by Cara Gardner

Situated near the Spokane County Courthouse is an inconspicuous warehouse, one of several in the area. Paint peels off its metal railings, and the sidewalks around it are cracked and uneven. The building looks deserted, but it's actually a well-guarded fortress. For good reason, too: Inside is treasure trove of televisions, computers, leather couches and rows of bicycles. It's loaded with thousands of firearms, hundreds of pounds of illegal drugs, a wall lined with metal rods, baseball bats and knives, and a small room with clothing taken from victims, criminals and crime scenes. When Spokane city and county law enforcement officials seize property and evidence, it comes here. The police property room is a graveyard of people's lives ruined by crime.

"Some things will sit here forever," says Donna Berroteran, facility supervisor for the property room. "I think we have things from 1953 from an unsolved homicide."

Berroteran has been watching over this place for 19 years; her workspace is lined with boxes filled with marijuana, freezers holding unidentified narcotics, shelves stacked to the ceiling with rifles and handguns. Most of it is held for trials and will eventually be destroyed or auctioned off. Some of it is returned to the owner.

"One time a foot came in -- a human foot, in a jar," Berroteran recalls. "[It was] found in a cabin up north." The foot, as it turned out, was being preserved until it could be buried with the whole body in a religious ceremony. Police returned it to its rightful owner when it became clear there was no foul play. Berroteran chuckles thinking about the foot, but most of the material she deals with isn't funny at all.

"People want their clothes back," she says, lowering her voice. "A lot of rape victims come in and want their clothes back. We have to save everything, because it's not up to us to make the decision of what's important."

Berroteran sends a letter to the owner stating the property room will hold items for a specified period before they are destroyed or auctioned.

"There's three types of property," Berroteran explains. "There's evidence, which stays here till the case has been adjudicated; there's 'safe keeping,' which is what [someone has with them] when they get arrested. And then there's found property, which is held for 90 days."

"We're badly overcrowded," says Dick Cottam, spokesman for the Spokane Police Department, gesturing to the industrial shelving stuffed with rifles. Cottam says there's no way to know how many pounds of illegal substances are currently in the property room. Most of it is marijuana, stored in burlap bags and packed into cardboard boxes. Eventually, it will be destroyed at the Spokane Waste to Energy Plant, along with a small mountain of handguns.

"I guess you could safely say [there are] thousands of firearms," he notes. "There are 175 shelves with 10 guns to a shelf. And that's just the long guns," he says. The handguns, meanwhile, are packed in marked boxes, filling hundreds of other shelves.

Up in Smoke -- If drugs aren't going into people's bodies, they have to go somewhere else. Many are thrown down drains and flushed down toilets, a practice ecologists are trying to stop after recent water samples indicate rising levels of antibiotics. Most drugs -- both legal and illegal -- from Washington state and parts of Idaho and Oregon are destroyed at the Spokane Waste to Energy Plant. While the plant burns about 300,000 tons of trash per year, controlled substances make up only a fraction of that amount. Last year, less than 11 tons of controlled substances were burned at the plant. The City of Spokane's share of that was about two tons.

When illegal substances are burned, the DEA or another government agency is present to verify its destruction. "Burning them is about the best thing that can be done," says Ty Thomas, ecology supervisor for the Department of Ecology's Hazardous Waste Toxic Deduction Program in Olympia. Ecology insists that burning drugs isn't a risk to public health or the environment.

"For one, the waste being burned is low toxicity and low volume, and second, the Spokane Waste to Energy Plant has state-of-the-art air control devices," says Thomas. "[There was] a study of the facility on environmental risks during the period they burned those drugs, and they passed with flying colors."

Drugs aren't the only items law enforcement destroys at the plant. Cottam says that Spokane police burn about 200 or 300 handguns a year.

"There was a resolution [to destroy handguns] passed by the City Council in the early '90s," Berroteran explains. The Spokane Sheriff's Department still auctions off its handguns off, and both the city and county departments auction off rifles.

A Gun's Life -- Law enforcement officers in Spokane County confiscated more than 2,000 firearms from January 2000 to January 2003. More than two-thirds of them were linked to crimes. Law enforcement has cracked down on gun crimes partly because of Project SAFE Neighborhoods, an effort launched by the federal Department of Justice to bring together local, state and federal agencies in the prosecution of criminals on firearms charges. Washington state has received more than $1 million for community education campaigns, additional prosecutors, training and research. Those federal funds have paid off. Spokane's police property room is chock-full of firearms, with guns stacked in categories of likeness, some as evidence for pending trials while others are on their way to the auction block.

