Miami police brass knew at least four years ago that a storage unit warehousing evidence from hundreds of homicide and unclassified death cases was deteriorating and allowed the problem to fester until it became an emergency.
But one month after Miami’s police chief publicly admitted that rodents and the elements had spoiled some of the items stored in the rotting container — and asserted he acted as soon as he learned of the problem — investigators going piece by piece through the contents of 564 potentially affected cases have yet to determine the full consequences of the department’s inaction.
“I can’t tell you about a specific case that’s been damaged or hasn’t been damaged,” said Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes, who himself noted the container was “rotting” in a 2012 memo back when he was an assistant chief. “That’s a long-term process to audit the actual evidence there to say ‘This was compromised and now we have to make a disclosure about it.’ ”
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Miami police declined to release its list of the evidence contained in the storage unit, nor would the department provide a list of the cases involved to the Miami Herald. But so far, Llanes said, investigators auditing the contents of the locker have narrowed their focus to around 100 cases.
About two dozen have been identified as high-priority due to their relation to closed criminal cases, although police and prosecutors say they have yet to find anything that would damage or jeopardize an open case or a conviction. Some of the cases — many homicides — are considered cold cases and date back to the 1970s.
Still, Lt. Carlos Castellanos, Miami’s head of homicide, acknowledges that it may be years before police truly determine the extent of the damage, if any, to past and future convictions given the possibility that defense attorneys could make issue of the condition of the department’s evidence when fighting prosecutions or appeals.
I can’t predict what a defense attorney will or won’t file because of what was in that container
Lt. Carlos Castellanos
“I can’t predict what a defense attorney will or won’t file because of what was in that container,” Castellanos said.
Kept beneath the elevated portion of Interstate 95 that passes over downtown Miami and next to police headquarters, the now-replaced and discarded air-conditioned storage container served as a reservoir for evidence from homicides and unclassified deaths spanning four decades, according to Miami police.
The unit, which was one of several locations for storing homicide evidence, held items like clothing and furniture but not drugs, guns or cash. Castellanos said it did not hold evidence used in criminal prosecutions since those items are typically transferred to the possession of the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts before trial.
The steel container was overseen by the department’s property unit, and brass have blamed the deterioration of the container and the evidence inside on poor communication, lack of oversight and the glacial pace of government. Llanes said last month that the city hired a firm to audit the police department’s practices and review what happened, but it doesn’t appear the city will play a public game of who dropped the ball.
“I don’t need an investigation to tell me there was malpractice in the storage of valuable documents and evidence,” said Horacio Stuart Aguirre, chairman of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel, while adding: “If I were the families of the deceased and the evidence was in those shipping containers … I’d be furious.”
Llanes, who released a YouTube video last month in which he said he learned of the problem Sept. 22, says he reacted promptly after receiving a call from Castellanos. He says he wasn’t lying about his previous knowledge about the storage unit’s condition, but was referring to the date on which he realized his department had an emergency on its hands.
“It was always treated as a maintenance issue [until Castellanos called.] … There were budget issues. There were all kinds of issues that got in the way of this process. They were procured wrongly,” said Llanes. “I didn’t lie to anybody. I’m not that guy. I don’t hide the ball from anybody.”
I trust that we have a chief that knows what he’s doing
City Manager Daniel Alfonso
But it’s clear now that police knew the storage container needed to be replaced at least four years ago. Internal police documents obtained by blogger Al Crespo show the police department knew for years that they had a problem and even filled out purchase orders for a replacement that never came.
In one 2012 memo obtained by Crespo, Llanes himself noted that an unannounced inspection of the department’s property unit found the container was rotting and in need of replacement. In another memo sent nearly three years later to Llanes — now chief of police — the department’s property unit wrote that the container needed to be replaced immediately as its condition had devolved to the point that evidence had been exposed to the environment, causing it “to become damaged and/or destroyed.”
The memo included a purchase order for a new unit.
It was always treated as a maintenance issue. There were budget issues. There were all kinds of issues that got in the way of this process
Chief Rodolfo Llanes
But for reasons not entirely clear, police didn’t receive authorization to purchase and receive a replacement for the deteriorating storage unit for another year. The city issued a solicitation in January and the commission approved a $65,700 expense in June — with zero mention of contaminated evidence — for two new containers. Police say they received the replacement around the time that Castellanos and several detectives visited the container in September to go through some cold case files and were shocked by what they saw.
For now, it appears Miami’s elected officials are reserving judgment at least until they learn the extent of the consequences. The problem did not come up during last week’s City Commission meeting, and several commissioners told the Miami Herald they hadn’t spoken to Llanes and didn’t know enough about the contents of the container to condemn the department.
Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso, who appointed Llanes as chief, finds the incident embarrassing but continues to support Miami’s top cop. “I trust that we have a chief that knows what he’s doing,” he said. “I’m solidly supporting him.”