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While the nation’s attention is riveted on the efforts to recover the remains of more than 3,000 persons who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York, federal law enforcement officials are keeping a close eye on the recovery work for a different purpose: to see if criminal evidence stored in the doomed complex can be retrieved. U.S. Customs Service agents are at ground zero continuously, and are also sifting through the debris after it is carted to the Fresh Kills landfill, said Joseph R. Webber, the head of 225 law enforcement officers assigned to the Custom Service’s New York office. So far, the recovery efforts are proceeding well, reported Webber, the special agent in charge of the Customs Service’s policing operations in the metropolitan area. A “great deal” of the evidence that was missing after the destruction of the U.S. Customs House at Six World Trade Center has been recovered, Webber said. The fifth floor of the Customs House, where most of the agents had their offices, contained three evidence rooms. In addition, the ground floor of the building held a large evidence storage room containing narcotics and other contraband, which covered about one-third of a city block. The loss of evidence in the attack has not caused any problems for pending criminal cases in the Eastern District of New York, said Andrew Weissman, chief of criminal division of the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office. Immediately after the attack, Weissman said, he canvassed the office’s assistants, who reported that about 10 cases had been affected. In those cases, most of them involving narcotics, Weissman said, either lab reports were used in place of the missing narcotics evidence or agents had access to notes that could be used to refresh their recollection. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York did not respond to requests for comments. Other sources, however, depicted the recovery effort as far more problematic. One source reported that “better than half” of the evidence kept at the Customs House had been destroyed. The source added that the loss of physical evidence “will likely imperil many investigations,” and that several investigations involving the seizure of illegal goods, now lost, had been seriously compromised. Webber said, however, that priorities have been set to assure the most serious cases are not affected. So far, he said, he was aware of no pending prosecutions in either the Southern or Eastern Districts that had been adversely affected. The search for lost evidence is likely to continue until mid-January, Webber added. With efforts to reconstruct evidence concentrated in the most serious cases, a final assessment of the damage to pending matters will not be available until mid-February. The Customs office in New York had “several hundred” open criminal investigation at the time of the attack, said Kenneth Kluge, the deputy special agent in charge of the office. Those cases consisted of pending investigations as well as prosecutions filed in the Southern and Eastern Districts. GUNS LOST About 30 law enforcement agents with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), whose primary mission was to interdict illegal arms trading, had offices one floor above the interagency task force on the sixth floor of the Customs House. Some of the guns seized by ATF agents, which were stored in two evidence vaults on the sixth floor, have yet to be recovered, said Joseph Green, an ATF spokesman. Green expressed confidence that agents would be able to provide direct testimony, or use documents that had been preserved in the ATF’s off-site computer system, to overcome problems caused by the loss of the guns. The loss of documents has forced a huge reallocation of resources to preserve civil law enforcement cases, said ATF’s Assistant Chief Counsel Jeffrey A. Cohen. None of the documents collected by Cohen and three other ATF lawyers working on civil enforcement matters were backed up on an off-site computer, Green said. As a consequence, he reported spending two months recreating a file “from scratch” in a $1 million tax collection case involving alcohol. New document subpoenas had to be obtained and new interviews with defendants and witnesses had to be conducted. Green acknowledged, though, that it is “more difficult to obtain damaging admissions” on a second go-around after the defendants have “gotten their story straight.” The U.S. Secret Service, which also had offices at the Customs House, declined to comment on whether its law enforcement operations had been affected. 225 AGENTS The largest component of law enforcement work at the Customs House involved the interagency task force, whose mission is to investigate international money laundering. The task force consists of 40 Customs agents and 115 agents from the Internal Revenue Service, the Secret Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the New York City Police Department and other local law enforcement agencies. The remaining 70 Customs Service agents worked on a variety of matters including narcotics, international organized crime, terrorism, art theft, intellectual property crimes, child pornography and the counterfeiting of commercial products. The large ground-floor storeroom held narcotics and other forms of contraband seized during investigations. In addition, materials confiscated by Customs agents at John F. Kennedy International Airport were kept in that storeroom pending the conclusion of an investigation. Materials seized by agents at Newark International Airport are stored at a facility located there. The fifth floor evidence rooms held all types of physical evidence, including undercover tapes, wiretap records, currency, seized computers, and companies’ books and records. Webber reported good success at recovering narcotics that had been stored in a vault, about 50 feet by 50 feet, which was maintained within the large ground-floor storage room. The cinder-block vault was found cracked, but intact, a source reported. As for the evidence stored on the fifth floor, the source said there was extensive damage. The heat was so intense, the source said, that portions of a gun stored inside a high-grade safe had been incinerated. Much of the paperwork generated by agents, including original notes, had been destroyed, the source added. However, a good deal of the lost paperwork can be reconstructed, Webber said, because agents are required to file reports describing their actions on a case, and those reports are backed up on a computer in Washington, D.C. Former federal prosecutors agreed that the reports could be useful in reconstructing records, and that new copies of business records obtained pursuant to grand jury subpoenas could be obtained. They added that laboratory reports can serve as an adequate substitute for missing physical evidence. Nonetheless, said Paul Shechtman, a former chief of the criminal division in the Southern District and now a partner at New York-based Stillman & Friedman, “the credibility of the agent becomes much more important when the prosecution can’t put the guns or drugs directly before the jury.” “The degree of difficulty in prosecuting a case goes up considerably, but a case is by no means untriable,” he added. On the flip side, Shechtman added, the loss of agents’ original notes could benefit the prosecution by denying the defense access to impeachment material. TAPES A PROBLEM Mark F. Pomerantz, also a former chief of the criminal division in the Southern District, agreed that the problems created by the loss of evidence were more likely to be “more administrative and practical than legal.” But, he added, for cases still in the investigative phase, the loss of original records seized pursuant to a search warrant could be “dicey.” Similarly, Shechtman said the loss of undercover tapes, while a case was still being investigated, could create “a very difficult problem” for the prosecution where an informant’s credibility is suspect. Those problems do not exist once an indictment has been issued, he added, because agents routinely deliver undercover tapes at that point to the U.S. Attorney’s Office to be made available to the defense in discovery, he added. Tamara Loomis contributed to this story.

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