Filing forensics

     Jules Verne, the French author widely regarded as the "Father of Science Fiction," wrote about traveling by air, through space and underwater in the mid-to-late 1800s, long before those technological fantasies were considered legitimate possibilities. Comparative to Verne's foreshadowing of the Internet, cars and space travel, Alex Mankevich's vision shouldn't be so far reaching.

     Mankevich, a latent print expert who's been working with law enforcement for 28 years, believes forensic databases are the means to cuffing repeat offenders and reducing crime. Though they are shadowed by their more famous, better-funded and nationally supported siblings AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System), CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) and NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistics Information Network), smaller niche databases exist across the nation, assisting law enforcement in various ways.

     "Whether it's fingerprint, DNA or firearms — or especially shoe prints — bad guys are going to keep on going until a database catches them," Mankevich explains. "And [once you've caught them], you have your forensic evidence … something solid to present in court." In Mankevich's vision, multiple forensic disciplines would have a nationally linked database program in place. He would like to see investigators and qualified law enforcement utilize a variety of science and technology when investigating a crime; he believes in the strength of forensics.

     But Mankevich sees some loopholes in the forensic databases available to law enforcement. Databases not mandated by federal law don't receive the kind of attention and funding like AFIS, CODIS and NIBIN. This lack for other forensic disciplines makes room for criminals to inadvertently skirt the system, since agencies don't have linked systems for tracking other possibly helpful evidence — in some cases vital — to an investigation.

     Sundry forensic analysts have taken the initiative to find a way to host information, which can ultimately be useful by law enforcement to inspire investigative leads or add to a case's evidentiary soundness.

     Tracking biologically unique evidence such as fingerprints, DNA and firearm information through databases helps law enforcement combine the power of computers and forensic science to keep pace with the nation's crime, particularly repeat offenders. With the unified interest of solving more crimes, law enforcement and forensics analysts have blended their talents to host and pursue databases that it is hoped can hold repeat criminals accountable.

'Sole' searching

     In the winter of 2004 to 2005, a home invasion thief was targeting the elderly in Delaware, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Though the infected jurisdictions were varied and spanned the tri-state area, Alex Mankevich at the Maryland State Police forensics lab was able to keep an updated record of the crimes and reporting authorities through the SICAR application of SoleMate, a shoe print database. Authorities in Delaware had turned to Mankevich because of Maryland State Police's excellent shoe print program, he says.

     "The police had noticed the same shoe print in the snow over the three-state area," Mankevich says. "It got to the point where [the suspect] was starting to physically attack the elderly victims. You had the community of Newark, Delaware, almost on edge, particularly the senior citizen population. The police were very concerned that the perpetrator was going to start arming himself [which] gave a lot of priority to this."

     Mankevich explains that SICAR was able to keep track of crime scene details along with shoe print images and keep related authorities abreast with updated information when necessary. "It became a very powerful way of linking the information, of taking all of that raw information from the crime and turning it into criminal intelligence because of the fact that all of the shoe prints had matched and we were quite certain that the same guy [was] committing all of these crimes," Mankevich says.

     Foster & Freeman USA Inc., a United Kingdom-based company with its U.S. headquarters in Sterling, Virginia, maintains SoleMate along with two related forensic print databases: TreadMate and Crimeshoe.com. With a database of more than 6,000 entries, TreadMate helps investigators identify tire tracks and provides manufacturer and other details. Identification is done through pattern matching using the database and either a special viewer program or through use of Foster & Freeman's evidence management system.

     Michael Zontini, applications engineer with Foster & Freeman, explains that investigators search tread characteristics in the database. Based on the information that is known, such as a rain channel pattern, TreadMate returns potential matches. SoleMate, which Zontini says has more than 19,000 entries in its database, is searched similarly, by identifying known features from print evidence.

     Mankevich, who has been using SoleMate through the SICAR evidence management application with the Maryland State Police since 1999, says the program helps he and the three other footwear and tire track examiners act as a communications hub for area investigators.

     "It helps link crimes that have the same shoe prints appearing repeatedly," Mankevich says. "They may be investigated by different law enforcement agents who would not know and are not in communication with each other. We're the ones that put all the players in contact with each other. I may have a burglary from March investigated by the Maryland State Police and then in April, a county sheriff's office in the same county also submits evidence to the laboratory here, and it turns out they have the same shoe print appearing in both cases."

     Mankevich says it may be coincidental that the same shoe print appears in various cases. But in case it isn't, he is able to alert each investigator so they can collaborate and swap information.

     Crimeshoe.com is a service the company offers for smaller agencies, or agencies that may need to analyze and identify shoe print evidence on a limited basis. Instead of purchasing a license for SoleMate, an investigator can submit an image to Crimeshoe.com online and receive results back via e-mail — usually within 24 hours, Zontini says — for a fixed charge. SoleMate and TreadMate also have potential for expansion through an agency's self-populated local database and can be linked with other agencies' databases, too.

