A massive fire that destroyed decades of police evidence was accidental, fire officials said Thursday.
Fire marshals said an electrical blowout in a conduit leading to an exit sign sparked the three-alarm blaze inside the Erie Basin Auto Pond in Red Hook in December 2022.
No one was injured but police say the fire destroyed an untold amount of “biological evidence,” including DNA from past crimes — some of it dating back 20 to 30 years.
The Legal Aid Society called on the NYPD to produce an itemized list of everything inside the warehouse as part of its investigation. But after three months, the Legal Aid is still waiting.
“Nope. Not a word. Crickets,” said Elizabeth Felber, the supervising attorney of the Wrongful Conviction Unit.
She added that the Legal Aid is currently working on five different cases with physical evidence that cannot be located.
“Often times that’s the best evidence that helps exonerate clients,” said Felber. “Witnesses die, they don’t remember things but a piece of evidence that can be tested for DNA – that can be a game changer.”
In 2012, this same warehouse flooded during Hurricane Sandy, destroying about 10,000 barrels of evidence. As of last December, evidence was still being stored in cardboard barrels, which may have helped fuel the flames, according to fire officials.
“So what? That means they’re off the hook? ‘Whoops. It’s an accident, not our fault.’ They need to take responsibility and do a better job. They need to keep their evidence that’s not a fire trap,” said Felber.
Felber said that technological advancements in recent decades could allow for much of the evidence to be retested.
According to the Innocence Project, New York outpaces almost every other state in the number of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing. Since 1989, more than 300 people have been exonerated statewide.
“The science has improved exponentially over the years and there could be evidence that could be retested with better technology that they could potentially identify people,” said Felber.
In a statement, an NYPD spokesperson said the department is working with district attorney’s offices to produce the list requested by the Legal Aid.
“Virtually all the evidence that was located within the Erie Basin Hanger was destroyed, with the exception of eight barrels, which are being reviewed and documented. Currently, the NYPD is working closely with the District Attorney’s offices, on a case-by-case basis, to verify the location and status of each specific evidence request,” the statement said.
The NYPD said that before the fire, construction was about to begin on a project that would’ve improved the electrical grid inside the warehouse.