Originally created 07/23/01

Officers keep lock on evidence



AIKEN - It's a drunken man's paradise. It's an armory. And it is home to the how and what of Aiken crimes.

In two small tucked-away rooms, the Aiken Department of Public Safety's evidence chambers hold things criminals wished didn't exist.

The hallway that leads to the bigger of the two rooms sets the tone.

"There's tons of beer in here," said Dwayne Courtney, Aiken's chief investigator, whose department oversees evidence, as he passes a blue recycle bin full of wine bottles.

Next to the box, stacked five high, are boxes of Heineken. Next to them, a stack of Coors Light, with Miller Lite on the side. All confiscated, most will end up for sale.

Shelves 8 feet high hold paper bags of stolen credit cards and tools of the criminal trade. Paper allows evidence to breathe, Investigator Courtney said.

What can't fit in bags is a story in itself. A basket full of faded rose petals. A metal detector. A floor jack. A half-empty bottle of Smirnoff.

The room is filling, and soon the agency will have to search for more space to hold the materials that get convictions.

To help keep pace, the agency resells the alcohol to anyone with a beer or wine license. They also use confiscated money from drug crimes to buy drug-fighting tools. Guns are sent away to be melted down.

Although things do pile up in this criminal library, the rooms don't catalog the full history of Aiken crime.

Most evidence is kept for a short time - usually about 90 days after appeals for those convicted are exhausted.

The national accreditation standards that govern the agency mandate that evidence be removed within six months after the courts have finished with a criminal trial, Investigator Courtney said.

But homicide evidence is kept until the person convicted is dead or released from prison. Noticeable from the doorway are two boxes labeled "Jessica Carpenter," the teen who was slain last summer in her Aiken home.

The smaller of the two rooms holds the items that need more security. There are boxes of guns, jewelry, cash and a cast-iron frying pan. The pan is from a homicide case, Investigator Courtney said.

In this room is more alcohol - a clear liquid in a gallon jug - moonshine, Mr. Courtney explained.

Evidence-handling at the agency is a strict process. Officers bring in evidence to an area similar to a bank deposit security box, located in an opening in the wall next to the evidence rooms. Only one person, a part-time evidence technician, has keys to that the opening and to the rooms.

For about a year, Melissa Odenthal has used a bar-coding system that has made locating evidence easier. The system is funded by a federal grant.

Before the bar codes, evidence could be hard to find quickly.

"We have had some tense moments," Investigator Courtney said. "But I don't know if we have ever lost an item of evidence."

To make sure nothing comes up missing, about six random inspections are done every year.

Evidence also is protected from acts of nature. The rooms sit behind concrete walls that once marked boundaries of holding cells in the old city jail. Tornadoes might leave their evidence behind, but they will not take police evidence with them.

"If a tornado comes, those evidence lockers are still going to be there," Investigator Courtney said.

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or mboedy@augusta.com.