     Foster & Freeman's staff of researchers continually update the tire and shoe databases, working with manufacturers and coordinating additions based on new product releases.

     Mankevich believes the only way the program could do better would be to become a nationally linked system.

     "The heart-wrenching thing about it is that it's not linked nationally with these other databases, you know, like fingerprint, DNA and firearms," Mankevich says. "It would really close out a lot of cases. You wouldn't have a repeat offender getting away, because just as quickly as we pick up the repeat offender with fingerprints now, you would pick up the repeat offender with the shoe prints."

Shoring up the glass evidence valley

     The Miami-based Glass Evidence Reference Collection works a little differently than the Foster & Freeman databases. Jose Almirall, founder of the database, created it for the Technical Support Working Group, a program under the U.S. government's Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office. Unlike other search-and-comparison databases, such as AFIS or SoleMate, the purpose of the glass evidence database is to compare chemical analyses of separate glass evidence and determine if they are from the same source.

     "The purpose of this database is to say: of all these 750 glass samples, we're able to distinguish all of them from each other unless they came from the same plant made around the same time," says Almirall, who has been working with glass analysis for 15 years. "It is meant to give us an idea of how frequently we would find two glass samples that have the same composition, but came from different sources. And the answer to that is: we don't."

     Almirall, an analytical chemist and director of the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University, says that through determining elemental composition of glass evidence, source matching is possible. That means if two glass samples have the same elemental composition, they came from the same manufacturing source. Almirall says the database has helped to "shore up the valley of scientific glass evidence."

     The Glass Evidence Reference Collection came in handy for the Miami-Dade Police Department in solving a hit-and-run accident on Miami Beach in 2002. A woman crossing the street had been struck by a BMW, and the vehicle was abandoned at the scene. The owner of the vehicle denied any part in the crime and said the car must have been stolen, Almirall says. After police recovered glass evidence from the owner's house, Almirall analyzed it and compared it to glass from the scene, showing that they came from the same source. The owner of the BMW went to trial, pleaded guilty and is currently serving a 12-year sentence, Almirall says..

     The database is maintained by Almirall and the institution, but exists as a reference to prove the uniqueness of glass based on its chemical elements. Because of the complicated analysis process and the expensive equipment necessary to perform it, the value of the database is not in its searchability, but in its power to show the evidential meaning of glass evidence, Almirall explains. He says individual cases are accepted on a case-by-case basis to do analyses for the law enforcement community. For more information on the glass reference collection, e-mail Almirall at almirall@fiu.edu.

Chemical fingerprints

     The Ignitable Liquids Reference Collection (ILRC) also differs slightly from traditional searchable databases. Unlike AFIS or CODIS, the information on ILRC's online database is more specialized and technical, geared toward fire debris analysts' and chemists' use. The database includes chemical information such as a product's hydrocarbon range, predominant profile and thumbnail pictures of the product's major components for crime labs to utilize in identifying potential liquids used to accelerate a suspicious fire, which is how Judi Hoffmann, a 20-year chemist with the Montana Forensic Science Division, makes use of the ILRC.

     "New formulations that have never been seen before are constantly being developed to make better use of petroleum products," Hoffmann says. "[Manufacturers are] always trying to find a way to use every part of the crude oil. For instance, if one product needs to be fairly clean and they do some processing, they then want to use that one clean product and [the byproduct]."

     The database, which is maintained by the National Center for Forensic Science (NCFS) through the University of Central Florida, holds chemical profile information on liquids that could be used to accelerate a fire. The ILRC database has gas chromatograph and mass spectral data of nearly 500 ignitable liquids which have been classified by fire debris analysts throughout North America. It also contains pertinent product information about the ignitable liquid. Mary Williams, the coordinator of research programs and services for NCFS, explains that ignitable liquids are purchased, analyzed by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry and the data is entered into the database and classified. The frequency of updating the database depends on the availability of new samples and the time afforded by the practicing fire debris analysts on the committee.

     The project was brainstormed by the Technical Working Group for Fire and Explosives (TWGFEX), a professional organization of examiners from around the country. Members — including Hoffmann, who co-chairs for TWGFEX's Ignitable Liquid Reference Committee — thought the forensic community would benefit from a searchable database of ignitable liquid products that one may come across in fire investigation casework. In addition to the searchable database, the ILRC also maintains a repository of the products in its database, which can be ordered for a nominal fee. This way, Hoffmann explains, analysts can test the sample on the same equipment used to analyze evidence, which is an evidentiary requirement for many states. Analysts can use the sample to compare with case evidence analyses using one's own instrument under that jurisdiction's operating conditions.

