It happened back in 2010.
Three assailants, faces hidden by knit masks, walked into the lobby of a Southern Pines, North Carolina hotel at about midnight.
One was holding a handgun on the desk clerk.
They emptied the contents of the cash register and also robbed the hotel clerk, as well as a gentleman in the hotel lobby who was in the process of checking in. Then the three culprits fled.
Southern Pines police responded. But video surveillance couldn’t identify the suspects because of the masks.
The hotel had a policy of wiping the counters down at the beginning of every shift. Which the desk clerk did when they reported to work at 11 p.m., before the robbery.
And video surveillance showed one of the three individual’s hand touching the counter during the robbery when he jumped over the counter to get to the cash register.
Investigators collected prints from that spot and turned it over to the Moore County Sheriff’s Office, North Carolina, for analysis.
Most of us know Moore County, with a population of almost 100,000, for its Pinehurst Golf Club, home to many national and international golf tournaments.
The investigators lifted the palm print, and the readable area of that print was tiny - the size the tip of a pinky. Yet when Lt. Bradley Whitaker of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office processed the print through their automated fingerprint/palm print identification system (AFIS/APIS), they got a possible match.
The office identified a suspect – a 17-year-old boy – who Southern Pines police arrested. Whitaker testified about the print match during the boy’s trial.
The defense hammered Whitaker on the witness stand, trying to discredit the identification, since he based it on such a small print area.
“They tried,” he said.
But Whitaker and science prevailed, and the jury convicted the boy of armed robbery. The palm print identification made the case. The boy never gave up the names of his accomplices, though, and the district attorney’s office never prosecuted anyone else for the crime.
Whitaker, who is a Certified Latent Print Examiner and Certified Crime Scene Investigator by the International Association for Identification, has been at the Moore County Sheriff’s Office for 22 years. He runs the Forensics division, which began analyzing latent prints in 2008. It uses a SPEX Forensics PrintQuest AFIS system.
The system allows law enforcement to construct and manage a local database of known fingerprints and palm prints. It also uses the database for automated searching of latent fingerprints and latent palm prints recovered at crime scenes, as it did in the robbery case.
Officers enter the finger and palm prints into the system when they process suspects taken into custody. The system includes image enhancement software for latent image improvement.
The PrintQuest AFIS system analyzes the image of a friction ridge, or the impression caused by the raised portion of the skin that shows connected ridge units. The system identifies individual characteristics within the print impression and creates a print-specific digital signature, processed by a proprietary algorithm. The algorithm searches against all known finger and palm print standards maintained in the database.
The boy’s prints were already in the system, leading to the identification.
The Sheriff’s Office as well as some local police departments within Moore County, call Whitaker’s Forensics division in to assist on some crime scene investigations, since the division has more training and specialized equipment than the local departments.
Whitaker’s division uses a SPEX Forensics MCS-ADV Mini-CrimeScope Advance forensic alternate light source to find evidence unseen by the naked eye.
Alternate light sources are light-producing handheld and lab-housed forensic instruments. These devices use light and a filter or combination of filters to identify the natural fluorescence properties of substances, like body fluids. The filters enable the light to screen out all but the selected wavelengths of light to identify the substances. Operators tune these devices to specific wavelengths that allow certain substances to become visible.
The Mini-CrimeScope Advance is portable – and Whitaker takes it to crime scenes to find evidence to the crimes, as well as using it within the lab to process evidence for bodily fluids, as well as latent impressions processed with fluorescent powders or chemicals.
“We use it on a weekly basis or so,” he said.
The Forensics Division of the Moore County Sheriff’s Office also processes digital evidence for local police departments, such as computer forensics and telephone extractions. They also have JTAG and Chip-off capabilities in house.
JTAG, or Joint Test Action Group forensics is an advanced way to acquire data which involves the transfer of raw data stored on connected memory chips.
Chip-off forensics allows binary intelligence to collect a complete physical image of nearly any device – even those which have suffered catastrophic damage.
SPEX Forensics is a division of HORIBA Scientific.
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