A fingernail found in dirt. A paint chip on the sole of a boot.
Both turned out to be key pieces of evidence that allowed Salt Lake County sheriff's Detective Todd Park to crack two cold cases that had gone unsolved for years.
Before the big breaks came, that evidence sat untouched inside storage rooms at the Salt Lake and Utah county sheriff's offices for decades. Fortunately for Park, when he reopened the cases, the evidence was still there.
For police and prosecutors to solve a case or get a conviction, they need evidence. With new cases being filed constantly, law enforcement agencies statewide are finding their already-cramped evidence rooms quickly running out of space. And no one can predict when new DNA technology or better treatments for mental illness will revive a case that was shelved or remains in limbo.
As an example, this week will mark five years since Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Eileen Barzee were arrested on State Street in Sandy, walking down the road in the company of kidnap victim Elizabeth Smart.
Although charged with multiple felonies, their mental competency remains in question as do questions of whether the two will ever be prosecuted.
De Kieu Duy remains at the Utah State Hospital nine years after she was charged with the shootings at the Triad Center/KSL building that left one woman dead and a man injured. The courts have declared her mentally incompetent. At the time, the lead prosecutor in the case said he was optimistic her competency could be restored. In 2005, he admitted his optimism was misled.
Earlier this year, Jeremy Jacob Hauck was deemed incompetent to stand trial in the Bountiful slaying of his mother, who had her throat cut, was shot in the head and stuffed in the freezer. His fate in the courts remains unknown.
In contrast, 18 years ago it seemed Edgar Tiedemann's destiny was to be locked up forever.
Tiedemann killed two people and left a 14-year-old boy paralyzed. The boy died 10 years later from complications due to his injuries.
Tiedemann was initially found incompetent to stand trial, and from all West Valley police were told, the possibility of his competency being restored seemed nearly impossible.
Fast-forward to 2002 when due to budget cutbacks, Tiedemann was released from the state mental hospital, forcing prosecutors to scramble to revive the near-decade-long homicide case. Doctors said he had been rehabilitated enough to stand trial, but by then, West Valley police had thrown out most of the physical evidence in the case, including two murder weapons.
"That was a mistake," conceded West Valley Police Capt. Tom McLachlan.
Because of the lack of physical evidence, prosecutors had to go through several appeals to get the case to go to trial. In February, Tiedemann was convicted of two counts of first-degree felony murder and one count of attempted murder.
"Our policy now reads ... homicide evidence we keep forever," McLachlan said.
Previously, the department's policy was to keep evidence until the detective felt there was no foreseeable realistic chance the case would go forward. Fifteen years ago, West Valley police only handled on average one or two homicides a year, McLachlan said.
Between 10 and 12 years ago, however, the department began making changes to its evidence policy.
"This policy was changed not solely because of Tiedemann, but it was an example that really cemented the policy change," he said.Evidence in all high-profile and unsolved crimes is held onto for a long time, McLachlan said, in case it ever ends up on a prosecutor's desk.
Preserving the past
"The issues (of preserving evidence) are not new to us," said Paul Parker, division director for the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office.
Parker said his office treats criminal cases involving mentally incompetent people much like a cold case or a latent sexual-offense case.
"Preservation of evidence is a big deal," Parker said. Often times, an investigator is sent out to make sure paper and physical evidence is still available and that the office knows where witnesses are.
"Evidence is just supposed to be kept in those cases," he said, "but you can always make mistakes."
With the Tiedemann case, prosecutors managed to introduce a video recording of Tiedemann's confession, along with autopsy and forensic reports. They also had a sworn statement about the events that night from the teenager who was shot, paralyzed and later died. It was enough to get a conviction.
"The ability to bring the evidence after that amount of time is critical to that case," Parker said.
In Davis County, where two murder suspects have mental-competency issues, top prosecutor Troy Rawlings said some evidence has been kept for 20 years, like in the Karen Strom murder case which remains open.
"If it's an open case, they're going to hang onto it theoretically forever in the possibility of solving a case," he said.
The county attorney's office retains evidence beyond convictions because of concerns of appeals and government records requests. One of Rawlings' attorneys is on a committee to draft uniform evidence preservation policies statewide so crimes with multiple jurisdictions don't bump up against inconsistent procedures.
"Our policy is to preserve for at least seven years after a case has been disposed of, once it's over with appeals, etc.," Rawlings said. "Some even longer on microfilm, but we hold physical files for at least seven years."
