From pen guns to ball-and-chains, police evidence room a true treasure trove
There are only two keys to the lock that guards decades worth of South Lake Tahoe’s criminal history.
From antique guns taken during the city’s most notorious drug bust “Operation Deep Snow,” which brought down a mayor, to the evidence that helped convict Herbert Coddington of a double homicide in 1987, it all finds its way into the hands of evidence technicians, Dick Hartman and Shirley Shaw. And every item, whether it’s human tissue, property, weapons, drugs, or money, passes through the maze of shelves, boxes, and bags that make up the city’s evidence room.
In the last 20 years Hartman and Shaw admit they have “truly seen it all.”
“You name it and we’ve dealt with it,” Hartman said looking around the jumble of items.
“For such a small community we get our fair share of unusual stuff,” Shaw said in agreement.
The room winds back and every shelf reveals a new crime. Boxes of illegal weapons, television sets, and a McDonald’s sign that displays the work of vandals all compete for space. It would seem impossible to keep track of everything. To the untrained eye it is nothing more than slightly organized clutter. But Hartman and Shaw have the instinct of homing pigeons.
“The shelves are bar coded now, and every item has a code on that,” Hartman said. “But even before that we pretty much knew where all the stuff was.”
“Big cases like Coddington and Swanson (an unsolved murder) we know were it is,” Shaw said.
From time to time Hartman and Shaw do get a judge’s permission to do a bit of spring cleaning.
“After a case has been adjudicated we get a court order to either destroy the property, return it to the rightful owner, if possible, or auction it off,” Hartman explained.
But some items will rest in that room long after both Hartman and Shaw are gone.
“Evidence for an unsolved homicide has to be kept for 99 years,” Hartman said. “Even with murder cases where there is a conviction we have to keep the evidence during the appeals process.”
Most of the still unsolved mysteries in South Lake Tahoe only date back to the early 70s.
Found property has a shorter lease on its space, topping out at four months. If no one claims the item the city can auction it off. All proceeds from the annual auction is placed in the city’s general fund.
“We have property that nobody even calls us about. You would think that you would miss your oxygen tank,” Shaw said with a shrug. “People have also turned in human ashes as found property.”
“We try to find a next of kin and it that’s impossible they are turned over to the sheriff’s department and buried in a pauper’s grave in Placerville,” Hartman said.
Some items will only leave the evidence room in pieces, or up in smoke. A box full of glass smoking pipes used for inhaling narcotics will eventually be crushed. The drugs themselves are burned somewhere out of the basin. The boxes and stacks of illegal weapons, including, knifes, daggers, medieval maces, assault riffles, sub-machine guns, handguns, and sawed off shotguns take more effort. First the guns and knifes are cut into pieces with a cutting torch and then buried in a dump site outside of Tahoe.
“We destroy about 120 to 130 guns a year,” Shaw estimated.
Only a few guns have escaped destruction. They were saved by their extreme value.
“A weapon is a weapon, but we had a Ducks Unlimited 12-gauge collectors’ shotgun that was valued at $40,000,” Hartman recalled.
The gun was sent to an auction house in Sacramento and the proceeds were placed in the city’s general fund.
“A person buying a gun to kill someone wouldn’t spend $40,000,” Hartman reasoned. “We knew the gun would end up in a collectors hands.”
The job is always evolving, according to Shaw and Hartman. A bookcase is filled with the manuals and textbooks of schools they have attended. And being the only two guardians of the evidence room they are never truly off duty.
“During the Coddington case we were in his trailer, collecting evidence for five straight days non-stop,” Hartman said. “And one time we had a homicide one night. We had just gone home to grab some sleep, and then got a call from dispatch calling us in to another. I thought they were joking.”
The gratification for all this hard, often gruesome work is wrapped up in one thing, Hartman said.
“Catching the perpetrators, and seeing them get convicted.”
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