Page last updated at 12:07 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Fingerprint test may catch US killer

By Ben Ando
BBC News crime reporter


How to find 'invisible' prints

A British inventor's new fingerprinting technique has given fresh impetus to half a dozen unsolved cases and could help police identify the killer of a man shot dead 10 years ago in the US.

For detectives in the city of Bristol, Connecticut, the 1998 murder case of Louis "Pete" LaFontaine remains the only unsolved killing on their books.

The local police team are determined to find the killer, prompting detective Garrie Dorman to travel 3,500 miles to see if a little bit of British inventiveness can help.

He arrived carrying a polythene evidence bag containing shell cases from the scene of a shooting that has left police baffled for nearly a decade. His journey appears to have paid off.

A new forensic technique developed by Northampton scientist Dr John Bond could reveal previously hidden fingerprints on casings, bringing new hope of a breakthrough.


Wiping bullet casing
When a bullet casing is fired or wiped, any surface residue like a fingerprint is removed. But John Bond can find it.
Apply electrical charge
First an electrical charge is applied. This charge is greater on clean brass than on surfaces corroded by sweat.
Pour charged particles over casing
Finely charged particles are poured over the casing. They tend to stick where the potential is lowest.
Fingerprints start to reveal itself
Fingerprint starts to reveal itself. Heating the casing brings the print up more fully.
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In February 1998, electrical repairman Mr LaFontaine was shot dead as he slept at his home in an affluent part of Bristol.

There was no sign of forced entry - and as far as the police could tell, the 53-year-old, who was divorced with one son, was popular and well liked.

After many hours of work, and numerous dead-end leads, the case had gone cold.

Det Dorman said: "We have a fairly good rate at solving murders in the past and this is one that really kind of sticks with everyone. It'd be real nice to see this one come to a positive close."

The handful of shell casings he has brought to Britain are being tested by Dr Bond, the scientific support manager for Northamptonshire Police and a fellow of the University of Leicester.

Dr Bond has developed a technique that can reveal "hidden" fingerprints on metal - especially shell casings - by detecting the minute traces of corrosion on the surface caused by salt in the sweat on human fingers.

'Wire and gaffer tape'

Such corrosion cannot be wiped off, is impervious to the heat generated when a weapon is fired, and does not deteriorate over time.

It has been described by Time magazine as one of the top 50 inventions of 2008.

Dr Bond said: "Normal fingerprinting requires a residue of sweat to be left on the metal, but my technique doesn't need that, and it can work when conventional techniques fail."

The process is deceptively simple. The shell case is held in contact with an electrical terminal that charges it with 2,500 Volts.

One American policeman walked in and said 'I can't believe I've come all this way for a cardboard box and a popsicle stick'
Dr John Bond

Then similarly charged ceramic beads are poured on to it.

The beads are coated with very fine black powder which is transferred on to the casing, but only where it has suffered corrosion.

"The black powder just reveals where the corrosion pattern is, then we heat the sample to bake the powder in place and photograph it for standard fingerprint comparison," Dr Bond added.

"We often get prints from the forefinger or thumb, where the person loading the weapon has pushed bullets into the magazine."

Dr Bond is an almost stereotypical British inventor. His device was assembled at home and the parts are homemade and joined together by twisted wire and gaffer tape.

"One American policeman walked in and said 'I can't believe I've come all this way for a cardboard box and a popsicle stick'," he said.

But his technique works and has already given fresh impetus to half a dozen cold case investigations, nearly all in the US.

"The Americans seem quicker to embrace new technology than we are," he said.

Detective Garrie Dorman
Det Dorman hopes to crack his police department's only unsolved murder

Dr Bond is reluctant to talk about cases in the UK he is working on. The technique is so new that many people are still awaiting trial.

But he confirmed he has been asked to examine a shell case left at the scene of the murder of village post office worker Craig Hodson-Walker in Worcestershire recently.

Det Dorman is excited about the possibility of a result in his case.

He said: "My hope was always to find a new forensic technique that would enable us to identify Mr LaFontaine's killer, but I had no idea it would ever bring me to England."

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