When a man was found dead in his vehicle last month in La Plata Canyon, investigators used a tried-and-true method to identify him: fingerprinting.
Authorities had good reason to believe they knew the man’s identity, based on the vehicle he was driving and the vehicle’s registration. But vehicles can be borrowed or stolen, so they needed a more definitive answer.
By obtaining a fingerprint from the man’s body and running it through a database, law enforcement was able to positively identify the man in a matter of days, said La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith.
Investigators could have sought dental records, but that method requires authorities to know who they are trying to identify, Smith said. Had they wrongly identified the man, it would have been a waste of time.
The fingerprint method was more likely to yield a positive result in a short amount of time, she said.
Smith said she uses fingerprints to identify bodies about five times a year.
“Luckily, we don’t have to do it very often, but we do have to do it,” she said.
Decades ago, fingerprinting played a prominent role in popular culture when it came to crime-solving. It was widely believed that any intrepid investigator could dust for prints and solve a crime.
Crime dramas spent a fair amount of time depicting fingerprinting: investigators dusting for prints, criminal offenders taking precautions to mask or remove their prints.
The fictional detective Sherlock Holmes solved a crime using a bloody thumbprint in “The Norwood Builder,” published in 1903. Almost 100 years later, Agent J played by Will Smith in the 1997 film “Men in Black” had his fingerprints removed as part of his identity erasing procedure.
In recent years, DNA evidence, genetic genealogy and other forms of forensic testing have played a more prominent role in popular culture crime-solving – and for good reason.
DNA evidence is everywhere, in the form of hair, saliva, semen, blood and skin cells, and it can be linked to a suspect with near-certainty.
“Prior to DNA coming online, there was a much, much bigger focus on things like fingerprints,” said 6th Judicial District Attorney Christian Champagne. “... But with the advent of DNA – it’s the gold standard, right? – there’s a much bigger push to try to seek DNA evidence than there is to seek fingerprint evidence.”
Despite the recent success in identifying a deceased individual, Durango and La Plata County investigators say they rarely solve crimes using fingerprints.
“In my career here, I can count on one hand – no pun intended – the number of crimes it helped me solve, and I took lots of fingerprints over the years,” said Cmdr. Deck Shaline, who has been with the Durango Police Department for 36 years.
Durango police Detective Sgt. Chris Thompson said fingerprinting is done in many investigations, in hopes that it could help bolster a case. He could not recall a single instance when fingerprinting was the “smoking gun” that helped solve a case, though.
“I really can’t think of any cases where an investigation hinged around a fingerprint,” said Thompson, who has been in law enforcement for 17 years.
Champagne also couldn’t recall a single case that hinged on fingerprint evidence.
“I can’t remember a time, really ever, that I personally worked on a case in which fingerprint evidence ... positively identified the defendant,” he said.
Despite the lack of crimes being solved locally using fingerprints, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation said the number of latent prints – those lifted from a surface – being submitted to CBI has increased by more than 28% in the last 10 years.
And of those, forensic scientists are making more conclusions. In 2019, the CBI had an Automated Fingerprint Identification System hit rate of 30%. In 2022, the hit rate was 38%. As of this year, the hit rate is 44%.
In addition to the identifications represented in the hit rate, which is the percentage of time an AFIS entry results in an identification, the CBI makes identifications outside the AFIS system.
One of the primary reasons for the increase is because of technological advances in photography, scanning and the AFIS databases, CBI deputy director Lance Allen said in an email to The Durango Herald. Unlike a DNA database, the AFIS has fewer restrictions and houses a larger number of records for a broader range of people, he said.
The Combined DNA Index System houses only records of convicted offenders, whereas the AFIS houses both civilian and criminal records, or “tens of millions of records,” Allen said.
Dozens of professions require fingerprinting, including nursing, child care, schoolteacher, social workers, military members, casino workers, cannabis cultivation agents, bank employees, pawn brokers and tow truck drivers.
There is a good chance those prints end up in a state or a federal fingerprint database.
“Advances in technology are making search times faster and more accurate, seemingly on a daily basis,” Allen said.
