Special Segment: Inside the Evidence Vault
May 7, 2012 (CHICAGO) (WLS) -- On the near Southwest Side stands a warehouse that is quite plain in appearance. Nothing on its outside would suggest what it holds within: a cornucopia of Cook County legal history that is required by the courts and tended to by the clerk.
This is one museum rarely seen by the general public. There, you will not find the Lost Ark of the Covenant, but within the sea of tens of thousands of court documents, you will find local history -- from the mundane to the murderous.
ABC7 recently entered evidence vault number one in the company of Tom Sobun who has spent a portion of his life creating an electronic record of everything in this room, and he really got into it.
"I was reading a book called 'Murder Next Door' and one of the chapters was entitled 'The witch who boiled her lover,'" said Sobun.
It was the story of Yvonne Kleinfelder, a self proclaimed high-priestess of witchcraft who in 1980 boiled pots of water to scald her boyfriend to death.
A few weeks after he read that chapter, Tom's began doing inventory in vault one and found the Kleinfelder evidence box, and inside it was the pot.
"Holy Cow! Are you kidding me? This is what I just read about. This is the pot she used," he said.
Vault one contains a sobering collection of tools of murder. From a decorative fence post that ended a dispute between neighbors to the Patti Columbo murder weapons, to the window through which an assassin's bullet took the life of horseman George Jayne.
"This is the trap door to the crawl space of John Gacy's home," said Phil Costello, Chief Deputy Clerk of Archives.
Most of John Gacy's victims were buried inside the crawl space of his home. The trap door became a dramatic piece of evidence at his trial.
Within the Gacy box in vault one are the handcuffs the killer clown used to enslave the young men he would later kill.
All the items are held in the secure vault one, not for the fascination of the archivists but because the court requires that evidence in murder cases be impounded and kept in perpetuity. Only the court can decide to dispose of it, and that's not a likely consequence for the contents of vault one.
"There's a grim side to it," Costello said. "There's a macabre side to it, but there's an interest side to it too. It's history ... It's part of our history."
Outside vault one are different pieces of history. Baseball. 1919, the so-called Black Sox try to clear their names in court.
"The defense starts to argue that the players who are accused to throwing the World Series actually played better during the World Series than they did during the regualar season," Costello said.
And there at the base of their bill of particulars are the signatures of George Buck Weaver, and Shoeless Joe Jackson. They would win in court but would later be banned from baseball for life.
A young Swede, August Wennerstrom survived the sinking of the Titanic. A few months later he declared his intent to become a U.S. citizen. His is among tens of thousands of similar declarations which are now viewable on line. That, of course, the future. But it means the past, all this paper has to scanned into PDFs - 50 million documents and counting.
"Until the Supreme court feels very comfortable with only electronic images and proper backup systems and that sort of thing, we still have to maintain the paper," said Dorothy Brown, Circuit Court Clerk.
And, of course, they still have to maintain those grizzly items that speak of dark events from the past which remain locked in vault one.
In looking at some of the vault's contents, ABC7 wondered whether there's been any discussion about allowing public viewing of at least some of those items, mindful, of course, that pain associated with murder lasts a long time, and putting tools of death on display could be seen as exploitive.
Still they have historical significance. Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown says she would entertain the possibility of working with a historical museum on a display concept. But, as she points out, it's the court that would make that decision.
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