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Published: Sunday, 4/24/2005

Burned cars' trunks to be searched now

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The discovery of a murdered North Toledo man in the trunk of a burned-out car after it was sent to a tow lot last month has led Toledo police to create a policy for dealing with such vehicles.

Police will now search and inventory the contents of trunks and all large compartments of vehicles that have apparently been abandoned and set on fire.

The body of 44-year-old James Buchanan was found March 15 in the trunk of a burned car nearly two weeks after it was towed.

The Lucas County coroner's office said the victim died of neck trauma consistent with strangulation.

"We want to ensure something like that doesn't happen again," Chief Mike Navarre said. "We don't want to miss crucial pieces of evidence or, in this case, a deceased person."

In an unrelated incident last week, Hamilton County, Ohio, sheriff's officers discovered a body in the trunk of a towed car more than a month after it had been towed to a Cincinnati area impound lot.

The sheriff there said officers failed to follow existing policy by not searching the trunk where the body of a 49-year-old missing man who committed suicide was found. The trunk was forced open after a sheriff's captain noticed a foul odor coming from the car.

In the Toledo case, Buchanan's wife filed a missing-person report on her husband March 3. She told police he left home March 1, and she hadn't heard from him since.

On March 2, firefighters were sent to the 1600 block of Belmont Avenue to extinguish a car fire. Firefighters tried several times to "pop" open the trunk of the car because the rear passenger area adjacent to the trunk sustained fire damage. They couldn't get in, but were satisfied the fire was out and gave a report on the incident to police.

The car then was towed to ABCO, a private tow lot on Westwood Avenue.

Detectives investigating Buchanan's disappearance went to the tow lot to search the car March 15 after they received information he had been driving the vehicle, which he did not own. That's when Buchanan's body was found in the trunk.

Investigators said a discrepancy with the registration delayed connecting the vehicle to Buchanan. As soon as they made the connection, they said, they searched the car. Investigators believe Buchanan was put into the trunk before the car was set on fire.

His death remains under investigation.

After Buchanan's body was found, Police Chief Navarre and Fire Chief Mike Bell discussed what happened.

Generally, neither Toledo police nor firefighters open the trunks of abandoned vehicles unless they have reason to believe there is something evidentiary in nature inside or a blaze may have spread to that area, the chiefs said.

For vehicles that are simply abandoned, Chief Navarre said police get into the trunk without force if they can to do an inventory search. If they cannot get into the trunk without force, they won't damage the vehicle by popping the lock. Instead, they do a regular inventory of the rest of the vehicle, he said.

"If there is an arson, there may be enough cause to look into that trunk and see if there's something in there that may have precipitated the arson," Chief Navarre said of the new policy.

The burned vehicle's contents must be documented on the tow report, as required with any tow, and officers are to note any force used to gain access to compartments. The notice detailing the new police procedure indicated officers can gain access to the trunk by "utilizing the vehicle's key or trunk release, with assistance from the fire department, or when necessary by forcing the trunk lock."

Gregg Harris, president of the Toledo Police Patrolman's Association, said he thinks the new policy with abandoned and burned vehicles is a good one.

"It's a very logical move," he said. "Hopefully, we won't get a bunch of complaints of us tearing up the trunk lock."

Chief Bell said he has made no policy or procedure changes for firefighters after the Buchanan incident.

"The procedure the police are putting in place should address it," he said.

Lucas County Sheriff James Telb said that his policy requires deputies to search and inventory the contents of any abandoned vehicles before they are towed - including the trunk.

Like many other law enforcement agencies, Sheriff Telb said all of his patrol deputies carry "Slim Jims" - long, thin metal devices with catches on them - that are designed to slide between the glass and the door to open the locks on cars.

Deputies use these devices to open cars and then, hopefully, release a trunk latch. Trunk locks are popped if necessary to search inside, the sheriff said.

The Henry County sheriff's office reported it does not have a black-and-white policy regarding abandoned vehicle searches, but all vehicles that are going to be towed are searched first.

Wood County Sheriff Mark Wasylyshyn said his office likewise searches vehicles it tows.

Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said his deputies do not force open the trunk of a vehicle if it is locked. A visual inventory is made looking through the windows of a locked, abandoned vehicle before it is towed.

If the abandoned vehicle is unlocked, then deputies would use a trunk release if the vehicle has one to open the trunk and conduct a thorough search and inventory. If an abandoned vehicle is ablaze, Sheriff Bratton said the fire department involved would normally pop open the trunk anyway.

Staff Writer Mike Sigov contributed to this report.

Contact Christina Hall at chall@theblade.com or 419-724-6007.



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