Members of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigations cold case fingerprints unit are willing to lend a hand to any law enforcement agencies that need help with old cases.
Since the group’s formation in October, members have searched and logged 288 cases. A total of 17 hits have been returned on fingerprint matches thus far.
One arrest from those hits has been confirmed, and it didn’t even come from Oklahoma.
That arrest came from a 1997 Wisconsin cold case. James P. Eaton, 36, of Palatine, Ill., was arrested in connection with the killing of a 14-year old runaway. Amber Creek was found in a marsh near Burlington, Wis., by hunters two weeks after her disappearance.
Creek had been beaten, sexually assaulted and suffocated with a plastic bag. Fingerprints from that bag were traced to Eaton. His DNA was collected and matched by investigators and Eaton was arrested. He remains in the Racine, Wis., County jail in lieu of $1 million bail.
Last May, the FBI updated its main fingerprint database. The OSBI is the only Oklahoma law enforcement agency that can access the database.
“We’re trying to reach out to agencies to let them know what we’re doing,” said Meghan Jones, the unit’s technical manager.
“I'm having these girls go back and take all these prints that are still in their system and re-running them,” Jones said.
How it works
There are three major types of fingerprints, Jones said.
The first are patent, or prints which are visible because they have been left in a substance like blood, Jones said.
Latent fingerprints are those which are not visible to the naked eye, and have been left by oil from the fingers on a surface.
Then there are known fingerprints, which is when ink is purposefully applied and a print taken from an original source.
Unlike DNA matching, which is considered a match when 16 points on it line up, fingerprint matches require a close examination of the whole print, Jones said.
Once the hit has been made by the computer system, someone must go back through and manually confirm that the print is identical.
Like DNA, no two fingerprints are identical. Even identical twins, which have the same DNA profile, do not have the same fingerprints, Jones said.
The ability to remove fingerprints has been largely exaggerated, unit administrator Jim Stokes said. In order to permanently alter them, the damage must be much deeper than the top layer of skin.
Even when successful, it’s no guarantee they’ll get away with a crime.
“They may get rid of the fingerprints, but they’ve still got the palm prints,” criminalist Amy Stilwell said.
The tasks at hand
In addition to matching the fingerprints of murderers, rapists and other violent criminals whose crimes fall within the statute of limitations, the cold case team has also been matching the fingerprints of unidentified people who have died in the state.
To date, they have identified an Oklahoma female who died in 1978, an Oklahoma man who died in 1997, and a man from Washington whose body was found in 1998.
The unit is also soliciting new cases where they think they might be of assistance, often out of state.
“We’re reaching out to other agencies and saying, ‘He or she is still unidentified. We’ll help you,’” criminalist Stacy Hirschman said.
All the while, the unit is staying on top of new cases and current workload that occurs within the state. These are additional duties for them.
“It’s not that we don’t have the work, but I think it’s the thought, when you have these kinds of cases, homicide cases or unidentified victims going that far back. What a horrible thing, to be unidentified. That person’s got family, or the possibility of bringing closure to a homicide case,” Stokes said.
“I think it’s just the opportunity to help out,” he said.
The unit also assembles background information on the person whose fingerprints return a hit in the system, so that law enforcement agencies may be more receptive to chasing down the leads they’ve uncovered.
To date, they’ve only heard back about Eaton’s arrest in the Wisconsin case. But the work has just begun.
“I think they’ve just scratched the surface of what they can do,” Stokes said.