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Hillsborough's vault of evidence is kept ready for trial

She walks the courthouse hallway in sensible loafers, a cardboard box swinging gently at her side. She's 57 and 5 feet 3, wears her hair short and curly and her glasses big and round. You don't wonder where she's headed. She doesn't want you to. Her photo ID hangs backward so you can't see her job title: director of evidence.

She doesn't want you to know that box of hers contains a gun used in a police shootout.

Or that the door at the end of the hallway leads to a bank-grade vault, stuffed with rifles and jewels and bricks of cocaine.

Shirley Eade, who spends her days watching over the most notorious pieces of evidence to ever nail a Hillsborough murderer, prefers to be invisible.

But you if want to see Willie Crain's toilet seat, or Valessa Robinson's jug of bleach, or Hank Earl Carr's handcuff key, you need to see Eade first.

And you need to follow her rules.

• • •

Eade climbs a back stairwell, punches a door code, passes cubicles of clerks and their files and steps over a threshold into a small room.

"You cross here," she says, "you're coming into my world."

This is where she seals and documents evidence fresh out of trial and ready for storage.

Rule No. 1: sign in.

Rule No. 2: smile for the cameras.

Logs and security cameras are all over Eade's world — "audit tools," she calls them. On her computer, she can see her facilities in downtown and on Falkenburg Road. On her BlackBerry, she gets alerts every time the slightest motion trips a sensor.

On this recent day, a court clerk hands over all the evidence used to convict Thomas Ford McCoy Jr. He was on the run from what police call a murder in the Panhandle when marshals caught up to him at a Tampa hotel. McCoy fired his gun, but the marshals shot him twice. He survived and was recently sentenced to 20 years in the Tampa shooting. He has not yet stood trial up north.

Eade and evidence manager Elaine Cherry get his gun. They get the bullets. They get the clothes he was wearing when he got shot, shredded and bloody, with unknown items in the pockets. There could be needles in there, or worse. Cherry puts on gloves. Eade passes out safety masks. Then, Cherry digs in.

She finds a hanky and a penny. Even the penny will get its own bar code. Eade doesn't know which piece of evidence will be crucial in an appeal, so she treats everything like it can make or break a case.

"You've got that one chance to get that record right," she says. "A man or woman's freedom is dependent on it."

Eade processes evidence of all shapes and sizes. During a recent misdemeanor battery case, she kept a giant, leaf-shedding tree limb. She once got an emergency call from a judge who confiscated a gizmo a man used to fake a drug test. Eade cataloged the Whizzinator.

But there are some things Eade won't take. "We don't take things that go boom," she said. "I can't set the building on fire."

And no live animals. Eade once turned down a baby lion. "I've got a cage down there," she said, "but I'm not going to take care of your pooping little lion."

The McCoy evidence gets wrapped in heavy-duty plastic sheeting. It gets sealed and put in a box and sealed again. Then, a court bailiff comes to escort her to the vault.

For protection, Eade says, two evidence employees must enter the vault together.

As Cherry twists the safe dial, Eade shields the combination with her body. She trusts no one, she says, and offers more rules.

Rule No. 3: don't disclose the location of the vault.

Rule No. 4: don't give away the identities of her workers.

What if someone wanted to knock them out and gain access to the merchandise?

Cherry pushes the vault door and swings open some bars to reveal the goods — every piece of evidence classified as "sensitive" is connected to a case in which the convict is still serving a sentence.

"Guns, drugs, rock and roll," Eade calls it. Rows of rifles. Passports. Handguns. Bullets. Pots full of marijuana plants once bushy and green, now reduced to dry, shriveled leaves.

The rock and roll? Anything deemed a "valuable" by her department, from wads of cash to gold teeth to McCoy's penny.

The cardboard box they spent the morning packing finds a home atop a stack of others.

Then, a second stop.

There's more.

• • •

Ten miles away, inside a warehouse near a county jail, every other piece of evidence is kept in a locked corner Eade calls "the cage."

Three refrigerators store blood and, if needed, body parts. Rusted bicycles hang from bars.

Rows of plastic tubs fill shelves, along with items that catch the eye — golf clubs, machetes, baseball bats. An ax. A shovel. A mop.

A pair of Nike high-tops, fresh out of 1992. A bottle of Jack Daniel's. A baby carrier.

A door off its hinges punctured by two bullets that killed a Tampa police detective.

Willie Crain's toilet seat.

Blood found on that seat helped link the commercial crab fisherman to the murder of 7-year-old Amanda Brown, whose body was never found.

Crain is on death row. Eade will keep that toilet seat until he dies. Then she'll hand it over to authorities who will decide what to do. Eade will do the same with all the other relics of death, stacked higher than she can reach. There's no way for her to quantify just how much suffering is contained behind the objects.

She doesn't try.

If she did, she says, she wouldn't be able to do her job.

The best thing she can offer is her absolute impartiality and her clinical, calculating protection.

And more rules.

Rule No. 5: no janitors. Only she and her staff can clean the cage.

Rule No. 6: plan for disaster.

In her mind, a Category 5 hurricane hits Tampa. The courthouse windows are shattered, glass littering the hallway.

She steps over it, opens the evidence vault, pushes the door.

Inside, the vault is flooded, but the plastic-wrapped sensitives are high and dry.

Across town in the cage, the power is out, but the refrigerators are wired to backup electricity and still running.

And the blood is still cold.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Hillsborough's vault of evidence is kept ready for trial 11/26/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 27, 2010 11:50pm]
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