'Total disaster': Former chief describes evidence room; DNA evidence questioned

News-DemocratMarch 5, 2014 

The evidence room at the Centreville Police Department was a "total disaster," said James Mister, the former chief, who was accused of burning evidence by an attorney representing a murder defendant.

Mister maintained he only burned documents, not evidence, while he cleaned up the evidence lockers with Corey Allen in 2009. Allen has since been convicted of lying to a federal officer and was sentenced to two years in federal prison.

"I asked what they wanted to do with these papers and I wasn't getting any answers," Mister said. "I didn't want to put in a Dumpster because I didn't want someone to go Dumpster diving and get them. So I burned them. No, I did not burn any evidence. No."

Mister, who worked for the Centreville police from 2008 to 2011, testified Wednesday at a hearing in the Carlos Garrett case. Garrett, 52, faces first-degree murder charges in connection with the strangulation and beating death of teenager Nicole Willis.

Willis, a 16-year-old Cahokia High School senior, was found naked, beaten and strangled in a field near her Centreville home on Oct. 4, 1989.

Thomas Q. Keefe III, Garrett's attorney, is asking St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse to toss the DNA evidence and dismiss the case against Garrett because of the shabby evidence keeping by Centreville police.

Garrett was connected to the case through DNA found on one of Willis' fingernails. The nail clippings were taken during Willis' autopsy and placed in a sexual assault kit.

Ali Summers and Deborah Phillips, prosecutors on the case, maintain the chain of evidence on the rape kit was properly documented and the contents, including the fingernail clippings, were secure.

Summers countered prosecutors can demonstrate the chain of custody makes the sexual assault kit containing the fingernails were properly preserved and secured. Summers called any tampering or accidental substitution of evidence "sheer speculation" in a motion filed last week.

After the DNA match, Illinois State Police investigators went to the Centreville evidence locker in an attempt to locate missing evidence, including a blood-stained black baseball hat found under Willis' body and some hairs that were found on the hat.

ISP Special Agent Jamie Brunnworth testified that state police conducted a systematic search of Centreville's evidence locker in February, searching two evidence rooms and two storage containers. The search uncovered evidence connected with the case, including Willis' fingerprints, her purse, wallet, keys, bus schedule, eyeglasses and left shoe. These items were found inside a trash bag sealed with duct tape marked "2004," Brunnworth said.

Crime scene photos were found in a box with photos from other cases, Brunnworth said.

But other items, including Willis' slip, bra, skirt, blouse, jacket and a footwear impression taken from the crime scene, in addition to the hat, have not been found, Brunnworth said.

It wasn't the first time Brunnworth visited the Centreville evidence rooms. When she first visited in January, Brunnworth said that there were Christmas decorations, tires, light bars and uniforms stored in with the evidence.

When she returned in February, those items were no longer in the evidence storage area, Brunnworth said.

The hearing is expected to continue on Thursday.

Contact reporter Beth Hundsdorfer at bhundsdorfer@bnd.com or 618-239-2570.

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