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A steadily growing volume of evidence stored in a deteriorating building presents challenges for the Volusia County government in general and for law enforcement in particular.

During heavy rains earlier in May, water made its way into the building the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office currently uses to store evidence — a former jail west of DeLand — damaging boxes containing evidence. 

Fortunately, the evidence itself remained undamaged.

But for Sheriff’s Office officials, that made the facility’s replacement all the more urgent. 

The sorts of evidence the agency stores — including everything from fingerprints, DNA samples, firearms and blunt objects used as weapons to scraps of paper, photos and furniture — can make the difference between a suspected criminal getting convicted, or walking free.

Authorities are in a sort of race against time to safeguard the evidence against contamination by the leaking water, mold and mildew. 

The new facility is supposed to be ready next spring. 

That’s none too soon for Volusia County Sheriff’s Capt. Dave Brannon, who is in charge of ensuring the proof needed for court cases remains untainted and inviolate.

The $13.5 million center now under construction near the Volusia County Branch Jail includes a 25,000-square-foot evidence warehouse, along with about 10,000 square feet of office space. 

The new evidence-storage building is to be ready for use in April, according to a county timetable.

“We expect that to be state-of-the-art,” Brannon said. “There’s room for expansion in 15 to 20 years, in case we need expansion.”

For now, however, Brannon and his staff must make do with the VCSO’s current evidence center west of DeLand. 

More than 227,000 bits and pieces of evidence are kept in the current pre-World-War II-era building.

When it was a jail — as recently as the mid-1980s — the building had no air conditioning, and inmates sweltered during hot weather. 

The conversion of the structure for evidence storage included climate-control systems. The cells of the former jail are now storage rooms.

Outside are bicycles, motorcycles and cars impounded during investigations.

That collection of evidence is for the cases investigated by the Sheriff’s Office, which serves the unincorporated areas of the county and the cities of DeBary, Deltona, Oak Hill and Pierson. 

The police departments of the other cities within the county have their own evidence-holding facilities, Brannon explained.

Occasionally, he said, state agencies such as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission or the Marine Patrol and federal agencies such as the Bureau of Customs may also ask the VCSO to hold items temporarily.

There are refrigerated and frozen rooms for keeping perishable evidence. 

During a tour of the facility, Brannon reached into a refrigerated unit and showed a bag filled with marijuana-laced cookies. He did not offer free samples, however.

“On average, about 100 [new items] a day come in,” Brannon said.

The items relate to cases solved and unsolved, pending and adjudicated.

When deputies bring an item to the evidence-storage center, an evidence technician logs it into a computer system, gives it a number and seals it, before putting it away.

In a building crammed with shelves and boxes, the evidence technicians can retrieve the cataloged items stored if and when they are needed later — sometimes much later.

“It’s very easy to come in, very difficult to come out,” Assistant Evidence Manager Jim Whitaker said. “Capital and life felonies — it’s going to be 100 years.”

Water stains and peeling paint abound in the roughly 16,000-square-foot building. 

And occasionally, Brannon noted, snakes find their way inside. 

“The building was built between 1938 and 1940. It was the old county work farm,” Brannon said. “One of the problems with the building is that the building roof  leaks. We had to put under it a ceiling diaper to capture the water. During hurricanes and severe weather, we have leaking.” 

So far, he said, no evidence has been thrown out of court because of the shortcomings of the building.

“The staff has done a phenomenal job in preserving evidence. They are very dedicated,” Brannon noted.

County Council Member Heather Post, who also toured the evidence building, expressed outrage over the current conditions and wondered aloud why the matter was not addressed sooner.

“I’m infuriated that the county has allowed this to get to this point. This wasn’t a one-year thing,” Post said. “It’s not just the state of the building, but the purpose of the building. It’s an embarrassment to the county.”

Post joined with her colleagues Feb. 6 in awarding the construction contract for the replacement facility to Ajax Building Corp., of Jacksonville. 

That contract sets the guaranteed maximum construction price of the project at $11.8 million, in addition to the $1,350,000 already spent for architectural design, engineering and permitting. 

An estimated $355,000 is to be spent at a later date for furnishing and equipping the new building. 

Construction began in March. 

Even as building is underway, Brannon and Post said they are hearing about possible reductions in its size.

“Value engineering — they’re asking what can you live without,” Brannon said.

“There’s been discussion about cutting 25 to 35 percent of the building,” Post said.

County Engineer Tadd Kasbeer said Sheriff Mike Chitwood’s request for a covered parking area for seized vehicles was eliminated from the project earlier because of its cost, but that the evidence building, as promised, is intact.

“There’s no move afoot to shrink the building in size, shape or form,” Kasbeer told The Beacon. “We have a fixed amount of money. We can’t print money, obviously. We provided all the needs that they had.”

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