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South Kingstown Police Detective Gary Marquis talks about the various pieces of evidence stored in the department’s evidence rooms, including this crossbow, during a tour on March 18.

You can have the crime, but without the evidence, you may not have a conviction.

For instance, inside a very secure room at the Narragansett Police Department are stored carefully labeled white boxes with barcodes and white hanging sheets of paper.

One box label dates its contents back to 1990, and has among its items blood-stained socks, blood-stained blue pillow, red paper, and 12 items that had been sent for DNA analysis.

At the South Kingstown Police Department, a “shrunken head” — brought to police a few weeks ago — is now at the State Medical Examiner awaiting analysis. A local family reported that a deceased relative returned from World War II with it and the family no longer wanted it.

“It has hair, a leathery-looking face and looked pretty real and with no skull in it,” said Detective Thomas Bouffard, who examined it when brought to the police headquarters.

In North Kingstown, the police department’s collection includes evidence from two 1980s-era unsolved homicide cases, one suspicious death and a murder case ending in lifetime sentence for the killer.

James “Jamie” Hughes, in 1982 killed Howard “Zeke” Harris, a business owner on Stony Lane.

Harris, 79, was working in his store when Hughes beat him to death with a ball peen hammer after Harris caught him searching through a desk. Hughes was later convicted for the murder.

These and thousands of other items collected are just some of the ordinary and not-so-ordinary pieces of crime evidence as well as found items given to the police. They all end up in one place: the Evidence Room.

Over 40 years ago, a tour of evidence rooms also produced an odd set of crime-related items and “found property,” as police call items lost and not recovered by people. They were not very secure and had the potential to pose problems for prosecutions.

The 21st Century, however, has brought many more and much tighter controls. These protect the way evidence is stored and cataloged as well as limit access only to those familiar with handling these items used when establishing guilt or innocence in criminal trials.

 

The Collection

At South Kingstown Police Headquarters, for instance, Detective Gary Marquis and Capt. Alfred E. Bucco, who over sees the detectives, pointed to a red, nearly new looking, Schwinn bicycle hanging on the wall.

It was used in a murder about 21 years ago. It remains in evidence until after the person fully completes his sentence following a prison term, they explained.

They also received a loaded AK-47 assault rifle found next to a local road. This kind of gun drew immediate attention and a detailed investigation, they said, and it took about three weeks to determine who owned the gun.

In the course of this investigation, Bucco found through interviews and witness testimony that this gun was sold in exchange for drugs in South Kingstown. It eventually led to a person being charged for illegally possessing a firearm and was sent to prison.

In Narragansett’s evidence room, among the pot plants, illegal CBD gummies, stolen copper pipes, boxes of rifles and hand guns, are shelves of white “evidence” labeled boxes with meticulously detailed descriptions of the contents.

One box with a very long list is next to a blood-stained rug, both part of Narragansett Police Department’s investigation of Robert Taylor for committing murder.

Taylor, formerly of Providence and Narragansett, pleaded guilty to one charge of second-degree murder in the 2013 death of his mother, Allison Taylor. In May that year. police allege, Taylor killed his mother and dismembered her body, placing pieces in trash bags that he placed in a dumpster outside her Narragansett apartment building.  

He was convicted on related charges and sentenced in 2016 to life in prison, with no possibility of parole. Detective James Wass, who oversees the evidence room, said that the box and rug – like more than 30 other boxes – are marked to remain there indefinitely.

These same kinds of boxes are found in South Kingstown, North Kingstown and other police departments.

Should any part of a criminal case be re-opened, the evidence needs to be available for review by judges, jurors, prosecutors, defense attorneys and other investigators.

For that reason alone, say many police officials, few people understand the unsung role of well-maintained evidence rooms ranking in importance with good shoe-leather police investigations.

 

Times Have Changed

Gone is the free and loose way 50 years ago that evidence rooms were once run. Drugs, guns and knives were once stored on open shelves, evidence was logged in loose-leaf binders either in pen or pencil, and stored in rooms allowing easy access by anyone.

For instance, North Kingstown, as with many police departments, has done major upgrades of its evidence room and security around it.

Lt. Jeffrey St. Onge, detective commander, explained that at one time all detectives had access to the evidence room.  The room was full of shelves with no designated locations and evidence was not given an identity name or number.

“We had property that we didn’t know why. That took countless hours to research and resolve. We now electronically control access to the room, have systematic location designations and each piece of evidence or found property is assigned a property number with a brief description,” he said.

It is entered in a database for future court or investigation uses, return to someone or destruction. A tracking system records every time the evidence or lost property changes location or leaves the building, he said.

The same kind of approach and system is used in South Kingstown and Narragansett where various upgrades have occurred over the years.

Those overseeing them are also responsible often for a variety of high-profile items. These include firearms, narcotics, cash, and biohazardous items, such as sexual assault kits, buccal swabs, and specimen kits.

Evidence storage and maintenance is now such a highly specialized part of policing, reports Evidence Technology magazine, that it requires specific training.

This specialized approach and the many safeguards needed have been adopted by South Kingstown, North Kingstown and Narragansett police as part of their routine police administration.

With the advent of evidence management software, the intake of evidence and property has been streamlined. It depends, though, on law enforcement officers packaging and labeling their submissions correctly.

It also requires a digitized listing of the chain of custody — meaning who takes possession of it at any time — assignment of storage locations, affixing of unique and computer-generated bar codes, and physically placing the item in the appropriate bin location.

“We take this very, very seriously and are always on top of how this is being done,” said South Kingstown’s Bucco. Marquis, who oversees the evidence room, is a former military officer accustomed to precision and regimentation.

“I take pride in my work and I want it done professionally each and every time,” he said.

Wass in Narragansett echoed the same sentiments. “I always talk about the OJ (Simpson) case and the chain of custody. If you can’t prove it, you could lose the entire case,” he said.

Wass added, “When I show a new person coming into the department this process, it’s kind of boring to them, but it’s one of the most important things they will learn.” Bucco and Marquis said that they, too, stress to their recruits, as well as the experienced officers, the continued importance of handling evidence with care.

It goes so far that each department – like thousands across the country – have evidence lockers.

When an officer returns with the evidence, it is placed in a one-way locker. Once in the metal gym-like holding area and locked, it later can only be accessed by the person overseeing the evidence room.

There’s no going back to add, take or modify. Those changes would require a discussion – and questions – from commanding officers.

While the status of actual investigative cases may change, another different set of cases or boxes – those containing the evidence – could be around for a long time. Bucco has a box from 2018 from a local bank robbery.

It’s not going anywhere soon, he said. In it and ready for review – should the need ever happen – are a balaclava used as mask, a swab of suspected blood from the bank floor and  $1,013 in recovered stolen money from the bank found in suspect’s vehicle.

Dr. Edmond Locard would smile. He’s a pioneer in forensic science who became known as the Sherlock Holmes of Lyon, France.  His “exchange principle” is simple, said Bucco and Wass.

“A person committing a crime will bring something into the crime scene and leave with something from it, and both can be used as forensic evidence,” they said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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