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Skeletons in the closet: Evidence room full of surprises

Skeletons in the closet: Evidence room full of surprises

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Jan Stepan knows about the skeletons in Butte's closets.

She has a skeleton or two of her own. Stepan also has assault rifles, meth and Natural Ice in her collection as property and evidence technician for Butte-Silver Bow police.

Some of the items are crass enough to make her blush. Others are heartbreaking such as crime-scene photos.

"There's a lot that's really disturbing, too," Stepan said while gazing at her heaps of evidence collected over the years.

Something as simple as a brown lunch bag can spark emotion.

It can serve as a reminder of the humanity in all evidence collected by police. When the lunches were collected from a plane crash outside of Butte, this was definitely the case -- as were the suitcases that still reeked of jet fuel.

"It's really emotional for us, too," Stepan said. "It's just hard to deal with sometimes."

Just as police don't know what they'll collect during a shift, she never can guess what she'll receive. Officers collect enough to fill about 20 paper bags with evidence daily.

Stepan, who has worked with the police for 30 years, knows she'll get audio recordings. About a dozen CDs and DVDs a day is her general haul. That serves as the largest bulk of the items.

"The volume of evidence we bring in is ridiculous," Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff Ed Lester said.

After that, there's the regular shoplifted clothing and bongs confiscated. Part of the evidence room, which is filled to the ceiling with boxes, looks like a liquor store. Case after case of Bud Light and other brews line the shelves.

Then, there's the weapons room. Rifles line one wall and pistols are piled on the other. Medieval-looking swords rest next to homemade weapons.

Everything from a bottle of malt liquor collected from an underage party to the knife used in a murder has to be secured, identified and cataloged.

Even with evidence brimming in the room and spilling out into other parts of the police station, Stepan is quick to find needed objects.

"She'll get it in 10 minutes," Lester said.

How long items are kept depends on the scenario. Cold case evidence is filed indefinitely.

Some of the oldest items are from a 1965 murder that remains unsolved.

The objects collected from a few locations after the bullet-ravaged bodies of two Butte women were found partially burned near Big Butte fill many boxes and their own locker. Police continue to look into the deaths of mother Marjorie McQuiston and her daughter Nancy McQuiston. In April 1965, police found their bodies a few days after locating bullet holes and bloodstains in their Butte home.

Investigators never know when they'll find a break in the case.

Evidence collected at the scene of a murder and other locations was kept for five years before charges were filed against the suspect.

Testing technology is ever-changing. Earlier this year, prosecutors charged a former Butte man accused of beating his father to death with a baseball bat in 2008.

Police say forensic testing connected the killing to Adam Hatfield, who is awaiting trial for deliberate homicide in his father's death.

Evidence is used for not only local cases but also elsewhere.

In the office of Lt. Butch Harrington, the detective in charge of cold cases, sits a bulletin board pinned with various photos and paperwork on a missing woman from Alaska gone since February 1990. Someone in Butte has knowledge about the mysterious disappearance of Sheri Lynn White, he said.

Harrington urges anyone with information on any cold cases to call police, 406-497-1120.

One unsolved mystery has been hanging around the evidence room so long, he has a nickname. Police haven't been able to find his real name.

"Billy Bones" is a well-known figure around the police station. The skeleton has been in the evidence collection for decades. The skull and other bones were found near Homestake Lake and remain boxed and tagged.

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