It was supposed to have been a bit of spring cleaning, but it resulted in a blunder a Somerville, Mass., police captain now calls "a serious error."
The police officers apparently had good intentions, but their inadvertent actions not only cost Somerville, which lies just north of Boston, thousands of dollars in drug evidence but may also have compromised some of its pending drug cases.
So what happened?
Two Somerville Police Department officers were assigned to clean out an old evidence room at the city's police headquarters -- that's exactly what they thought they were doing when they inadvertently threw away a dilapidated desk that contained more than $31,000 worth of evidence from past and pending criminal cases.
"We are embarassed. We have egg on our face, but we did this because we tried to make things better," said Somerville Police Capt. Michael Devereaux, who said that the department is taking full responsibility for the officers' actions.
''It was accidental," but the officers cleaning the evidence room ''should have been more careful than that," acting Somerville Police Chief Robert Bradley told the Boston Globe. ''It's just an embarrassment for the department."
The tidying officers discovered the old desk in the evidence room had been moved and tilted on its side, so they assumed it was part of a batch of other old office furniture that was being discarded. So, they threw it out on a city dump truck.
What they didn't know was that an evidence clerk -- who was not working that day -- had been using the desk to store some $31,535 in seized cash.
Devereaux said the two officers, one of whom is retired, are "mortified."
"He was doing a good job cleaning up," Devereaux said. "Unfortunately, he threw out a little too much."
After a detailed search of the desk's journey, it has been determined that the discarded desk -- still holding the thousands of dollars of cash evidence -- was ultimately taken from a waste transfer station outside Boston to a landfill in Rochester, N.H.
If only the distance was the biggest issue. Devereaux said it is too late to retrieve the broken desk -- and the money inside it.
"There is no way to recover it, even with heavy equipment," Devereaux said. "It is gone."
The cash-laden desk is now presumed buried under hundreds of tons of industrially compacted waste.
"Even if it was a body, we wouldn't be able to get it," Bradley told The Boston Globe.
The irony here may be that the department had just been awarded a federal grant to upgrade its evidence tracking to a computerized system, leaving some to wonder whether the evidence loss further justifies the need for a more modern method of evidence storage.
Now there is concern that some criminal cases may have been compromised. Somerville police and the Middlesex County District Attorney's Office are looking into whether any crucial evidence was thrown away when the desk was dumped. The cases were mostly narcotics violations and Devereaux said the discarded evidence may not be necessary, because there might be other evidence they can put into play.
After a case is closed, any seized funds are usually split between the district attorney's office and the city police department. However, the main concern here is how the lack of funds will affect those cases.
"This is cash -- this is $31,000 in cash. As big a mistake as it is, it is still not a homicide case," Devereaux said.
The Somerville Police Department has launched an internal investigation into the police blunder.
"There are mistakes of the heart, and there are mistakes of the head. This is a mistake of the head," Devereaux said. "If you asked your kid to clean out the garage and he wanted to do a good job for you, and he accidentally threw out your Ted Williams autographed ball, you wouldn't sell your kid to the neighbor.
"At the end of the day, your shoulders sag a little lower, you admit your mistakes and stride forward."
Still, Devereaux insisted that "somebody is going to take a hit for this.
"We have to answer to the people who pay our salaries," he said, though he maintained that any disclipinary action taken would probably not mean any of the officers losing their job.
In this case, the loss of the evidence may be enough.