Champagne said the “technology” is still good, but it can be a challenge to obtain good prints.
There is an art to collecting fingerprints, and even the most skilled forensic investigator can struggle to lift a usable print if the surface area is not conducive to gathering them.
The textured grip of a gun may have no usable fingerprints, but the smooth barrel of the gun may yield better results.
Durango Police Department Detective Kathleen O’Toole said fingerprinting is a “lost art” that deserves renewed attention from law enforcement for its ability to solve crimes.
She described her process for locating prints, dusting for prints and lifting prints.
“The big thing about fingerprints, for me, is that it’s not as easy as it looks like on CSI,” she said.
Take a burglary scene, for example. The first thing O’Toole does is look for surfaces the burglar may have touched. If a window is broken, she might look for areas where the burglar grabbed onto the side of the house or a window seal to hoist himself into the living room. She is looking for surfaces that most likely haven’t been touched by anyone else, at least not recently.
“You’ve got to put yourself in the shoes of a suspect,” O’Toole said. “Where would that person have touched? … If you were them, where would you have grabbed onto to launch yourself into the living room?”
After identifying possible locations, she uses a flashlight at an angle, called oblique lighting, to see disturbances in the dust and possibly even fingerprints.
Once identifying “ridge details,” the tiny ridgelines from fingerprints, she will get out her dusting powders. She has black, white, silver and even neon-colored dusting powders, depending on the color of surface she is dealing with.
She applies the dust using a brush, twirling the brush between her thumb and forefinger so as not to disturb the ridge details.
After applying the powder, she uses a piece of clear shipping tape to “lift” the print. She is careful to apply the tape so there are no air bubbles between the print and the tape.
“This is where CSI on TV makes us mad, because it’s a lot harder,” O’Toole said. “You know, you’re doing it out in the cold or the blowing wind and usually you’re doing it by yourself and you wish you had an extra hand.”
After lifting the print, she puts it on a card, about the size of an index card, to be submitted to the FBI or Colorado Bureau of Investigation for analysis.
“I think it’s a lost art, and I do think it’s really valuable evidence,” she said.
– Shane Benjamin
Durango police Detective Kathleen O’Toole is a big supporter of fingerprinting as an investigative tool. She said fingerprinting is a “lost art” that still has huge potential in crime-solving. She is currently reading a book about the history of fingerprinting.
“I love it,” she said. “I’ve run into a number of newer officers who said, ‘Oh, they did that one day in academy,’ and haven’t cracked a fingerprint kit since. And that saddens me because it is so valuable, so useful.”
She said fingerprinting played a key role in solving a crime she worked on more than 10 years ago while serving as an officer in Boulder.
“It does take some skill and patience,” she said.
DNA evidence is often easy to collect, she said, but it is more expensive to analyze and it gets messy when multiple people may have come into contact with a surface area.
Fingerprints, on the other hand, are less expensive to analyze and are all unique, which makes them good pieces of evidence.
Thompson said criminal investigators have gained access to a universe of new information in recent decades – surveillance video, DNA evidence, and digital forensics found on cellphones, laptops and vehicle computers – making fingerprinting less prominent.
Other forms of trace evidence like shoe prints and tire treads have helped solve more cases than fingerprinting, he said.
Just last week, investigators used shoe prints to help link a suspect to an attempted murder case at the Red Cliff Apartments in north Durango, according to an arrest affidavit.
“Those things are as unique as a fingerprint, in that everybody wears their shoes a little bit differently, they walk a little bit differently,” Thompson said. “You step on a piece of broken glass or a pebble or something like that and it can scar the bottom side of your shoe, and that creates unique characteristics that are just as unique as a fingerprint.”
Champagne recalled a drug case in which prosecutors sought to link a suspect to a bag of drugs. Investigators tried to lift fingerprints off the baggie, but the prints were not good enough to make a positive identification.
“It’s not like it’s totally off our radar screen,” he said of fingerprinting. “We’re still sort of looking for it, because it is really good evidence when you get it. It just seems like it’s really rare that we ever say, ‘Hey, we got a fingerprint match,’ and that becomes a key piece of evidence. That doesn’t happen very often.”