They have it all — a rack of antlers from an elk-poaching case, a sea-turtle shell confiscated from a drug dealer, expensive planks of rare hardwood cut and stolen from private land, hundreds of rifles, blood samples from murder victims, semen samples from rapes, boxes of macaroni and cheese, balls of black tar heroin and baggies of crystal meth. When it comes to a collection of artifacts, the evidence locker at the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s Office is pretty hard to beat.
“Evidence,” as deputies refer to the department, plays a vital but unseen and often unsung role at the Sheriff’s Office. Every single piece of evidence gathered by the deputies and detectives of the department has to be taken in, catalogued and processed by the Evidence Department for possible submission at a trial. With a current total of 8,372 pieces of evidence in custody, the oldest item dating back to 1974, the evidence locker acts as an unofficial and at times unsettling museum of sorts to crime in the county.
In November, as part of the transition from the command of retiring Sheriff Mike Whelan to that of newly appointed Sheriff Rick Scott, an extensive inventory of the entire department was conducted. Not only were the obvious items cataloged — prisoners, weapons and automobiles — but the evidence department was audited as well, all with no significant negative findings.
Three people run Evidence. Chief Criminal Deputy Steve Shumate and Sgt. Edward Patrick supervise the department, but the day-to-day operations are run by Evidence Technician Bill Pelesky, a 21-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office. Those who work with Pelesky joke that Evidence is a monument to his obsessive-compulsive nature and attention to detail.
“Bill’s sort of the hub of the wheel,” said Scott, “He’s got our system very fine-tuned.”
14,000 calls a year
The Sheriff’s Office responds to an average of about 14,000 calls for service each year. Although little material evidence results from most calls, the Evidence department still has to take evidence in from between one to as many as five cases per day, says Pelesky. Each case may result in the production of a piece of evidence — such as a single receipt — or dozens, such as weapons, cash and drugs from a drug bust. Each piece of evidence has to be securely transferred from the crime scene into Evidence with a clear “chain of custody” remaining unbroken, meaning every single person that had access to the evidence has to be documented. The evidence is then moved from secure lockers to be entered into a computer system, after which Pelesky will send specific pieces of evidence away for further testing. The remaining pieces of evidence will be catalogued. As laboratories return test results, the evidence that was sent out is entered into the computer and catalogued into its physical place within the system, alongside other pieces of evidence from the case in question.
Pelesky has been the clerk since 1994. In that time the county has never lost a case because of procedural problems with evidence he was in custody of, he said.
He’s processed evidence in thousands of cases. Over time, they blend together, but some stand out.
“When I first came over here, there was a homicide, I believe outside of Hoquiam. The guy was killed. They laid him over a log and took a crescent wrench to the back of his head and basically almost severed his head,” Pelesky said. “And he was wearing a leather jacket and I came to work two days later and I walked in where they had all the stuff out and I’ll never forget, there was like bugs all over this guy’s jacket and blood that had dried on the guy’s jacket and that’s something I will never forget.”
three secret “rooms”
There are three evidence rooms run by the county, all under heavy security and surveillance and all on county property at locations not disclosed to the public. The rooms are full of boxes and assorted items that baffle the mind in terms of their variety. There are several refrigerators full of swabs and biological evidence taken from murder victims. One “locker” holds general evidence. Another holds just firearms — 335 at last count — and another holds cash and drugs, $22,000 in cash and an undisclosed amount of drugs. The oldest piece of evidence is a blood sample from 1974 from the mother of Jeffrey Bratcher, a 7-year-old boy who went missing in Ocean Shores on June 15, 1974. The newest piece of evidence are two bicycles logged into evidence Thursday that are believed to have been stolen.
One might think some evidence would date back farther than 1974, but the rules and practices have varied widely over the years. What now is a regimented system with strict guidelines wasn’t always so. In addition, the widespread use of DNA evidence has changed what is saved in many cases.
As gory as many of the stories and pieces of evidence are, there are weird pieces of evidence that if not for the tragic nature of the crime they are related to, might actually be funny. One piece of evidence, which has since been done away with, was the hood of an automobile. A woman was raped on the hood of the car, and to prove her story, detectives removed the hood and dusted it for impressions left by her back and rear end. Using those prints, prosecutors were able to get a rape conviction on her assailant. The Evidence Department still maintains several automobile wrecks, the largest piece of evidence the department maintains.
The thing the Evidence room has more than anything is guns, everything from homemade pistols and sawed off shotguns to hunting rifles modified with night vision scopes and a homemade silencer for poaching wildlife, to top-of-the-line military rifles and at least one black powder muzzle-loading weapon. Many of the weapons the department holds were used in the commission of crimes, including one used during a murder. Other weapons were stolen and have yet to find their way back to their proper owner.
boxes await justice
Possibly the saddest part of the evidence room are the boxes waiting for justice from the cases that, despite having evidence, remain unsolved. In one of the refrigerators there are numerous boxes of biological evidence, including blood samples, swabs and nail clippings from Carol Leighton, a 44-year-old Westport woman whose body was found on a logging road on, Aug. 4, 1996, outside of Cosmopolis. She was stabbed to death, and her killer has never been brought to justice. On the second floor of the general evidence locker sit boxes with exactly 657 pieces of evidence in them. Those 657 pieces are what remains of the department’s hard fought, but so far unsuccessful, search for Lindsey Baum, who went missing at the age of 11 on June 26, 2009, while walking to her McCleary home. The mass of evidence is waiting for that one, pivotal piece of evidence that can bring all the clues and leads together, Pelesky said.
“Maybe one little piece in there can be connected to another and maybe one day down the road we can solve it,” he said.
Will Morris, a Daily World writer, can be reached at 537-3930, or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org