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Colorado Springs police grapple with fallout from improperly purged evidence

click to enlarge City Councilman Tom Gallagher: Cant fathom that a - police evidence room supervisor alone ordered the - improper purging of thousands of pieces of evidence.
  • City Councilman Tom Gallagher: Cant fathom that a police evidence room supervisor alone ordered the improper purging of thousands of pieces of evidence.

After limiting the scope of an inquiry by the state's attorney general into the improper disposal of thousands of pieces of evidence by Colorado Springs police, City Manager Lorne Kramer is poised to prevent the public from obtaining the full findings when they are released next month.


Meanwhile, the Independent has learned that missing evidence in a high-profile homicide case was not revealed in an internal police audit released earlier this month an indication that the breadth of the crisis remains unknown.


The missing evidence has already hampered the prosecution of several cases, and also could free convicted felons. Chief Luis Velez will face a "no confidence" vote from hundreds of unionized officers and civilian workers this week, in part because of his handling of the situation.


Velez declined comment for this story.

Who's at fault?

click to enlarge Attorney General John Suthers: Will review existing - internal police reports, but will not conduct an - independent investigation of missing evidence.
  • Attorney General John Suthers: Will review existing internal police reports, but will not conduct an independent investigation of missing evidence.


Two audits released earlier this month, one conducted by police and a second by the City Auditor's Office which relied heavily on police interviews concluded that an evidence room supervisor improperly purged tens of thousands of pieces of evidence as he grappled with an apparent lack of storage space.


That supervisor, Terry Lauhon, was cleared in the audits of criminal wrongdoing. He has been suspended with pay, pending a separate internal investigation by police.


Some city officials wonder whether the fault lies higher up in the department.


"You just don't take it upon yourself to throw away that much evidence without someone telling you to do it, or someone finding out early on," says City Councilman Tom Gallagher.


click to enlarge City Manager Lorne Kramer: Could restrict access to the - attorney generals report on the crisis, set to be released - in three weeks.
  • City Manager Lorne Kramer: Could restrict access to the attorney generals report on the crisis, set to be released in three weeks.

The June 1 police audit states that officers learned of problems as early as December 2005. But the Fourth Judicial District Attorney's Office didn't learn of the situation until March, when police admitted evidence for a pending sex assault case had been destroyed. In April, Velez informed the public.


Kramer, a former police chief, has acknowledged "colossal" failures in the police evidence room, but has sidestepped a call by Mayor Lionel Rivera for an independent probe.


The Attorney General's Office will limit its query to a review of information already gathered by police in their inquiry into the crisis a request made by Kramer, says Suthers' spokeswoman, Kristin Hubbell.


The review will be returned to Kramer in about three weeks, and it will be up to Kramer to make it public, she says.


Sue Skiffington-Blumberg, a spokeswoman for the city, says Kramer is likely to limit what is made public because specific employees could be named. Police regard information collected in internal investigations, including the names of staff, private.

click to enlarge Colorado Springs police Chief Luis Velez: Police officers - will this week conduct a no-confidence vote on their - boss performance.
  • Colorado Springs police Chief Luis Velez: Police officers will this week conduct a no-confidence vote on their boss performance.


"There will probably be elements that will be released," she says.


Meanwhile, Howard Morton, director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons, a statewide group that watchdogs police handling of serious cases, is calling for Gov. Bill Owens to get involved.


"I think it's a tragedy," Morton says, calling the situation unprecedented in state history. "The governor, if he has a spine, will step in. What they need to do is make it transparent as quickly as possible."

Life-and-death matters


The ramifications have yet to be determined and may never be fully known because of the sheer number of cases involved, says Chief Deputy District Attorney Lisa Kirkman. Her office has identified 9,100 "critical" cases in which 20,000 pieces of evidence were improperly destroyed.

click to enlarge Patricia Elliott: The Independent has learned that - evidence is missing in her 2001 murder, yet her case was - not listed in a recent audit that named six homicides - with missing evidence.
  • Patricia Elliott: The Independent has learned that evidence is missing in her 2001 murder, yet her case was not listed in a recent audit that named six homicides with missing evidence.


In their audit, police named several problematic cases, though only one a $40 forgery case was revealed to have been dismissed because of missing evidence.


The department concluded that destroyed DNA evidence in a 1997 sexual assault has the potential to prevent the prosecution of a suspect who is serving an unrelated 20-year sentence in Canada.


The audit also noted that eight missing persons cases and six homicides may now be affected, because some or all the evidence was destroyed.


For example, DNA evidence is missing in the 1999 unsolved shooting death of William Muse.


Asked if there was missing evidence in other homicides not named in the audit, police spokesman Sgt. Tim Stankey disclosed that a videotape of an unnamed suspect invoking his right to remain silent is missing in the brutal slaying of 19-year-old Patricia Elliott in 2001. In March, Christopher Allen, Ryan Krueger and Benjamin Gunvalsen were charged in Elliott's murder hailed as a meaningful step in the department's attempts to solve a backlog of 78 homicides that date to 1953.


Connie Elliott, the victim's mother, could not be reached for comment by deadline.


deyoanna@csindy.com

  • Colorado Springs police grapple with fallout from improperly purged evidence

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