FBI nabs criminals by seat of pants: JUST FOR KIDS

July 01, 1999|By Lou Carlozo | Lou Carlozo,Chicago Tribune

Criminals could find themselves nabbed by the seat of the pants, thanks to a new technique crime fighters are using that takes a close-up look at a person's jeans.

FBI scientists examine the wear marks on jeans in photos and match them to clothes in the suspect's wardrobe.

Last July, a bank robber was convicted this way. On April 1, 1996, Charles Barbee of Sandpoint, Idaho, set off a pipe bomb outside a Spokane, Wash., newspaper office. Then he and two other men robbed and bombed a branch of the U.S. Bank. Barbee wore a ski mask, but his J.C. Penney jeans were filmed by the bank's security camera. It was just the break federal crimefighters needed.

A photo analysis of the jeans pinpointed more than two dozen fade and wear marks. Investigators showed that the marks perfectly matched jeans found in Barbee's closet. That didn't prove Barbee was at the robbery. But the FBI did prove the jeans were there; the evidence was used to convict Barbee.

Investigators like Richard Vorder Bruegge have added a new wrinkle to using pictures of clothing to catch criminals. Vorder Bruegge is with the FBI Crime Lab's special photographic unit. His expertise is photographic forensic science -- studying photos for clues to solve crimes.

"Every piece of clothing that you own is going to undergo abuse during your lifetime," Vorder Bruegge said. "If you're a kid, maybe you're sliding down hills and getting a lot of scrapes on the jeans."

The friction produces white spots in the dark blue background. "That's an identifying characteristic," Vorder Bruegge said. Also, every pair of jeans has a distinct stitching pattern. "In essence, the seams have a fingerprint," Vorder Bruegge said.

There also were some fortunate turns in the Barbee case. The U.S. Bank cameras used high-quality black-and-white film. Also, "the bank robber in this case stood in front of the camera and stood still for a very long time," Vorder Bruegge said.

Pub Date: 07/01/99

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