Suspect in puzzling 1975 Pa. slaying found in Md. prison One fingerprint on a cigarette pack leads Philadelphia police to suspect.

February 13, 1992|By Knight Ridder News Service

PHILADELPHIA -- On Dec. 23, 1975, police found Gerald Wallace's body on his living room couch. He had been savagely beaten, his hands bound with an electric cord. Detectives searched his ransacked house, cataloging every piece of evidence they could find.

None of it led to the murderer.

They had no witnesses. They thought they had no clues.

They were wrong.

Sixteen years after the fact, new technology made their painstaking work at the crime scene pay off.

A lone fingerprint, lifted from a Kool cigarette pack found in Mr. Wallace's house and kept for 16 years in the yellowing police case file, was sent last fall to a new State Police data base near Harrisburg, Pa.

Within minutes, it hit upon a match.

That print, police say, gave investigators the identity of a man who had been at the house the night of the murder. Police talked to him. He led them to other witnesses, who led them to the man police believe was the murderer.

An arrest warrant was issued Tuesday against Michael Douglas Paesch, 37, who is serving a life sentence in Maryland for a 1978 shooting and murder in Baltimore. Pennsylvania authorities will seek to have Paesch returned to Philadelphia to stand trial for the 1975 murder.

"It's the first time this new technology has helped us solve a murder," said Capt. John Apeldorn, head of the Philadelphia homicide unit.

Fingerprints have helped solve crimes for decades, and in the past 20 years, computers made it possible to search thousands of prints for suspects or witnesses -- but only if prints from all 10 fingers were available.

The new data base, called the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, can be compared with a print from a single finger. Each print entered into the computer has been digitally coded according to its individual characteristics.

The system went into operation statewide last summer. Philadelphia joined the system in September, entering fingerprints from hundreds of old, unsolved cases. On Nov. 14, police entered the print from the cellophane wrapper of the crumpled cigarette pack taken from Mr. Wallace's living room.

What would have taken 50 years of manual comparison of hundreds of thousands of fingerprints was accomplished in 11 minutes by the computer, said Lt. Harry Giordano, chief of the department's identification unit.

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