"We haven't had one [auction] for two years," Berroteran says. "The last auction, we [sold] about 175 firearms for about $30,000." Berroteran explains that the revenue from the police auctions goes first toward covering the personnel and storage expenses of the property room. Any remaining money goes into the city or county's general fund.

"The auctions are only open to Federal Firearms License (FFL) holders. Not just anyone can go," Cottam says. Selling firearms to FFL dealers is a regular practice among law enforcement agencies all over the country. FFL holders sell the firearms to other licensed dealers or to private citizens and are required to document each sale and to conduct background checks.

"We don't have a position on police auctioning [firearms,]" says DeAnna Martin, director of Washington Cease Fire, an advocacy organization dedicated to reducing gun violence. "What I can say is that we are in support of programs like the [one the] King County Sheriff's Office [has]. The money [from firearm auctions] goes toward lock boxes for their officers' service revolvers. It seems like a great idea to us."

But Cottam says even some police feel that auctioning guns defeats the purpose when so much federal money for programs like Project SAFE Neighborhoods goes toward getting them off the streets. And neither Cottam nor Berroteran can say for sure how many firearms in the property room have been cycled through there before.

"I'd say that's rare," Berroteran ventures. "If there are any, they're few and far between. Usually they pop up [in the system] as being pawned or stolen."

Whether pawned, stolen or sold privately, firearms continue to make their way into the hands of criminals, sometimes cycling through police hands in the process -- although many cities, like Spokane, have enacted laws requiring handguns seized from criminals to be destroyed. When white supremacist Buford Furrow shot and killed a Filipino postal worker and wounded five others, including three children, outside a Jewish day care center in his 1999 Los Angeles shooting spree, he used a gun previously owned by an officer in the Cosmopolis, Wash., police department. The department had sold the firearm to a gun shop, which in turn sold it to a licensed firearms dealer, who later allegedly sold it to Furrow at a Spokane gun show -- one of many hosted at the Spokane County-controlled Interstate Fairgrounds each year.

Washington state is one of many in the nation that has a "gun show loophole," which means only FFL holders are required to perform background checks at gun shows; state licensed dealers and private sellers don't have to do so.

"There are about 60 gun shows a year in Washington state," says Martin, with Washington Cease Fire. "By law, you're not supposed to sell [firearms] to felons or people who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution -- but if you don't have to perform background checks, you're not going to know."

Both the House and Senate bills that would close Washington's gun show loophole are currently sitting in committee without a hearing. Despite support from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, the Washington Academy of Physicians, the Washington Association of Churches, the Washington Association of Cities and more, neither bill is expected to pass.

"There are private sales," Cottam agrees. "And you can't control that." The police attend the gun shows (in the last two years, there have been eight at the Interstate Fairgrounds), and Cottam says they have undercover agents inside monitoring sales.

There are 94 active FFL holders in Spokane County, most of whom can purchase confiscated firearms from the police auctions. When FFL holders are reselling those guns, they must always perform background checks. But ATF reports indicate that more than half of the firearms traced in crimes come from just 1 percent of the nation's licensed gun dealers. Basically, just a few stores, pawnshops, private dealers and gun shows are selling the majority of firearms linked to crimes. A recent ABC News report found that one of those stores, Bull's Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, had 150 guns missing without sufficient sales records. The Washington, D.C.-area snipers used one of the "missing" guns from that shop. The dealer lost his license but was never prosecuted.

For law enforcement, auctioning firearms brings in much-needed revenue, but they will never know how many firearms that once sat safely in their property rooms will flow into the hands of someone who will commit one or more of the 10,000 gun murders each year in the United States (according to Department of Justice estimates).

"A lot of officers feel it's more handguns that are off the streets. They like it," says Cottam, referring to the handguns that the department destroys.

But Berroteran sees the other side. "I see officers come in and feel bad such a nice handgun is going to get destroyed. We lose about $20,000 of revenue from that [burning instead of selling handguns] every year."

Publication date: 1/29/04

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