New fingerprint searches in unsolved cases can solve violent crimes
Police agencies across the country would likely solve cold cases if they entered finger and palm prints from older crimes into an upgraded national database
By Rachel Dissell
The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND — Police agencies across the country would likely solve cold cases - murders and rapes - if they entered finger and palm prints from older crimes into an upgraded national database, a move the FBI encourages.
In Cleveland, re-submitting prints has resulted in charges in at least two unsolved rape cases, so far.
Investigators linked Rafiq Jones to a rape and robbery case last year after a fingerprint lifted from a beer bottle in 1996 was matched the to the 40-year-old. He has pleaded not guilty and his case is set for trial next week.
In another case, Javier Colon pleaded guilty to raping a woman and shooting her son a decade ago, after an investigator from Cuyahoga County's Sexual Assault Kit task force worked with Cleveland police to re-submit a palm print left on the trunk of a car Colon commandeered and used to kidnap the pair from a downtown parking lot. It matched Colon's.
He is scheduled for sentencing on March 7 and faces up to 36 years in prison.
Entering old prints has helped solve cases elsewhere too. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, as part of a cold case project, were able to identify more than 150 prints from crime scenes, including the print of a man later arrested in 2014 for the rape and killing of Amber Creek, a 14-year-old who ran away from a Chicago shelter in 1997 and was found strangled in a remote area of Wisconsin.
FBI encourages re-entering prints
The FBI says it first notified law enforcement agencies in mid-2013 to re-submit crime scene prints that in the past did not turn up matches to suspects.
That's because the agency upgraded the system used to store and match finger and palm prints.
Part of the upgrade included new software that could more sensitively match the swirls and ridges on latent or crime scene prints with prints collected during an arrest. Using the new system, matches were up to three times more likely.
In addition, all finger and palm prints collected by police and other government agencies since the upgrade go into the new system, called Next Generation Identification, or NGI. Unless a print is re-entered it won't be searched for a match to prints from more recent arrests.
Since 1999, the FBI has been in charge of national finger and palm print databases, which are fed by federal, state and local law enforcement agencies.
Also in the database are prints collected as part of employment background checks and visa applications. It also now includes other information, such as more than 45 million facial photos.
The FBI told state-run criminal investigation bureaus, which often run crime labs, that prints in unsolved cases searched in the databases before the upgrade should be re-entered.
"We have been marketing it heavily to LEAs (law enforcement agencies), over the past year, especially in connection with cold cases," Stephen G. Fischer Jr., who works in the agency's Criminal Justice Information System or CJIS division, wrote in response to Plain Dealer questions.
It's not clear how many law enforcement agencies got the message. And, if they did, whether they have the resources or ability to sort through file cabinets of old cases to determine which are still unsolved and what prints might need to be re-entered.
Ohio's Bureau of Criminal Investigation got a reminder from the FBI in July 2016 that old prints could be submitted to the new system, Jill Del Greco, a spokeswoman for the attorney general's office said.
It didn't pass that message on to police agencies that send prints through BCI, Del Greco said. Though, when a BCI search of crime scene prints doesn't turn up a match, the police agency is told it can make a request to re-run the prints.
Some local and state crimes labs can't yet fully use the FBI's upgraded system because their technology is too old to properly connect.
BCI's crime lab, for instance, uses the newer technology to compare latent fingerprints against more than 100 million others collected from arrests, convictions and background checks in the new system. But it needs an upgrade before it can fully search palm prints, Del Greco said. The office is contracting for that now.
Cleveland police officials said the department is now working to enter prints in older, unsolved cases as time allows. The unit that handles crime scene evidence is short-staffed and must prioritize current cases.
The only prints in unsolved cases that would not need re-entered are ones that were stored in a special "Unsolved Latent File" for high profile or violent crimes. Those prints should be automatically checked against the new system. Cleveland police officials said their software doesn't allow them to upload prints to that file. BCI can enter prints into the file.
Some local police departments contacted by The Plain Dealer didn't know about the FBI alert. Others said they were aware that prints needed to be re-submitted but that they didn't have any unsolved cases.
Parma Capt. Kevin Riley said his department didn't get any official correspondence from the FBI but that the department would re-submit prints if it is something the FBI or state BCI wants departments to do, though there could be some logistical or statute of limitations issues to pursuing older cases.
"Our police department is committed to protecting the community, and if there is the potential of bringing a resolution to an unsolved case that involves the identification and arrest of a criminal suspect, we will ensure it gets done," Riley said.
Fingerprint searches different than DNA
Dawn Schilens was a fingerprint examiner with the FBI before she came to the Cleveland area to oversee the fingerprint lab at the Cuyahoga County Regional Forensic Laboratory.
Perhaps because of the popularity of crime scene television dramas, she said, many think a giant database of fingerprints can instantaneously spit out matches to solve crimes.
That's not how it works.
The fingerprint "system" is really a series of different buckets for local, state and federally entered prints that come from crime scenes, from arrested suspects or collected for background checks.
Automated searches and matches of latent prints have only been possible for about 30 of the 100 years fingerprinting has been around. Before that, comparisons were made visually.
Since 1999, when the FBI launched its first version of the system available for law enforcement computer searches it's worked to improve the matching capability, which is difficult because prints collected from crime scenes are often twisted or distorted, while the print collected during arrests are flat, Schilens said.
Though "automated" the system doesn't constantly search for matches when new prints are entered and notify law enforcement when a match is made, like another crime-solving tool, CODIS, which contains DNA profiles from both crime scenes and from people who are arrested or convicted of crimes.
Schilens said the new features are useful, especially for law enforcement agencies that have been able to keep up with the FBI's upgrades.
If departments have older crime scene prints they can re-enter, "there's definitely some benefit to putting them in," Schilens said. "It's going to take some work to get it done."
Oklahoma did that work. Law enforcement there advise departments to first research the old cases to determine which remain unsolved before entering the crime scene prints, said Meghan Jones, who ran the cold case project for Oklahoma until 2015.
In addition to identifying latent prints associated with crime scenes, the project also helped give names to five previously unidentified murder victims.
The FBI also has started a little-known program where it will, at an agency's request, run any latent prints kept the old system, called IAFIS, Jones said.
"It is absolutely a worthwhile project if states have the resources to do it," she said in an email.
Sensitive matching and new arrests can solve cases
In the Rafiq Jones case, Cleveland detectives in 1996 did what they could with the technology available at the time.
In that case, a 31-year-old bartender gave the "last call" warning at a small club on Clark Avenue when a man, who'd been drinking Rolling Rocks asked if he could use the phone to call a cab.
After that, he tried to come behind the bar, telling the bartender, "I'll have you or I'll kill you. I have a gun."
He punched her in the head and sexually assaulted her before grabbing her tip money and running off.
At the scene, Cleveland officers collected beer bottles and lifted prints from them.
At the time, they didn't turn up a match for the suspect.
Fast forward close to 20 years.
Investigators with the Sexual Assault Kit task force were reviewing the results of DNA testing on the bartender's rape kit. No DNA profile was found to be entered into crime databases.
Cleveland police, though, had kept the fingerprint.
When entered into the new system, investigators learned the print belonged to Jones, who would have been just 21 at the time of the crime. He was arrested just days after the attack on drug charges, for which he eventually served a six-month prison term.
Jones' criminal history includes drug convictions but no sex crimes. He was living on West Boulevard when he was arrested in January.
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