THE SHELVES OF THE POLICE EVIDENCE and property warehouse stretch high above my head, forming long, tall alleyways. It feels like an IKEA warehouse, but instead of unassembled Månstads, the mundane items that wait here all have a dark past.
Bike parts and boots and drugs and daggers—the objects are fragment sentences of long, tragic stories. A can of used pepper spray, a broken sword, an entire ATM. What are they artifacts from, exactly?
The police evidence and property warehouse is purgatory for objects as they arrive from crime scenes, where they are meticulously catalogued, and then wait to be called upon to appear before detectives or judges and juries.
The team that tags the daily deluge of stolen goods and evidence often doesn't know where they came from. But the objects' futures are much more clear. They will live here for weeks or years (in the case of homicide evidence, decades) and if no one shows up to claim them, the clearly valuable and easily sellable items will be auctioned online. Everything else in the place will be destroyed. Doors still stinging with mace from crime scenes will be tossed in the dumpster, cocaine will be burned.
I toured the warehouse this month and, with the help of the crew that spends their days filing away evidence, picked out some of the strangest objects and dug up their stories.
This disco ball peeked out from a box stored on the tallest shelf in the warehouse, catching the glare of fluorescent lights.
It used to hang in an illegal club run out of Old Town's Star Theater. In August 2009, undercover cops discovered the theater was selling drinks until dawn with no liquor permit, slinging pre-poured cups of Red Bull mixed with vodka to people who paid $10 a cup and knew to show up at the theater after other bars let out. According to a former employee who talked with police, the place went through five gallons of vodka a night and underage strippers danced on the VIP stage. "The employee said that they have personally seen cocaine being snorted off a nude dancer," reads the report from the police investigation. "Narcotics use and dealings occur on a nightly basis... the employee said, 'It is as if they think they are invisible.'"
The disco ball, clearly, was essential to the mood. When the place was busted, the mirrored ball was seized from an unpermitted stage lighting rig. It will likely be destroyed.
In December 2010, a police officer stopped 38-year-old Steven Terrill for a traffic infraction. When the officer realized Terrill's car was stolen, the routine stop led to a massive bust of a robbery ring based out of a home in East Portland that teeters 12 feet above ground, jacked up on stilts. Police say Terrill was the leader of the robbery ring, which allegedly stole over $5 million in random items over the years, grabbing whatever they could from stores and storage units and hawking them on eBay. This strange jetpack—actually an Ultralite motor used for motorized paragliding—was found in the garage of Terrill's grandma out in Clackamas County, along with dozens of items ranging from a chainsaw to a Reed College plaque.
Police still aren't sure who owns this thing. No one's claimed it in the year and a half since it came in—but since similar paragliding motors fetch over $6,000 online, the state will likely sell it off.
LOTS AND LOTS OF MARIJUANA
"It's like a toilet that keeps on flushing," says Dave Benson of the evidence division, of the mountain of marijuana that rolls in and out of the warehouse every week. There is no season, there is no high-point. There is just lots of marijuana all the time. It hangs like dead bodies in burlap sacks from meathooks in a special room that smells nauseatingly weedy and is accessible only with two keycards pressed to two separate pads at the same time. Pot not stored in sacks is carefully filed in giant Ziploc bags or put in cardboard containers marked "Box o' weed."
Every single ounce that comes into the room is destroyed. Once its day in court is done, it will be incinerated—not in the typical way, but in a giant industrial incinerator in Salem along with medical waste.
In the past, some of the pot escaped. Until this winter, the evidence room gave back seized medical marijuana to legal cardholders who requested its return. But recently, State Attorney General John Kroger told police that returning Oregon-legal pot was likely a violation of federal crime. Now, the pot is doomed.
A wall of seized skateboards rises from the concrete floor of the evidence room all the way up to the airy warehouse ceiling, proof that sometimes skateboarding is a crime. Dozens of shortboards and longboards rest on jerry-rigged clothes hangers, awaiting their trials.
They don't just come from cops clamping down on rogue kids kick-flipping. One of the boards in this picture—the most beat-up—was an accessory to robbery. In May 2008, a man strolled in to the Red Square Café on SE Belmont and ordered a drink. When the barista turned around, the man's hand was in his waistband, and he said, "I'm gonna shoot you... empty the till." The barista gave him a wad of cash from the register and the man fled, jumping on this skateboard and taking off down SE 46th. He eventually ditched the board and hopped in a cab, but police caught up to him in a backyard just a few blocks away.
Since they don't have much resale value, if no one claims these skateboards, they will eventually be destroyed.
CAN OF TOMATOES
This can of tomatoes is still a mystery. The case number associated with the can is for a dine-and-dash at a restaurant. But the case "did not have anything to do with a can of tomato sauce," according to police.
CART FULL OF FRUIT FLIES AND BEER
The officer found Francisco lying in the doorway of the 7-Eleven on SW 1st, clutching a wad of bloody paper napkins to his stomach. The officer lifted the napkins and saw a single deep wound. Francisco didn't speak English. These are his things.
Francisco had been hanging out in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven, drinking cheap beer with two other guys, Chewie and Jorge. They were good friends, just talking, when Chewie pulled out a four-inch folding knife and stabbed Francisco for no reason. At least that was the story Jorge told police, when they interviewed him later—though it was difficult trying to make sense of a voice officers noted was slurred with alcohol, with a severe speech impediment. Chewie wandered away, pushing a bicycle he'd covered in Mardi Gras beads. The officers arrived shortly thereafter and took Francisco to OHSU. He survived. Fruit flies began breeding in the beer cans left in his cart, so the evidence room team tightly Saran-wrapped the entire rig.
The surprising thing about the box of things-people-hit-other-people-with is not its diversity (baseball bats, pool cues, golf clubs) but how many of the items are sword canes. I didn't realize sword canes were still in production, much less circulation. There appear to be a high number of assaulters who fancy themselves characters in an Elizabethan drama, strolling the halls of their suburban home grasping wooden canes topped with metal heads of eagles or dogs or lions and then, in a moment of passion, whipping the sheath away to reveal that the tool of a cripple is actually—aha!—the weapon of a criminal. While the canes seem like fantasy objects, the baseball bats (some broken) paint a much less romantic image of assault as both mundane and brutal.