By Ben Aguirre Jr.
Inside Bay Area
FREMONT, Calif. — A blue light brightens Kourosh Nikoui's face as he peers through a pair of orange safety goggles, searching for finger- and handprints on a piece of aluminum foil.
Under typical lighting, the shiny metallic wrap looks no different than the ones parents use in packing their children's school lunches.
But with the use of super glue, chemicals to enhance detail and a special light, the foil tells a story. Someone has touched it. The evidence is a handprint that shines brightly like a neon light in a shop window.
This time the print belongs to Nikoui, 47, the chief forensic examiner for the Fremont Police Department. He recently demonstrated the techniques he has perfected during his 20-year career with the department, an anniversary he celebrated last week.
Had this been a real piece of evidence, Nikoui then would have photographed the glowing print and run it through a computerized database.
Within hours, or even minutes, Nikoui could have told detectives if the print belonged to someone who'd been arrested in the past.
Fingerprint analysis, as well as other forensic work, has seen a boost in popularity during the past decade, thanks in part to television shows based both on fact and fiction.
And while these programs have romanticized the art of forensics, they have also drawn a huge misconception to the industry: Everything can be solved within an hour.
"There's been a lot more attention paid to (crime scene investigation) in general. The field has grown." Nikoui said. "But the expectations of the public has also increased."
Still, the attention has brought a slew of new tools and procedures into the profession, ones that have made the improbable probable, and turned career-long tasks into daily duties completed in far less time.
"In the last 20 years, there's been a total revolution," Nikoui said. "Something that takes a few minutes now would have taken an entire career to do."
The road less traveled
The journey to the Fremont crime lab, and ultimately to the upper echelon of his profession, has been a road that no one in forensics ever has taken.
Nikoui grew up in Iran and came to the United States in 1979 at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in his homeland.
Because he practiced the Bahai Faith, he knew that he would have lost many freedoms had he stayed under the new regime, which treated followers of Bahai -- an ancient Iranian religion -- as second-class citizens, he said.
So he came to the United States in search of an education, with which he had hoped to return to Iran one day. But as fate would have it, his quest for knowledge may have saved his life.
"The new regime promised us more freedom," he said. "But what it actually did was take them away. If you are Bahai, you could not go to college; you could not get a good job. Many of the jobs are run by the government. ... The only thing you could be is a shopkeeper."
Two of his uncles and a pair of friends were executed by the government because of their beliefs. And at one point, while he was studying at the University of South Dakota, Nikoui learned from family members that he, too, could have been killed because of his involvement in the Bahai movement when he was younger.
"There was no way to go back," he said. "They told me that I had been blacklisted."
Though things have calmed in his native country during the past 28 years, Nikoui still has not returned to Iran. Most of his family also escaped persecution. They are spread all over the world.
"I'd like to go back one day and see where I grew up," he said.
The sound of a shutter closing on a camera is something that has always appealed to Nikoui. When he was just a boy, his father bought him his first camera, which he used to record family gatherings.
So how in the world did a photography major from a Midwest college end up as a forensics specialist in the East Bay?
The answer: fate.
After graduating from the University of South Dakota, Nikoui ventured to California, where he knew society was more accepting of his background. He also knew that the West Coast afforded him the best opportunity of finding a job.
Then one day he learned the crime lab at the Alameda County Sheriff's Office was looking for someone to process film. He was more than qualified for the position.
The first day at work is usually a dull one in most professions. Some places have new employees fill out loads of paperwork and take a tour of the facility.
On Nikoui's first day, he aided a crime scene investigator in measuring and photographing a badly decomposed body.
"Two hours into the shift and I almost quit," he said.
Figuring that he'd seen the worst of it, Nikoui decided to stay.
"I started seeing some of the most gruesome images one could ever imagine," he said. "I could not believe some of the atrocities that were going on locally."
Because the photo lab was in close proximity to the area in the crime lab where investigators examined fingerprints, Nikoui found himself intrigued by the forensic analysis. He picked up a textbook and began reading.
By 1987, he'd gone from processing film at the crime lab to examining fingerprints for the sheriff's Central Identification Bureau, which today runs a computer database that houses about 850,000 sets of fingerprints obtained in Alameda County, he said.
Later that year, he took a job with the Fremont Police Department doing similar work.
Identical twins can share the same DNA, and in some cases, can be mistaken for one another because of it.
But their hands are where the truth lies. There's no way two humans can have the identical sets of fingerprints.
Hundreds of swirls, loops and arches coat human fingers and palms in such a fashion that once someone touches something, they've left their signature behind.
Because of bodily fluids secreting through skin pores, the finger or hand leaves an impression on most surfaces. Though sometimes invisible under normal conditions, give Nikoui a chance and he'll find a print on even the most unlikely of surfaces.
Aluminum foil? Simple.
A sheet of paper? Yeah, that too.
How about a rock? That's a little more difficult, but it can be done.
But not all prints are created equal. Sometimes you get the impression of an entire finger, other times you get just a tiny portion -- one piece of a jigsaw puzzle.
Once a print is found, analysts photograph it, upload the image to a computer program and then find dozens of markers and patterns that are unique to the print.
Then it is run through a series of databases -- both local and national -- to find the most likely candidates. Examiners then view the intricacies of the prints and conduct side-by-side comparisons.
"With a fingerprint, I cannot prove innocence or guilt. That is for a jury to decide," he said. "I can only say if (the print) is theirs or not. If it is, they have to explain why it was there."
Examiners have to be certain the prints are a match.
"You can't make assumptions in this field. You're playing with people's lives," he said.
Through the years, Nikoui has attended more than 50 seminars, meetings and classes. And he has testified as an expert in court dozens of times.
In fact, his opinion is so respected that other agencies often ask him to review the work of their own examiners.
The American Dream
From the persecution he escaped in his native Iran to his indirect journey from the darkroom to the crime lab, the road to the top has been an unlikely one for Nikoui.
Now in the twilight of his career, he's running the Fremont Police Department's crime lab, which he helped groom from a closet-sized room into a chemistry lab-style setting furnished with some of the industry's top equipment.
He works with a team of crime scene investigators, all of whom seek his opinion before completing their work. It's work he finds important and gratifying.
"I'm living the American Dream," he said. "In no other country would I have been afforded these opportunities."
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Calif. forensics expert takes bizarre path to top