     Though laboratories that analyze fire debris have their own standards on hand, they may not be comprehensive or match the evidence, due to the ever-changing product compositions. For example, in one suspicious fire case, Hoffmann found a product that was not in her pantry of standards at the Montana Forensic Science Division. She says she used the database to find a product that was almost identical; a store brand of charcoal starter fluid.

     "I went down to the store and bought some," Hoffmann says. "When I came back and analyzed that, it actually looked different than what I had in my case work. I was able to contact the repository and have them send me a sample from the database. I analyzed that, and it matched exactly."

     "Some of the products that we see now are things that people never thought of 15 years ago," Hoffmann says. "They're kind of unusual and hard to recognize as a product. It's nice to be able to go through a database that has a lot of different substances in it and quickly screen."

     Hoffmann explains one of the 6-year-old database's new features is a thumbnail visual — "a chemical fingerprint," she says — of the product components, which makes it easy for an examiner to quickly sift through samples.

     The database is free to users through the Internet at ilrc.ucf.edu. For database information, contact the National Center for Forensic Science at natlctr@mail.ucf.edu. For analytical chemistry questions, contact Judi Hoffmann at jhoffmann@mt.gov.

Connecting the dots

     Mankevich imagines the strength of a forensic atmosphere with a nationally linked database for various disciplines would help law enforcement connect the dots more quickly and easily than each agency working on its own. Mankevich notes investigators and analysts have evidence that could be linked up, but without a common database to connect the two, identifiable evidence will remain unidentified.

     "Crime labs have been so correct in all their investments in all of these databases, from all the forensic disciplines," Mankevich explains. "A lot of these have been built from scratch. Here, you're not building anything from scratch. All the screens are there for linking one crime to another; it's just sitting there under-utilized."

     As for making Mankevich's notion of expanded, nationally linked forensic databases — including shoe prints — that would crack down on repeat offenders a reality, he says he's waiting.

     "You can never have too many biometric-type databases working for you," Mankevich argues. "But the fact that the shoe print is under-utilized, that's one loophole you could quickly close because you have SICAR. It's just a matter of having some agency, hopefully the federal government, step forward and say, 'OK, we're going to make this a reality.' We're hoping for that day to come."

     Should more, rather than less, of Mankevich's contemporaries see as much potential in that vision as there was in Verne's "fiction," maybe he won't have to wait as long as Verne to be vindicated.

Additional database resources Tagging tablets

     Stockton, California-based Ident-A-Drug is maintained by the privately owned company, Therapeutic Research. The database is one of several services Therapeutic Research provides for consumers and professionals.

     Stephanie Feilzer, database coordinator for Ident-A-Drug, explains it is strictly a pill-identification tool. It contains information on tablet and capsule imprints, physical descriptions (color, shape, scores or other markings), ingredients, strength, brand names and manufacturer, plus the national drug code (NDC), class and DEA schedule designation, if applicable. The database also hosts Canadian products. The data is available in an annually published book form and a travel version for PDAs in addition to the online database.

     To provide reliable product information, Feilzer explains that Ident-A-Drug compiles its information directly from manufacturers' drug catalogues or through government sources. The database is updated as new information is available, which Feilzer says is typically three times a week. Feilzer explains that public safety agents find Ident-A-Drug "really handy," and use in a variety of ways, like identifying unknown drugs found on arrestees.

     The database also lists information for discontinued drugs and attempts to locate information for pills that may not be listed.

     "We encourage our subscribers — if they ever cannot find something — to contact us and we will do everything we can to find the identification," Feilzer says. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, we will find it."

     Standard yearly subscriptions cost approximately $40 dollars, and group pricing is also available. Single month-long subscriptions are available for a lesser fee.

RxList.com

     The database is maintained by RxList, which is part of WebMD, a publicly traded company headquartered in New York City. WebMD spokeswoman Kate Hahn explains that RxList.com hosts two bodies of drug information; one from the FDA and the other from First Data Bank (FDB), a private company. The database, updated monthly, provides prescribing information, such as approved uses, dosing and precautions. Drug information is available for free at www.rxlist.com. Readers can contact RxList through its Web site under the "About RxList" with questions.

NamUs

     The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) is proposed to be an online database of the titular information, an effort that was launched in July 2007 by the Office of Justice Programs. NamUs, to be located at www.namus.gov, is anticipated to help identify the 1,000 decedents (according to OJP's Bureau of Justice Statistics) that remain unidentified each year. NamUs is planned to have two databases, one for unidentified decedents and the other for missing persons reports. According to the National Institute of Justice Web site, NamUs will be in its second phase through the end of September 2008, developing the missing persons database and will then move on to release its fully searchable database sometime next year.

Loading