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Crime did pay

When Christina Goodenow walked in to a Central Point market in 2005 to buy a lottery ticket, she had no idea she'd be helping the Medford Police Department upgrade its evidence building.

Ten years later, after a series of legal battles seeking the forfeiture of the fraudulently purchased $1 million winning ticket, the department's 2,500-square-foot expansion to its Columbus Avenue facility is ready to receive evidence. Chief Tim George says state forfeiture laws let the arresting agency keep about 40 percent of the seized assets, which amounted to yearly installments of about $20,500 a year. The expansion cost the department $523,400, about half of which was paid for out of the forfeited funds.

The expansion, which includes both new storage rooms and a vehicle-search bay, saw its first use last week, says evidence supervisor Rhonda Buma. Deputy Chief Randy Sparacino says the new vehicle bay was needed to free up an existing one now used for evidence storage. "We sized it to fit a large pickup," he says, gesturing to two, large double garage doors. Along the south wall of the garage, a row of refrigerator-like evidence dryers stands ready to receive bloody fabric and other environment-sensitive evidence.

Buma says the evidence facility has seen a year-over-year increase in evidence received, from 13,462 items in 2012 to 15,086 in 2014. Sparacino, who oversees MPD's administrative and technology services, says the department moved into the facility in 2000. "We thought (we would use it) 20 years," Sparacino says. "We were wrong." 

George says the surge in drug evidence came after the department helped start the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement team in 2009. Funded by the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, the task force partners investigators from local police departments and Oregon State Police with agents from the FBI and Homeland Security Investigations. Inside the facility's intake room, a row of plastic trays on the wall hold field-test kits for a variety of narcotics. A positive result will give an officer probable cause for an arrest, but seized drugs still need to be checked by a lab for prosecution to proceed.

"All of the drugs go to Oregon State Police for verification," Sparacino says, referring to that agency's crime laboratory in Central Point. 

It isn't just the drugs themselves that end up being seized as evidence. George says that seizing cash through forfeiture cases, like the one that helped pay for the expansion, is one of the department's most effective weapons against traffickers. 

"You want to know what the sign of a good evidence facility is?" he asks, patting a small black device on a nearby desk. "A money counter."

Once officers have bagged and logged their evidence, it's placed in lockers for retrieval by the department's evidence techs, who label items with bar codes for record-keeping purposes.

"We've gone totally paperless," Buma says. "We can look at anything at our fingertips."

Sparacino says the evidence logs are regularly audited, both by evidence supervisors and senior officers from other divisions.

In a giant room resembling something like a criminal thrift store, floor-to-ceiling shelves hold everything from crossbows to home computers; Buma says hard drives seized in computer-crimes cases are stored in anti-static bags. In another room, brand-new rows of library-style tracked shelving are already starting to fill with individually boxed firearms. George says the department seizes more firearms than knives, most of them handguns.

"Probably because of the conceal-ability factor," he says. Sparacino says the department takes seized firearms to an incinerator in Marion County to be melted down once the cases are closed.

How long the evidence is retained, and space opened up, depends on the crime involved and the status of the case. Sparacino says evidence in sexual assaults sometimes needs to be held for decades, while evidence from homicides may need to be held indefinitely to provide for future appeals or follow-up investigations. In a hallway to one of the building's main storage areas, a row of refrigerators holds small plastic and paper bags containing blood and other fluid evidence, some of them marked with dates 20 years past. 

"Space opens up only as fast as cases can be adjudicated," Sparacino says.

Reach reporter Thomas Moriarty at 541-776-4471 or tmoriarty@mailtribune.com. Follow him at @ThomasDMoriarty.

Shelf after shelf of seized narcotics fill an air-conditioned room at the Medford Police Department's evidence facility. Both MPD and the Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement team have experienced a dramatic increase in evidence seizures in recent years, creating a need for more storage space. Mail Tribune / jamie Lusch
Medford police Chief Tim George, Deputy Chief Randy Sparacino and evidence supervisor Rhonda Buma examine a newly completed storage room at the Medford Police Department's evidence facility on North Columbus Avenue. More than half of the 2,500-square-foot addition to the existing building was paid for with forefeited lottery winnings seized by the department in an identity theft case. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch