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SPD Investigating Break Out At Evidence Facility (UPDATED)

Update on 8/1/2013:

After reviewing all 10 cases, detectives have determined that no evidence was compromised during the March breach at the evidence facility. Detectives found that evidence from vehicles in the holding area had already been processed and documented before the two stowaway suspects ever entered the facility. Police have updated the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office about the review.

In mid-May, the Seattle Police Department quietly sent out a department-wide bulletin calling for extra security around SPD’s evidence warehouse in SoDo.

SPD detectives had heard rumblings from criminals that someone might be planning a break-in at the Airport Way Center, an immense police complex near Airport Way and S. Holgate Street which houses, among other things, SPD’s SWAT unit, training offices and evidence facilities.

In fact, the rumored break-in, which put officers on high alert, turned out to be more of a break out, and police have now opened an investigation into just how two thieves ended up inside of the vehicle holding area in a secure SPD facility.

So far, detectives have learned the breach—which did not affect SPD’s main evidence warehouse—happened sometime on March 30th, when an SPD patrol officer found a stolen truck and attached trailer parked in the East Precinct, and called a tow company to bring the truck and trailer to the department’s vehicle holding area at the Airport Way Center.

Under normal vehicle processing procedures, when an officer seizes or recovers a vehicle involved in a crime, they look inside for suspects, possible evidence or any dangerous or perishable items, and sometimes get a warrant to retrieve items from inside.

In this case, the officer checked and cleared the truck but was unable to open the trailer, which had apparently been locked from the inside.

Rather than writing a warrant and breaking the lock on the trailer, the officer simply notified auto theft detectives that the truck and trailer were parked in the vehicle holding area.

The officer left the trailer inside the facility on the evening of Saturday, March 30th, where it sat for about 38 hours before an auto theft detective went to the Airport Way Center on the next business day, the following Monday morning, to examine the trailer.

Sometime in that 38 hour period, the two suspects, who had been hiding inside the large, messy twenty-foot by eight-foot trailer–which contained mattresses, drug paraphernalia and stolen items–ventured out into the vehicle holding area and sprayed down the inside of the trailer with a fire extinguisher taken from the wall of the evidence facility, in an apparent attempt to cover their tracks. It didn’t work.

After fleeing the facility, the suspects apparently shared details of their exploits with other criminals.

Detectives began hearing rumors and received vague information that someone had broken in to the Airport Way Center in Mid-May. That information was investigated and found to be untrue. The investigation began again in earnest on July 9th when a burglar facing charges on an unrelated case provided more specific details to SPD and tried to make a bargain with police. The man offered to provide information about the break out in exchange for a shorter sentence in his own case, but detectives were quickly able to piece together details of the incident without negotiating with the man.

Police now believe they have identified the two suspects—one of whom is already in jail on an unrelated case—and are attempting to rule-out whether the suspects tampered with any vehicles in the holding area before they fled the facility through a secure door, out onto a public street. At this point, police do not believe the suspects had planned to intentionally sneak into the SPD evidence facility via Trojan trailer, but rather had been living inside the trailer when it was towed.

Police are still reviewing evidence and have reviewed video from the facility, but detectives believe that while the two suspects were in the holding area, they would have physically been able to access other vehicles in the holding area. The vehicle holding area is not monitored by motion sensor as officers regularly access and enter the vehicle holding area around the clock. SPD is now evaluating the security plan at the facility.

Detectives are working to determine whether the suspects’ presence in the facility may compromise any other investigations. So far, investigators believe the breach may impact no more than six cases. Police have determined 10 vehicles were parked in the holding area at the time of the incident. However, four of those vehicles are not involved in active investigations. Detectives hope to further narrow and confirm the number of affected cases by the end of this week. Police have also notified The King County Prosecutor’s office about the incident.

Police have not yet found any evidence of tampering, and detectives have confirmed the suspects did not have the ability to access the department’s nearby evidence warehouse, quartermaster offices, or vehicle processing room.

SPD is not aware of any other previous security breaches at the department’s evidence facility, and the department is working to ensure nothing like this happens again. A department supervisor has reviewed SPD evidence procedures with the officer who brought the trailer to the vehicle holding area, and the department is also reviewing security protocols at the facility.