Rhonda Buma, Property and Evidence Clerk, Keeps track of 20,953 pieces of evidence currently stored by the Medford Police Department. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

Organized crime

In a nondescript warehouse in west Medford, more than 20,000 pieces of evidence are guarded under the watchful eye of Rhonda Buma.

The property and evidence clerk for the Medford Police Department keeps track of strands of hair, fingernails, vials of blood, urine and sexual-assault kits that share space with a water pistol, a child's plastic chair and other items collected from crime scenes.

In a separate room, weapons of all sorts are carefully packed in cardboard boxes and tagged for easy retrieval.

"I enjoy my job," said Buma. "You have to be an organized person."

Medford Police Lt. Randy Spurcino gives Buma high praise for her work.

"She's an indispensable person over there," he said.

The evidence room is a little like a house of mystery. Large shelves open and shut again with the push of a button as Buma or another clerk retrieves or files evidence. The moving shelves allow more evidence to be stored in the same room.

Off to one side, Buma opens the door to the drug room where the pungent smell of marijuana is almost overpowering.

A fan system helps keep the odor down, otherwise "it would smell much worse in there," said Buma.

The drugs are all safely stored in paper bags or boxed for later disposal.

Apart from the smell, the only indications that you're standing in a room full of drugs are the large bongs in the entryway.

Ten refrigerators stand like sentries as you enter the evidence room, containing blood-stained clothing or fluids. Buma said the refrigerators will be replaced soon with commercial cooling units.

Against the opposing wall is the "slam" locker, where detectives and officers bring in evidence. Each item is locked safely away to be recorded and processed.

Sometimes blood or other evidence is delivered to a crime lab for testing. This is also noted as part of the chain of custody.

Buma said she often has to testify in court about the handling of evidence, which can become an important part of a case.

How long the evidence stays in this room depends on the case.

Homicide cases, which are stored on an upper shelf in the back of the room, date to 1978. They will remain indefinitely, some hearkening to cold cases, others waiting for advances in technology that could either clear someone of a crime or put someone behind bars. All the evidence is stored in boxes.

For misdemeanor cases, the evidence remains in police custody for a minimum 31 days.

Much of the evidence is returned to owners or auctioned off. Oregon law requires all firearms and drugs be destroyed.

With so many items to keep track of, auction off or dispose of, Buma gets some help from a police sergeant, a part-time retired detective, a full-time office clerk and one latent print technician.

Buma said some of the odd bits of evidence she's seen include leaf blowers, candy, copy machines and even little yard gnomes.

Outside the evidence room, cars, trucks, heavy equipment and bikes are stored in an enclosed yard.

With so much riding on preserving the evidence, Buma said the facility is extremely secure.

"We've had no break-ins," said Buma. "It's a completely armed facility — 24/7."

Evidence isn't the only thing Buma handles. She also assists detectives in collecting evidence at crime scenes, and she is in charge of uniforms and equipment for Medford police officers.

Buma expressed some reluctance in talking about particularly gory crime scenes she's come across because of the fear she may have to testify in court. She has been to both homicide scenes and major burglaries to process the evidence.

"I can't say that any one in particular has stuck with me," she said. "Obviously, we get very sensitive types of cases — abuse cases that are very heartbreaking."

On the popular "CSI" television programs, evidence collection and analysis is portrayed in a manner that's a far cry from the low-key, methodical work that Buma undertakes.

"Honestly, I do not watch 'CSI' because it's fake," said Buma. "It's always glamorized in programs like that."

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