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Posted: Nov. 19, 2010
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By Melissa E. Holsman of TCPalm

Martin County Clerk of the Court Marsha Ewing maintains three locked vaults to store evidence from civil and criminal cases dating back about 50 years. It takes two vaults to store the 740 cases on file, including a 12-foot by 10-foot room and an 8-foot by 5-foot room.

All court clerks who handle physical evidence in the vault are offered free hepatitis shots.

One of the oddest items in the vault is a vial of tainted milk that came from a gallon murderers Nicole Thornhill and Christopher Tomlinson poisoned in a failed effort to kill Gerald Lee Jensen of Stuart.

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"We had to get a court order to put it in a smaller container so we didn't have to keep all of it," said evidence custodian Sandi Storm. "It smelled very bad throughout the whole second floor."

Until a few years ago, clerks were required to store inside the vault all drugs seized by police, which sometimes meant storing dozens of bails of marijuana. Now clerks can photograph seized drugs and keep only a small sample of controlled substances submitted as evidence in a case.

"I can remember working along with the sheriff's department and clearing out the vault of bails and bails of marijuana and an awful lot of prescription drugs," Ewing recalled. "The bags, after they were there for a while, were a real mess."

STUART ? Inside a locked evidence room in Stuart, three tubs filled with coquina rocks once used by the "Salerno strangler" to bury a murder victim remain stacked by a heavy steel door. Nearby, a scrap of gray carpet pulled from a speed boat used to dump a body at sea juts out from a large brown bag.

These are some of the thousands of items kept inside locked vaults after they're used in court to imprison some of the most dangerous criminals across the Treasure Coast.

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The rocks helped convict serial killer Eugene McWatters, who in 2004 murdered three Martin County women. The carpet helped send Alan Mackerley to prison for killing a New Jersey business rival in 1996.

"As the keeper of the records and custodian of the court files, we maintain traffic tickets to murder cases," Martin County Clerk of the Court Marsha Ewing said. "It becomes our responsibility to ... take steps to preserve the evidence, depending on what the physical evidence is."

Each county is required by law to maintain evidence vaults to secure the odd, very old and often bizarre items that have been introduced in court as evidence.

The items fall under the care and control of the clerk of the courts. The court clerk becomes the custodian and caretaker for all court exhibits until a judge issues a court order allowing an item to be destroyed.

In murder convictions, evidence is kept until after a defendant dies in prison while serving a life term, or until after a death sentence is carried out.

In homicides involving suspected serial killers, physical evidence is virtually kept forever, which is why a criminal vault in Fort Pierce still contains a pair of sawed-off tree limbs and a box full of thick, brown ropes used by convicted murderer Gerard Schaeffer, who abducted and killed two girls in 1973. Schaeffer had been a Martin County Sheriff's Office deputy.

"If you want to look at the emotional side," noted Gale Ivey, manager of the criminal courts in St. Lucie County, "this is probably some of the worst parts of what people do to people, and the closures of those parts of their lives, hopefully."

The same could be said for the trio of vaults maintained at the Martin County courthouse. They have criminal evidence dating back more than 30 years, including a 5-foot tall box once used to store a Hobe Sound family's Christmas tree that a son in 1996 used to conceal his dead mother.

"The defendant actually placed his mother in a Christmas tree box," Ewing said.

Every court clerk in Stuart knows it's THE cardboard box that contained the decomposed body of Peggy Bartlett, after her son Joshua Grey, then 19, beat her to death in their living room, then placed her in the blue spruce tree box and hid it in a utility closet.

Martin evidence custodian Sandi Storm flipped through brown envelops stuffed in a worn file box and pulled on a faded tag identifying a blood-smeared kitchen knife used in 1977 by Stuart teenager James Morgan to commit a brutal murder. It's the oldest case stored in the vault, and one Ewing can't forget.

Morgan, then age 16, was a former neighbor of hers, she said, who had broken into her home days before a fit of rage drove him to murder. As a rookie clerk, she recorded the court notes from his trial.

"Each time I see the evidence from that case, I'm taken back in time and remember the brutality of that situation," Ewing said. "He was there mowing her lawn and he asked for a drink, and she looked at him ... and it reminded him of how his mom looked at him. He asked her to go to the bathroom and he came out of the bathroom and he murdered her."

Court clerks in the tri-county area agreed maintaining every piece of evidence ? for what could be a half a century or longer ? is a legal responsibility and a solemn obligation.

Cindy Carlsward, director of court operations at the Indian River County Courthouse said her office has a system to keep physical evidence secured and in pristine condition.

"We do everything under dual control," she said. "Two people are always there when that vault door is open to maintain the security of the evidence."

As proof, Carlsward produced a hamburger sealed for 20 years that helped convict death row inmate Rodney Lowe of killing a Sebastian store clerk. That hamburger could be used as evidence again in January when Lowe is to be back in court for a new sentencing hearing.

Mishandling evidence could result in a mistrial.

