Memphis sells car where man was murdered, didn't tell family - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

The Investigators: Crime scene for sale

(WMC TV) - Ten days before Memphis police took control of the city's impound lot, the lot's officials sold a mother's vehicle that was state's evidence in her son's murder investigation.

The vehicle, a 1997 Pontiac Grand Am, was owned free and clear by Melody Thomas. Thomas' son, Steven Austin, was driving the car when he was shot dead May 10, 2011, at the intersection of Baltic St. and Faxon Ave in Binghampton.

"His girlfriend called, and she was all...I mean, she was hollering," said Thomas, "and she told me he got shot.

"And I'm thinking hospital visits, you know, he'll be home. But when I got there, it was indescribable."

Records from the Memphis Impound Lot, 465 Klinke Ave., indicated its staff sent Thomas what's called a "C-Letter," postmarked four days after her son's death (May 14, 2011). The letter informed her that her car was on the lot and to claim it within 30 days.

Thomas said when she called to claim it, officials told her it could not be released because of the homicide investigation.

"They told me it was on hold," she said.

Records revealed lot officials followed up with a certified letter -- sent with return receipt requested -- May 26, 2011, to Thomas' Binghampton address. The letter was sent to notify Thomas her car would be sold at auction either June 14 or June 21, 2011, unless she claimed it.

But both the record and Memphis Police Investigative Services Deputy Chief Dave Martello confirmed Thomas never signed for the certified letter.

"This one was not signed for," said Martello.

Despite no acknowledgement of Thomas being contacted, lot officials sold her car at auction June 21, 2011, to a recycling company for $450.

"Can you tell me how you sold my car without calling me or contacting me?" asked Thomas. "My son's wallet was in that car, his driver's license, Social Security card, two cell phones...not to mention it was evidence in a homicide."

"Our crime scene investigators processed the car at their lot," said Martello. "So we had already retrieved the information and the evidence we needed from the vehicle."

"That is correct," confirmed Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich. "It has been processed for scientific evidence, and we will begin that process, working with the labs and our office and MPD to find out what's in there."

At Action News 5's request, police checked the department's property room for anything that might have been removed from Thomas' vehicle. Department spokesperson Sgt. Karen Rudolph said a cell phone pulled from the vehicle was tagged and inventoried, but no wallet or identification.

Martello assured the Action News 5 Investigators that Austin's personal items or identification would not have been sold with the vehicle.

July 1, 2011 -- ten days after the vehicle's sale -- the Memphis Police Department took control of the impound lot from the city's General Services in what amounted to a house-cleaning.

Mayor AC Wharton had already suspended an entire shift for multiple thefts of property from vehicles stored on the lot. Former lot supervisor Rickey Shotwell was fired and arrested for aiding, abetting and sharing in the theft of items pilfered from impounded vehicles.

With Martello's oversight, the police department has hired new personnel and implemented policies at the lot to make sure property, as well as vehicles, don't disappear again.

"Now every effort is going to be made to try to make sure that the person who is listed as the registered owner of that vehicle is notified, whether it is by telephone or certified mail," Martello said.

A suspect - Larry Charles Price, Jr. - has been arrested and charged with first degree murder in Austin's killing. Weirich insisted Price's prosecution will be full-steam ahead, a solid case with documented evidence.

Thomas hasn't decided whether to hire an attorney to attempt to collect damages in the loss of her vehicle. 

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