions, he said, are motor vehicles and, normally, body parts. But there was that finger and a fetus once, before it was sent to the coroner.

Evidence kept for years must be easily located and intact as soon as it is needed in court. The operation of the room is considered essential to the huge number of criminal cases that go to trial each year in Los Angeles County, said veteran prosecutor Stephen Kay of the district attorney’s office.

“Obviously there are glitches at times, when property is lost or inadvertently destroyed, but that’s only because there is so much of it,” Kay said. “That’s surprisingly rare. They have so much property. They really do a good job of keeping track of it.”

Kay, best known for prosecuting Manson, estimated that the one case alone required 500 exhibits in court. Most of that evidence was at one point stored in the LAPD property room, he said.

Guns are often one of the top attractions on the rare occasion that the property division has visitors, Despard said. In the basement warehouse at police headquarters there are hundreds of them lined up on tall racks, filling metal drawers and protruding from high shelves.

There are rifles and shotguns, Uzis and civilian versions of the Army’s M-16 rifle.

“One of my favorites is this little gem,” Despard said, opening an old violin case. “Right out of the movies: a Thompson submachine gun.”

Indeed, it starts to seem like a bad nightmare. Gigantic walk-in refrigerators and freezers hold blood-stained clothing, blood and urine samples from drunk drivers, and vaginal smears from rape cases. Beer cans and liquor bottles — confiscated from illegal motorists — fill shelf after shelf.

Drugs are nearly everywhere, cocaine in vaults, packages of PCP and heroin, boxes and boxes of other contraband.

“That smell is decaying marijuana,” Despard said, pointing into one room where boxes are piled to the ceiling. Another locked room, visible through a chain-link gate, contains perhaps hundreds of boxes — more marijuana. A sign on the gate warns visitors: No Smoking.

“Out of the blue, a couple years ago, we started having the big cocaine seizures coming in,” Despard said. The first involved 80 pounds of coke and $400,000-plus in cash. He stood at the rear entrance to the warehouse with a shotgun, he remembered, guarding the haul as it was brought in.

A later load exceeded 1,700 pounds of cocaine. Another, last year, topped 2,000 pounds, a record for California. That load arrived in 19 cardboard cartons, carrying a street value of $363 million, authorities estimated at the time.

“You just wonder, when is this stuff going to stop?” Despard said. “It is overwhelming, mind-boggling.”

The drugs are incinerated once they are no longer needed for trial, he said. The task is carried out at any one of several secret locations in Southern California. Likewise, firearms are fed to a metal shredder, 5,000 to 6,000 every July.

Other property is returned, whenever possible, once a case is closed, Despard said. But sometimes the owners cannot be found. Valueless items are destroyed. A good amount is sold at auction.

Three times a year, Despard said, the division hauls out its stolen TVs and stereos and refrigerators and raises money for the police retirement fund. The program raises $200,000 a year, he said, but it “barely puts a dent” in the backlog of merchandise.

“Whatever strikes the fancy of the criminal element is what we’re going to see coming through our doors,” Despard said. “As long as there is crime, we’ll be in business.”


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