Show us the evidence

For someone as organized as Kelli French, it can be hard to come to work at an office stacked ceiling high with boxes that often smells a lot like marijuana.


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French puts up with it because she knows each item that surrounds her is important, whether for solving a murder or just reuniting a lost wallet with its owner.

As the lead evidence technician at the Great Falls Police Department, French says that a big part of being successful in her job is being able to keep things cataloged and organized. In other words, it's a very type A kind of job.

The room is surrounded by shelves with bins cataloged in a system that she understands intuitively. Some things that don't fit in compartments just pile up as neatly as they can. In one corner are about a dozen guns propped up next to a pile of skateboards. That marijuana smell? That's from a big brown paper bag of seized drugs from a recent bust — all sitting on a table next to her desk.

"Organized hoarders is what we are," she says.

Besides the stuff that surrounds her desk, two rooms on the second floor of the department also are filled. Venturing a guess, French says there are probably more than 40,000 pieces of evidence that occupy those three rooms.

"It's not enough. We could always use more room."

A large part of French's job is cataloging evidence and storing it as it comes in, but just as important is her responsibility to get rid of it. Some pieces of evidence, such as drugs, get destroyed at a location that French isn't allowed to disclose. The preservation of more delicate items, such as DNA evidence, is strictly regulated under Montana law. Law enforcement has to keep biological evidence in felony cases for a minimum of three years after a case becomes finalized in the court system, including post-conviction appeals.

For homicide cases, the evidence is usually kept around indefinitely. French says there are pieces in storage from homicide cases from as long ago as the 1960s.

There are other items that fall a bit lower on the scale of importance, such as unclaimed lost objects or stolen property that goes unreported for longer than six months.

It's up to French to figure out what pieces get chucked and which ones are worth going to auction, and after more than three years of doing this job, she has stopped being surprised at the things that come in.

"We've had a lot of unusual stuff," she says. "I got a cake once."

That had to be stored in a freezer so it could be preserved.

There was also a Styrofoam polar bear about 4-feet-tall that inhabited the evidence room for a while. She'll be putting that one up for auction, she says.

"If you want a large polar bear, have at it," French says. "He's a cute little guy."

Lt. Robert Moccasin, one of the main officers who oversees the evidence room, says that space is always limited, which is why the police department recently partnered with an auction website that gets a lot of its merchandise from property seized by cops across the country.

"Getting rid of property is a priority because of space," Moccasin says.

The folks at PropertyRoom. com are more eager to take unclaimed property off the department's hands than its traditional partner, the City of Great Falls. Moccasin says the city used to host auctions regularly so the department could get rid of some excess baggage, but it's been a while since those have been put on. It's a lot more convenient, too.

"They ask us in advance if we've got anything so when they swing through Montana they stop here on their way through," Moccasin said.

Before she sends something off for auction, French always checks with the department to see if anyone called in looking for it, but she's gotten rid of a lot of valuable things such as car keys, cellphones, wallets, even one snow blower that she can remember.

"You would think that somebody would notice it missing and want to report it," she says.

There are always a few happy endings, though. French had an appointment coming up with a man who lost a World War I-era rifle that she had stored in her room. If people want to find something they've lost, the best way to find it is to make a report with the police as soon as possible.

"We encourage it because it helps us in the long run in finding the owners," she says.

"Give the best description you can," French adds. And in cases of a lost bike or firearm: "If you know the serial number, that's the best."

Bicycles are among the most numerous pieces of evidence that come in, and every Wednesday the bike bereft can look through what the department has stored as long as they make an appointment first.

More than just a cataloger and retriever of evidence, French is also qualified to collect it. She graduated with a degree in criminal justice from the University of Great Falls before taking her job with the department. French says she has been trained on proper crime scene protocol and is often the one snapping pictures and collecting important artifacts alongside crime scene detectives.

"I love my job," she says as she speaks in the evidence processing room, where officers package their sundries after collecting them from the various places their work takes them.

On a table are a few packages of purple latex gloves, a symbol of the precision and care people like French are required to practice in their jobs. She looks over at them and chuckles.

"I can go through a box of those within a week sometimes."

Written by Kimball Bennion, GreatFallsTribune.com
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