Key evidence from as many as 564 unclassified deaths in Miami — many of them homicides — could be compromised after being stored by police in a rusty, rotting steel container located outdoors under a highway overpass.
For several months, maybe longer, the bloody clothing, weapons and other evidence that could be used to solve murders or put away criminals have been exposed to rain and heat and even gnawed on by rodents that could crawl in through the rotted floor or dozens of holes.
“We’ve got to make contact with the families. That’s really the most disheartening part of this case,” Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes said. “We know the container is trashed and some evidence was eaten by rats.”
The sorry condition of the large steel air-conditioned storage unit was first discovered in late September. It’s one of two such 500-square-foot containers that sit outside under an Interstate 95 overpass just west of the main city of Miami police headquarters on Northwest Second Avenue.
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The two containers were purchased several years ago when evidence storage rooms inside the building reached capacity. Llanes said there had been no standard inspection protocol for the units but he said that will likely change.
A new container has already been purchased and the evidence is being moved. The chief said police staff, with the help of investigators from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, are going through the evidence to see what has been ruined and check if the cases, which could go back years, are still open.
Only homicide detectives and property room workers had access to the container. Llanes said his department has looked at purchasing new containers for over a year, but he was stumped as to why no one discovered the problems or alerted higher ups earlier.
“The floor is rotted out, but it’s covered with boxes,” he said.
In response to the discovery, Llanes posted a YouTube video in which he promised the public the department would do its best to save the evidence and work more vigilantly in trying to keep it secure in the future. He said he’s in the process of hiring an outside auditor to suggest changes that would keep evidence safer.
“It’s a huge blow to us professionally and emotionally,” the chief said.
Miami Mayor Tómas Regalado said he has no recollection of any such breech before. He chalked it up to a lack of timely inspections.
“They didn’t check it. This is what happened,” Regalado said.
The actual extent of the tainted evidence and the harm it could cause in trying to prosecute cases has yet to be determined. Ed Griffith, spokesman for State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, said Miami police will pass along to his office which cases have been impacted and their status.
“As prosecutors, we are always concerned about status of investigative evidence since evidence is the foundation of every successful criminal prosecution,” Griffith said.