"With my staff, the last thing we would ever want to happen would be for our error to cause a case to be thrown out of court," Ewing said. "Someone who has been charged with murder, should something happen to the evidence, they could actually walk free. So I don't think it could get more serious than that."

Still, working daily in a sort of museum of murder can take a toll too, court clerks admitted, so separating their work and family lives is a coveted skill, they said.

Peggy Ward, internal services coordinator at the Indian River County courthouse agreed.

"You've got a piece of bloody clothing and you know somebody got murdered somewhere, somehow, some place," Ward said. "You can't help but think about it. As soon as you walk out of the vault you want to put it on the back burner of your mind."

Ivey said it was shocking early in her career when she realized she'd be logging in as evidence items such as human teeth and bones.

"When I started 25 years ago," she said, "I didn't expect that I would handle body parts of someone."

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Here are some of the infamous cases stored inside the Martin County criminal evidence vault:

In evidence: blood-smeared kitchen knife Morgan, then 16, used to kill a Stuart widow after inflicting 67 stab wounds

In evidence: rusted sawed-off shotgun Pomeranz used to kill a Port Salerno store owner.

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The case: In 1996, Pomeranz was sentenced to death for the shooting death of 49-year-old Ranjit "Pete" Patel on April 19, 1992, during a botched robbery. Pomeranz, a career criminal from Coral Springs, and an accomplice walked into Patel's A&M Discount Beverage Store in Port Salerno and shot him five times. A jury in 1993 found Pomeranz guilty of robbing the store and killing Patel, and recommended that he be sentenced to life in prison. But Circuit Judge Marc Cianca, who presided over the trial, sentenced Pomeranz to death. The Florida Supreme Court in 1997 upheld the jury's original recommendation of life in prison and vacated his death sentence.

Pomeranz is serving a life term at Florida State Prison.

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In evidence: Bloodied blankets and pillows, and a 5-foot-tall cardboard Christmas tree box used to conceal the body of his mother, whom Grey beat to death.

The case: Grey, then 19, used a dumbbell to kill his mother Peggy Bartlett on Feb. 16, 1996 as the two argued because she wouldn't let him use her car. After Grey killed his mother, he cleaned the apartment, put her in a rectangular Christmas tree box and placed it in a storage closet. She was found Feb. 20, 1996.

Grey was convicted of first-degree murder and is serving a life prison term at Martin Correctional Institution.

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In evidence: a scrap of gray carpet from Mackerley's formula boat the Jersey Girl, police suspected was used to dump a body at sea.

The case: On Feb. 24, 1996, Mackerley, the millionaire owner of Byram Bus Lines in New Jersey, killed his bitter business rival, 58-year-old Frank Black, former owner of Frank L. Black Bus Service in Andover, whose body has never been found. Mackerly and his accomplice Playmobil 9436 Action Floating Police Seaplane, Various,Lisa Costello used a phony business deal to lure Black to Mackerley's Stuart home. He then shot Black in the head and dumped his body in the ocean.

After three trials, an appeals court upheld Mackerley's 2003 murder conviction.

He is serving a life prison term at Union Correctional Institution.

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In evidence: A large section of burnt mattress wrapped in black plastic that was pulled from a burning trailer that took the life of Wendy Weller.

The case: On Aug. 16, 2003, Gregory Canham killed his sick girlfriend of four years by setting their Tropical Farms trailer on fire. Weller, 49, died of smoke inhalation as a fire raged inside a bedroom, where her charred body was found on the floor.

In 2005, Canham was convicted of first-degree murder and arson and sentenced to life in prison. He's been filing appeals since then, and is currently at the Martin County jail awaiting a Nov. 22 hearing before Martin Circuit Judge Sherwood Bauer.

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In evidence: The door of a Martin County Sheriff's patrol cruiser that has three holes near the door handle; a bullet-tattered Revell 1 72 h-241 heinkel he 115 c-1 vintage model aircraft kit,deputy's shirt worn by Martin County Sheriff's Sgt. Dale Howard.

The case: On May 11, 2006 Sims fired 13 rounds from assault rifle at Howard, striking him once in the left arm after Howard tried to pull him over for a traffic violation. Sims fled but was arrested an hour later. He was convicted of the attempted murder of an officer by discharging a firearm, resisting an officer with violence and throwing a missile at an occupied vehicle.

Sims is serving a life prison term at Hamilton Correctional Institution.

In evidence: a vial of poisoned milk the couple used in a failed attempt to kill Stuart resident Gerald Lee Jensen, Thornhill's stepfather. Tomlinson later attacked and killed Jensen with a sword inside a Stuart apartment before wrapping his body in a blanket and placing it in a nearby trash bin. Both were convicted of first-degree murder.

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Tomlinson is serving life in prison at Tomoka Correctional Institution; Thornhill is serving a 50-year prison term at Homestead Correctional Institution.


Source: Marsha Ewing, Martin County Clerk of the Circuit Court; Gale Ivey, manager of the criminal court for St. Lucie County.

About Melissa E. Holsman

Melissa E. Holsman is a multimedia journalist covering legal affairs and watchdog investigations.

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