At the Salt Lake County Sheriff's Department, the time limit for holding onto homicide cases even if they are adjudicated is 99 years.
The office has evidence from about 150 murders dating back to 1969, said Lt. Paul Jaroscak. Some of those pieces of evidence are for high-profile cases including items detectives believe could possibly be linked to serial killer Ted Bundy, who was executed in 1989.
"All of the homicide cases, the solved ones and the unsolved ones, are in one specific area in the evidence room," Park said. "A couple of years ago I went through all of the cold-case evidence and repackaged all of it."
Rather than plastic, evidence is now stored in paper bags.
"If there is something that has blood on it, you don't want to package that in plastic," he said. "I put everything in paper. (Evidence) breaths a little bit better in paper. In plastic, bacteria could start forming."
Jaroscak said the evidence is retained post-conviction because of unanticipated developments.
"For the magnitude of that type of a case, you just never know when something else pops up. What if there's another similar murder and you have a serial killer? It would be a shame in all types of cases, especially in homicide cases, if you don't have that stuff any longer," Park said.
For cold-case detectives like Park, preserving old evidence has been crucial in solving decades-old cases, especially now that there have been many advances in DNA technology since most of those cases were originally investigated.
"That's one of the first things I do when I look at a cold case; I look to see what I have as far as physical evidence goes. That was very important especially in the slaying of the Kennecott security guard," he said. "It's been important in every case I've done."
Bryan Ruff was a 22-year-old security guard for Kennecott in 1991 when he disappeared. His body was found by campers two years later in Utah County. The case remained cold until 2005 when Park found a 3-inch track of paint on Ruff's shoe that had been kept in evidence. The paint was matched to the suspect's car.
In 2007, Park used a fingernail clipping that had been preserved for three decades to make an arrest in the 1974 murder of BYU coed Barbara Rocky.Just like Salt Lake County, Salt Lake City police hang on to evidence in homicide and high-profile cases for a very long time, even if the criminal case is solved.
Sifting, saving and purging
The Salt Lake City Police Department has materials in its evidence room going back 30 to 40 years, Chief Chris Burbank said, including materials from the case of infamous forger and bomber Mark Hoffman, who is serving a life sentence in prison.
While advances in DNA technology have resurrected many old cases, those same advances have changed the way evidence is collected in new cases.
"The thing that is very challenging for police agencies now ... 15 years ago the whole DNA thing didn't exist," Burbank said. "Now we go to a crime scene, and there's the potential for DNA evidence on cigarette butts. Processing, collecting and storing evidence is crucial," he said, noting that the technology has significantly increased the volume of evidence investigators retain for each case.
The result has caused a huge strain on the city's already overflowing evidence room. Boxes are stacked from floor to ceiling.
But it's not just the space police worry about, it is leaks into the underground facility from the sidewalk above and floods that have the potential to destroy crucial evidence. Drug evidence can be ruined or guns rusted. Yet Burbank said there was only so much evidence that could be stored in plastic bags because of the risk of mold contamination.
"It's a mess," Burbank admitted.
The chief said he's hiring additional part-time staff to keep up on purging old cases from the room. But he said the amount of old evidence that can be discarded is only a fraction of the estimated 2,200 new pieces of evidence the department receives each month.
The purging requires agencies to conduct audits of the evidence. West Valley City goes through its evidence room every six months, discarding items from minor cases no longer under investigation. Courts have ruled that large items from specific property crimes can be documented on photographs, which the department is digitizing for storage on computers.
The sheriff's office conducts a similar audit, reviewing each piece a year after that material is booked into evidence.
"Before we dispose of anything we check with the district attorney, the case manager or detective and send them a form asking, 'What do you want us to do with this evidence?"' Jaroscak said.
Even before the form is sent out, evidence-room managers do a check of the Attorney Incident Management system, a computer program that tells them the status of the case with the evidence if it's pending, whether charges have been filed or if it has been adjudicated.
Bountiful has a policy of hanging onto case evidence for a minimum of 90 days or as long as it needs to.
"If it's a sex crime or a homicide, we'll hang onto it forever," said Bountiful Police Lt. Randy Pickett.
The same, Burbank conceded, goes for some Salt Lake City crimes."Elizabeth Smart probably won't ever go away," Burbank said of the high-profile kidnapping case. "We'll have that evidence forever."
Contributing: Ben Winslow