Tuesday, June 6, 2023

From the crime scene to court, here are the ins and outs of Williamsburg’s evidence room

Williamsburg Police Lt. Brian Carlsen is in charge of keeping the evidence room running smoothly. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
Williamsburg Police Lt. Brian Carlsen is in charge of keeping the evidence room running smoothly. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

In the City of Williamsburg, there is one 12-foot by 12-foot room where all crimes collide.

Housed at the back of the police department on Armistead Avenue, the room is secretive at first glance. Most items are concealed in manilla envelopes and cardboard boxes, all stacked on numerous industrial shelves and in metal cabinets.

Many are many sealed with “evidence” tape.

A further look can reveal more detail.

On Tuesday, a cardboard box on a shelf bore the words “Crust shooting” in a black scrawl. A red biohazard bag containing the bloody clothing of a car crash victim overlooked the room from a top shelf. A mostly-full bottle of Barefoot Cabernet Sauvignon covered in “evidence” tape sat on the floor next to an 18-inch-tall “bong.”

In Williamsburg, the property and evidence room is a carefully documented compilation of all criminal investigations — some active and some closed.

Unseen by the public, the room plays an important role in the investigation and prosecution of criminal cases. One misstep could mean that evidence cannot be used in court.

“There’s a reality to it, in order for the wheels to keep on turning,” said Lt. Brian Carlsen, the officer who oversees the evidence room. “There’s a hope and faith you put into the system.”

The chain of custody

Most of Carlsen’s mornings start the same.

The 43-year-old lieutenant checks his email, brews a cup of coffee and treks down the hall to a set of lockers, where officers lock up evidence they have collected. Behind the lock — which only Carlsen has they key for — he finds a property receipt and sealed evidence packages.

Carlsen fills a corrugated plastic bin with the packages and brings it to the evidence room, which often wafts the distinctive odor of marijuana into the adjacent hallway.

The chain of custody begins the moment Carlsen opens the locker, processes the evidence into the computer system and signs his name and time at the bottom of the property receipt. Meticulous by nature, Carlsen ensures evidence is labeled and filed correctly through every step.

“It’s a very particular process,” he said.

Documenting the chain of custody ensures evidence is not altered or tampered with, a crucial step in criminal court proceedings governed by the Virginia Code.

Every move the evidence makes is documented carefully at the bottom of the same receipt, such as when Carlsen transports evidence to and from the Virginia Department of Forensic Science in Richmond.

On Tuesday, Investigator Mark Mahoney entered the evidence room, referencing a six-digit property receipt number. Carlsen scanned the shelves, eventually handing over a small package to Mahoney.

“This is actually for court,” Mahoney said as he left the room.

“Uh huh — sure,” Carlsen joked, slipping the item’s property receipt in the “property out/court” file.

Keep or destroy?

As an oscillating fan circulated air around the small room Tuesday, Carlsen leaned back and looked around briefly in reflection.

In Williamsburg, the property and evidence room is a carefully-documented compilation of all criminal investigations -- some active and some closed. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
In Williamsburg, the property and evidence room is a carefully-documented compilation of all criminal investigations — some active and some closed. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Carlsen generally views the room simply, as a collection of envelopes organized by investigating officer and case number.

But sometimes, the weight of evidence like DNA swabs from sexual assault suspects, becomes apparent.

“Everything (has) that gravity and potential gravity,” he said. “Like somewhere in here… we have some stuff from the Colonial Williamsburg bombing. The potential of that stuff — it could’ve killed somebody.”

Carlsen turned his attention back to his computer screen.

“Guess I’m going to create two vouchers for this one,” he said, scanning the outside of an envelope as he typed information into the computer.

While keeping evidence organized and accessible is Carlsen’s main job, sometimes he is required to do the opposite: dispose of it.

“I can’t hold all this stuff forever,” Carlsen said. “There’s just not enough room… but here I sit with some stuff I literally just can’t throw away. That could be my grandma’s backpack… That’s a $700 purse.”

The drug evidence, which includes about 30 pounds of marijuana, are a different story for Carlsen.

“The drugs — those are easy to get rid of,” he said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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