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Archive for Sunday, October 20, 2002

Errors jeopardize homicide cases

Mishandling of evidence found in at least eight cases, audit shows

October 20, 2002

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— Slipshod handling of evidence by Kansas City Police has put at least eight possible homicide prosecutions in doubt, while evidence in other cases has disappeared or been ruined in outdated storage systems, an internal audit showed.

Police Chief Richard Easley ordered the audit of the department's evidence and property systems after Jackson County prosecutors were forced to drop a homicide case in May because a sergeant had ignored procedures and destroyed evidence.

Results of the audit, completed last month, were obtained by The Kansas City Star under Missouri's Sunshine Law and reported in Saturday's editions.

"We feel very badly for the families involved," Easley told the newspaper.

"We are doing everything we can to ensure this doesn't happen again."

As a first step, Easley has authorized installation of a new computer system that would allow police to know the up-to-the-minute status of every homicide case. The new system, to be operational within a month, will replace antiquated technology that did not allow police to track the status of homicides.

More difficult will be improving the property and evidence warehouse, which contains more than 149,000 items. Mice and a leaky roof have damaged and destroyed some evidence. The lack of air conditioning means temperatures and humidity can rise to levels that could destroy some DNA evidence.

Three of the imperiled homicide prosecutions involved destruction of evidence by a sergeant who has since been transferred out of the unit.

One case was initially listed as a suicide, in which department policy at the time called for evidence to be destroyed after 30 days. In the other two cases, however, the sergeant ignored proper procedure by failing to check computer files before destroying evidence critical to prosecuting the suspects.

The sergeant has not been disciplined, although she is the focus of an investigation.

That is scant comfort, however, to friends and families of some of the homicide victims.

Ronald Weese said he could not understand how police could have misplaced or destroyed a blood-stained door, which was part of the evidence in the killing of family friend Betty Nichols in a 1987 burglary.

"It's not like it's some little thing," Weese said. "It's a shame. ... With the DNA technology they have today, they could've proved who killed Betty. Without the door, that'll never happen."

Evidence is also missing in one of Kansas City's most notorious unsolved killings the October 1978 shooting of Mildred Louise Vilott in a ninth-floor room of the Alameda Plaza Hotel, now the Fairmont on the Plaza. Vilott, an attorney for Phillips Petroleum from Bartlesville, Okla., was shot once in the temple.

Police announced last year they would reopen the Vilott case following an investigation by two former Kansas City reporters. But a search of the evidence earlier this year turned up only the bullet, a shell casing and some fingerprints and none of the hair samples, fingernail scrapings or other items that investigators normally collect.

"Of course I am disappointed," said Vilott's mother, Marguerite Wolfe. "When I heard about this (lost evidence), I thought, 'This is sloppy housekeeping.' It's not right."

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