Six weeks after Colorado Springs police Chief Luis Velez acknowledged that thousands of pieces of criminal evidence were improperly disposed of, the Independent has learned that reports from two internal police inspections warned the department's evidence unit had been lumbering toward catastrophe for years.
The inspection reports, obtained through the Colorado Open Records Act, advised Velez more than three years ago that a new evidence storage annex would only stall a rising and "alarming" backlog of old, unneeded evidence because there were too few workers to properly destroy or sell it.
The evidence unit's staff of five technicians and one supervisor was "barely able to keep up with day to day activity," states a Jan. 3, 2003 inspection report. A year and a half later, another report warned that the situation remained unchanged.
Such annual inspections are internal but conducted by an officer outside the evidence unit to assure accountability and to comply with national law enforcement accreditation standards.
Portions of the documents have been blacked out for "security reasons." But the documents paint a picture of a slowly unfurling crisis in the years leading up to Velez's announcement in April that evidence unit workers improperly destroyed approximately 20,000 items in more than 9,100 cases.
The situation could complicate the prosecutions of an undetermined number of cases and set convicted felons free. Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, a group that pressures police to solve cold cases, has called the situation "unprecedented" in state history.
Years prior to the crisis in 2003 and 2004 two inspection reports separately recommended that three to five additional evidence room technicians be added to reduce the department's backlog before it got out of control.
Velez, who declined to comment for this story, responded in 2004 by hiring one evidence technician using public safety tax funds, says Lt. Rafael Cintron, a police spokesman.
And approximately one year later, in June 2005, Velez hired two temporary workers, according to Cintron. But three months later one of those workers left and was not replaced.
"We didn't think we'd have enough money to pay both [temporary evidence technicians]," Cintron says.
The temporary workers received two weeks of "hands on" training as evidence handlers and earn $14 an hour.
Failure to uncover
It wasn't until late 2005 that police completed their next inspection. The lack of an inspection in 2004 is a violation of Commissions for Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies standards, which require calendar-year inspections of evidence rooms, according to Dennis Hyater at CALEA.
Moreover, the 2005 inspection failed to uncover problems although it is now known that many of the 135,000 items purged by evidence technicians last year were already gone by the time the Nov. 28 report was on Velez's desk.
Relying on 24 random case reviews and an interview with police evidence Supervisor Terry Lauhon, the inspection states that temporary workers had been instrumental in reducing the unit's evidence backlog.
"The temps have been able to significantly reduce the backload of disposed items ready for destruction or auction, which has in turn freed up additional space in the storage area," the inspection report states.
Lauhon is now suspended with pay pending an internal personnel investigation. He was singled out in a special police audit released earlier this month for overseeing a unit where technicians did not follow department procedures.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers is reviewing that audit, a police personnel investigation and a second audit conducted by the Colorado Springs City Auditor's Office. At the request of City Manager Lorne Kramer, the attorney general's inquiry is a review of documents provided by Kramer, not an independent probe, says Kristin Hubbell, a spokeswoman for Suthers.
Hubbell was not aware the routine inspection reports obtained by the Independent existed, but says that the "scope of our review has not changed."
Among other problems, inspections in 2003 and 2004 also found a lack of proper annual inventories in the evidence unit as early as 1997. Such inventories are critical to determining whether any evidence disappeared in a one-year period.
"We are currently unable to develop a realistic estimation of the amount of property that is missing or misplaced," the 2004 inspection stated.
The same inspection also discovered that federal and state guns checks and background checks on the people who came to claim them as property were "not done at all" that year.
Those concerns were not reviewed in the 2005 inspection.
Police evidence unit: overwhelmed for years
Jan. 3, 2003: An internal Colorado Springs police inspection of the department's evidence unit notes the existence of a "large backlog" of evidence needing to be sold or destroyed during 2002. The evidence room staff of five technicians and a supervisor is "currently barely able to keep up with day to day activity," the report tells Chief Luis Velez, recommending three or four additional technicians be hired to avoid a coming crisis. July 7, 2004: A full-time technician is added to the staff. But the unit remains "several years behind in getting items released, destroyed or otherwise dispositioned," according to a second routine inspection. The inspection states another four or five people are needed to "reduce backlogs to a manageable level."
September 2004: Terry Lauhon becomes evidence room supervisor.
June 13, 2005: Velez hires two temporary workers to help reduce the ongoing backlog.
July 7, 2005: A year has passed, but there has been no annual routine inspection of the evidence room, a violation of the standards of the agency that accredits the Police Department. Sept. 9, 2005: One of the temporary workers leaves the evidence unit after three months. A replacement was not hired. Nov. 28, 2005: On the eve of a crisis, a third routine inspection of the evidence room identifies no problems with evidence in 24 randomly selected cases. The report, relying on an interview with Lauhon, notes temporary workers cut down the evidence backlog.
Dec. 27, 2005, to Jan 31, 2006: Police Detective Payton Patterson discovers evidence in a missing persons case was improperly destroyed about six months earlier.
March 2006: The office of District Attorney John Newsome discovers evidence is missing in a sex assault case.
April 28, 2006: At least three months after Patterson's discovery, Velez tells the public that thousands of pieces of evidence were improperly destroyed and that the department has launched an internal investigation.
June 1, 2006: Colorado Springs police release a special audit finding that Lauhon did not follow procedure in purging roughly 135,000 pieces of evidence in 2005. Some 20,000 items in more than 9,100 cases were improperly destroyed. Lauhon is suspended with pay.
June 7, 2006: A city audit largely agrees with the findings of the police audit and calls for an immediate inventory of items held by police. Police agree. June 10, 2006: Attorney General John Suthers agrees to review the audits and to conduct a personnel investigation, but does not begin an independent inquiry. He does not have access to the earlier internal inspection documents obtained by the Independent.