New test quickly ties guns to crime FBI experiment in Baltimore revolutionizes weapons analysis

October 21, 1993|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Staff Writer

The first shots shattered the early morning quiet on June 20, wounding Reginald Taylor and Darlene Johnson as they stood near a Garrison Boulevard phone booth.

HTC Three weeks later, Michael Tillman was killed as he sat on the steps of a house on Gold Street. Then Dorian Brown was murdered as he walked down Woodland Avenue with his wife and a friend five days later.

Police were able to arrest a suspect in the shootings only after determining that all four had been shot with the same 9 mm Glock semiautomatic pistol.

Police linked the incidents by relying on a new high-tech investigative tool being tested by the FBI in Baltimore.

Called DrugFire, the new equipment allows police to quickly compare evidence from several shootings on a single computer screen, replacing the painstaking piece-by-piece comparison of bullets or casings under a microscope.

Aided by DrugFire, police investigating the four shootings arrested John Artis on July 22 and charged him with two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of assault with intent to

murder, and three handgun felony charges. The Glock was found in the house where Artis was arrested.

Citing its successes here, the FBI is touting DrugFire to law enforcement organizations across the nation as something that will revolutionize weapons investigations.

Law enforcement officials in Florida, where 10 tourists have been gunned down in the past year, are so convinced of the system's potential that they've earmarked $400,000 to finance it statewide.

National law enforcement experts believe DrugFire could provide critically needed help in dealing with a flood of evidence from a national epidemic of drug-related shootings and murders.

"We think the potential for linking cases is enormous," said Dr. William J. Hartner, president of the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors.

Firearms investigators rely on the unique microscopic markings a gun makes on bullets and cartridge casings as they're fired.

A gun repeats many of the same tiny markings with each firing, so by identifying its unique fingerprint, police are able to link shootings.

Before DrugFire, the only way of doing that had been to place two samples under a special microscope to compare them. A technician could look at no more than two sets of markings at a time to make comparisons, however.

With the new system, "Predators with guns can be identified and taken off the streets with this kind of technology," said Robert W. Sibert, who heads the FBI DrugFire program.

Already, Baltimore's success has been remarkable.

In a little more than a year, the city firearms lab has used DrugFire to make 56 matches, said Ronald J. Stafford, head of the lab.

Using the older, slower techniques to make random record checks, the lab normally would link only about a half-dozen shootings in a year.

Firearms examiners struggling to keep abreast of a mountain of evidence gathered from shootings in Baltimore say DrugFire is allowing them to do work that would have been impossible 18 months ago.

"Ron Stafford used to walk up to homicide, and nobody paid much attention," Mr. Sibert said.

"Now he walks in, and it's like walking into a kennel with a box of dog bones."

The FBI and police believe further refinements in DrugFire could permit very high-speed automatic computer comparisons of thousands of images of bullets and shell casings.

Since the mid-1980s, when crack cocaine hit the streets and led to a proliferation of gun violence, staggering amounts of firearms evidence have all but overwhelmed urban police labs. In the 12 months ending Aug. 31, there were 839 shootings in which people were wounded or killed by gunfire in Baltimore.

"When I got into this business many years ago, shootings weren't as complicated," said Mr. Stafford. "Now it's not unusual to have five or six guns involved in a shooting. It takes a great deal of time to examine and catalog the evidence. We're working hours a day just to keep up."

Because many police departments can plug into DrugFire, a lab in one city can link firearms evidence to a shooting in a neighboring community. Before DrugFire, such comparisons between departments were virtually unheard of.

DrugFire cost just over $1 million to develop, and the FBI says a typical department will spend from $17,000 to $30,000 for an independent system, or $75,000 to $100,000 for an interactive system that will hook to other police departments.

Baltimore City police are the primary users of the test system, although five other agencies in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C., also have signed on. Los Angeles and surrounding communities have begun using the system, too.

"I think it's going to have a tremendous effect if we can get to the people who are involved in repetitive shootings," said Mr. Sibert. "That's what this thing targets."

HOW IT WORKS

* A computer takes a high-definition snapshot of the markings on bullets or casings as they appear through the microscope.

* The image is stored in a computer at FBI headquarters.

* Firearms examiners can review up to 24 of those images at once on a computer.

* When markings appear to match,they are examined under a microscope for confirmation.

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