The Long Arm of the PC

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In 1973, a 19-year-old guest at the Catskills resort hotel went on a drunken joyride with a Honduran hotel worker and never returned. Alberto Martinez, then 23, plowed a purloined Olympic Hotel car into a tree, killing youthful passenger Joel Klein. Charged with criminally negligent homicide, Martinez jumped bail and vanished. Two weeks ago he was run to ground — by an FBI computer.

Although FBI agents joke, mostly accurately, that the bureau's motto is "yesterday's technology tomorrow," the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, best known for identifying teenager Lee Malvo as a suspect in the Washington sniper case, has recently scored stunning breakthroughs in some old, "cold" homicide cases.

The database's latest collar, Martinez fled to New York City, changed his name and, years later, applied for U.S. citizenship. He was about to get it when, on January 30, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service submitted his fingerprints to the FBI database which stores and scans 44.5 million digital fingerprint images dating back 70 years. Within hours, the computer popped up his true name, the 1973 arrest and a wanted notice from the South Fallsburg, NY, police — feats impossible using the ink-and-card files employed until IAFIS was launched in 1999 "He thought after so long we weren't looking for him," says Lt. John Calvallo, who located Martinez in a homeless shelter. "Now he's sitting in our county jail."

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department used the FBI system to solve one of the city's most notorious crimes, the 1957 murders of two El Segundo policemen. Just before Christmas, LA detectives dusted off the case file and, for the first time, ran a single print left by the killer against the FBI database. To their astonishment, out came the name of Gerald F. Mason, a respected 68-year-old retired businessman living in Columbia, S.C. He was never one of the several hundred suspects in the case; his print dated from a 1956 South Carolina burglary arrest. Mason was handcuffed Jan. 29 on a Columbia golf course.

Despite the new technology's nationwide reach, just 30 states are online with the FBI to run unidentified crime scene prints. Hoping to enroll the other 20 states, the FBI is offering free software and training. "Any modern computer that will run Windows and Adobe Photoshop will run this software," says FBI assistant director Mike Kirkpatrick. But in the current state budget crunch, many departments can't even spring for a $2,500 desktop and scanner.