East St. Louis Police Lose Evidence... Again
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
A police department may seem just about the last place someone would burglarize, but apparently not. At least not in East St. Louis, Illinois. Early last month the department announced that one of its evidence storage areas had been breached, and it was the third such theft of evidence in five years. East St. Louis has become known for its poverty, crime, and government corruption. And this series of incidents just adds to the city's troubles. From member station KWMU in St. Louis, Maria Hickey reports.
MARIA HICKEY: Directly behind the East St. Louis City Hall, there is an old brick building with boarded-up windows. This is not one of the many empty commercial buildings that litter East St. Louis, but the old police station. Now it's only used to store evidence for criminal cases. But in early February, someone broke into the building. That's when police chief James Mister decided to put up the plywood and install an alarm system.
JAMES MISTER: We have secured the building. We had a bunch of open areas where the building could be breached.
HICKEY: Chief Mister won't say what was taken or how many pending cases may be affected. He says the department is conducting an inventory of missing items. And the police chief will not comment on whether his own officers were involved. Because, he says, he wants to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation.
This is not the first time evidence has disappeared from the East St. Louis Police Department. It happen it 2001, and again last year. St. Claire County State's Attorney, Robert Haida, says his office was preparing for a murder trial one ago when it learned that evidence missing from the vault included the gun used in the murder. Haida went down to the station to get a firsthand look. He says the series of rooms with shelves of evidence had been ransacked.
ROBERT HAIDA: Almost every bag was opened, items were strewn about outside their bags. It was mayhem.
HICKEY: Haida says he was assured it would not happen again, and heard nothing more about it until last month.
DARLENE: Mayor's office.
Mayor CARL OFFICER (St. Louis) Yeah, Darlene. Okay, I'm looking at the memorandum that we...
HICKEY: Mayor Carl Officer checks in with his assistant at City Hall while working from his family's business, a funeral home. Officer served as Mayor from the late '70s to he early '90s. He got back in the mayor's seat in 2003. The mayor is convinced that the police department's owns officers are responsible for the break-ins.
OFFICER: Normal street criminals don't normally go to a police department and break in to their evidence room.
HICKEY: But Mayor Officer says while no one was prosecuted for the last two break-ins at the police department, under Police Chief Mister, who took over last May, things are going to change.
OFFICER: We don't intend for this to go unnoticed, and we don't intend for this to go uninvestigated.
HICKEY: But while the Mayor says he's called state and federal agencies for an independent investigation, Police Chief Mister says the department has no plans to call in outside help. And cleaning up the police department may not be easy. Last year former police chief Ron Matthews resigned after he was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice in a federal case.
Police Chief James Mister admits that the incident is embarrassing for the department. He says it will move what he calls significant evidence to another storage area inside City Hall, someplace where it can be monitored 24 hours a day.
For NPR News, I'm Maria Hickey, in St. Louis.
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