Richard Wright sits among 500 pounds of marijuana and sniffles.
The fingerprint expert for the Utah State Crime Lab must lift some prints from the cellophane wrappers surrounding several bales of marijuana found by troopers in a car stopped in southern Utah.Wright, who like most people, experiences a mild allergic reaction to the drug, has spent about 25 years in law enforcement and nearly as many in fingerprint analysis. His skills are such that by using one of the many potions and powers arranged in his lab he can pick up a usable print from the cellophane.
The lab in the Calvin Rampton Complex even houses the latest in high-tech gizmos capable of picking up fingerprints from skin. The laser fingerprint system is one of the more recent additions in crime gotchas.
The $40,000 machine is about the size of a large videocassette recorder. Using a wand that shoots out dispersed beams of light, Wright can pick up fingerprints found on a sock, a rape victim or a body.
The device, first developed by the Xerox Research Center of Canada in 1976, has brought the art of finding and identifying fingerprints light years from when the practice was first used by the Chinese before the birth of Christ.
"We've been to the moon. For crying out loud, why not use the technology we got from it," said Bob Brinkman, head of the State Crime Lab.
Prints are made when a finger, palm, foot or toe touch a surface. Chemicals, salts and sweat remain in a pattern that is unique to each individual. Fingerprint experts look for the pattern left by the residue and the lines and creases in the swirl.
"What makes yours unique is the ridge detail, where the pores leave the sweat behind," said Wright.
A man in Los Angeles broke into a printing shop, and landed hands-first in some ink. He wiped his hands off on towels and papers he found in the shop as he rummaged around, leaving good prints for the cops.
But criminals are not always so obliging about leaving clean, clear prints. That's where lasers come in.
"Laser fingerprinting does away with the nemesis of fingerprinting - and that's smudging," said Bud Ellett, chief of the Salt Lake County Attorney's Office Criminal Division. "It makes the investigator's job easier and it makes the prosecutor's job easier. It does away with the errors."
The greenish light picks up fingerprints on objects and people. The material or skin is treated with a chemical such as silver nitrate, and in the case of flesh, the prints can be lifted off using a sterling silver mirror. A special video camera takes images of the prints and a still photograph is made.
Before, prints from skin and even clothes were impossible to pick up. But the technology that has helped medicine and manufacturing is helping law enforcement get evidence at the scene.
Add to the technology the ability to put those images into a computer and call them up at will, and crime fighting goes high tech.
After five years of lobbying, the Utah Legislature gave the Public Safety Department $285,000 to help find the state's share of a computer fingerprint network that will allow users to punch up potential matches of prints in criminal cases. Utah will get on line this September with the Western Identification Network.
"What it took was a particularly hideous, unsolvable homicide down in Fillmore," said Brinkman.
Millard County lawmen in 1985 found a hacked up body of a Southern Utah State College coed in a remote area near I-70. The only clue was a fingerprint on a bottle. It took some time and breaks, but officers were led to a suspect by an informant. That's when they got the match on the print.
With the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), Utah police can track prints of criminals in a six-state Western region. The computer's big brain is located in Sacramento, Calif.
"The technology actually has been around for several years. It's just been refined and put to good use," said Richard Townsend, Bureau of Criminal Identification chief.
The combined financial power of Utah with Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming allows "combining our data bases all together to operate our system as one system."
"This is the first efforts of its kind in the country," said Townsend, adding, "The unique thing about the network is ultimately hooking up with all these networks" to eventually create a nationwide fingerprinting system. "Now we're going to cross state lines."
Townsend said 1.2 million individual prints from Utah will be entered into AFIS. Prints from networks in California, Colorado and Washington can be accessed, allowing for law enforcement officers in the West to track where these prints have been found.
"The state of Oregon just had a 25-year-old homicide solved by the state of California," Townsend said.
A rape-murder of a woman in Oregon went unsolved until a man was arrested on a minor infraction. His fingerprints were added into the computer and a match was made on prints found at the homicide scene.
With laser fingerprinting technology picking up prints in places not believed possible a few years ago and computers eliminating the thousands of hours needed to manually search through cards to make a match, catching the likes of Ted Bundy can be easier.
"What's it worth to stop him from killing the next one?" said Brinkman. "You'd pick up on someone doing a lot of rapes, a lot of serial homicides."