The game’s afoot, bad guys: Westchester’s detectives now have a new weapon in their sleuthing arsenal.
Rather dully known as a Vacuum Metal Deposition machine, it can process objects on which it was previously hard—if not impossible—to find latent fingerprints.
Think fired shell casings, plastic garbage bags, thermal paper, fabric, wood and paper money.
This could be just the thing needed for so-called “cold cases,” aka unsolved criminal investigations that authorities keep open in the hopes of discovering new evidence.
County Executive George Latimer, Deputy County Executive Ken Jenkins and Commissioner Thomas Gleason, along with other members of the county’s Department of Public Safety, recently unveiled the $160,000 crime-fighting tool, a hot, noisy apparatus that looks not unlike a fancy washer-dryer combo.
Although their professional demeanor did not betray it, the forensics folks seemed as excited as kids tearing the wrapping off a new toy at Christmas.
It was a big investment but important, according to Gleason.
“The good news is there was no tax levy money used to purchase this equipment. It was bought with asset forfeiture money, money seized from bad guys,” he said, turning to smile at the county executive at their Thursday, Feb. 13, press conference.
The better news is that it will be made available to other law enforcement agencies in Westchester. There is only one other VMD machine in the state, and it’s owned by the NYPD.
According to its public information officer, Kieran O’Leary, the Westchester County Department of Public Safety is always there to support other law enforcement agencies.
“We don’t turn anybody down,” he said.
According to Yorktown Police Chief Robert Noble, the town’s detectives are evaluating current and past investigations where the new technology could be used.
They have already sent some “cold case” evidence to the county.
“It is always exciting when new technology is made readily available to law enforcement, which allows us the ability to potentially better protect and serve our citizens,” Noble said.
Being able to retrieve latent fingerprints “increases our odds in identifying potential suspects in criminal investigations,” he added.
Lewisboro Police Chief David Alfano said that if there’s a major crime in his community, his officers secure the scene and turn over the investigation to state police, who have their own forensics teams. However, he agreed that the VMD is “a great tool” and “another perk for the law-enforcement community.”
North Salem Chief Thomas Howley said his police department does not have a crime scene squad and evidence processing is handled by the state police. However, he said he believed that the new technology “will help law enforcement all over the county.”
Somers Police Chief Mike Driscoll called the new machine “a great step forward in modern law enforcement technology.”
“It will enable law enforcement agencies to solve crimes that heretofore were very difficult to solve or not solvable at all,” he said, adding, “I foresee this technology to be adopted by all police agencies in the near future.”
Sgt. Aaron J. Hicks, state police Troop K public information officer, said that since none of the state police labs have taken advantage of the new machine to date, he couldn’t comment on the technology involved.
Although there are multiple reasons—other than the lack of fingerprints—for a case coming to a dead end, the new technology “appears to be of great benefit to law enforcement in general,” said Bedford Police Chief Melvin Padilla Jr.
And considering that there are roughly 42 law enforcement agencies in Westchester, the VMD machine is likely to get a lot of use.
“It’s a good bang for the buck,” Padilla said.
HOW IT WORKS
It works by coating items of evidence with an atomic layer of metal inside a vacuum chamber. Miniscule slivers of gold, zinc, silver or copper are vaporized to cover an object and reveal fingerprints and other evidence.
At the press conference, Sgt. James Harrison, the forensic unit’s commanding officer, pointing to a poster comparing the two methods of lifting fingerprints, said the difference is “glaring.”
Holding up a square of fabric which the unit used to simulate the smothering of someone with a pillowcase, Harrison pointed to the negative image of the “victim’s” face and the “perp’s” hands. It looked like something akin to the famed Shroud of Turin.
Knowing where the bad guy or gal may have touched something cuts time and increases efficiency in an investigation.
“You’re not swabbing the entire pillowcase for DNA and obliterating something; you’re targeting the area where it was most likely touched by someone,” he explained.
Having something concrete to show a jury is also a good thing, Harrison said.
According to West Technology Forensics, the United Kingdom inventors of the machine claim it can “develop” fingerprints that are 20-plus years old.
The inventors claim—and independent studies and the county’s own lab are finding—that processing evidence in the new contraption has very little effect on subsequent DNA testing.
“I’m not allowed to say zero, but it’s a very low amount,” Harrison said.
The technology was first developed in the 1970s by the UK Home Office, Police Scientific Development Branch. However, the old systems were industrial, high maintenance and very, very expensive, so only a few crime labs worldwide were able to use it.
The traditional method of uncovering latent fingerprints with fine powder has been “kind of static” for 50 years or so. And it has a rather dismal success rate of 4 percent.
Some studies have suggested that the VMD technology may raise that to “30 or 40 percent,” said Harrison, adding that he was, however, “not confident at this point to state that yet.”
“We’re still rolling this out. I’m hoping for it to be a lot larger than 4 percent.”
The VMD technology has also been successful at obtaining fingerprints from items that were submerged in water or exposed to high temperatures—conditions that generally destroy that kind of evidence.
Latimer volunteered to be a guinea pig for a demonstration.
Using magnets, Senior Detective Lt. Rich Vandermeulen attached a yellow sticky note that the county executive had lightly touched, placed a wafer of gold in a special cradle inside, shut the door and flipped a switch or two.
It took about four minutes to produce a clear rendition of Latimer’s fingerprint.
The system does not alter the physical structure of items.
“What’s nice about this is that we can use it first, and then our other chemicals,” Vandermeulen said.
Detectives in the Latent Print Section of the Forensic Investigation Unit were recently trained in the use of VMD equipment by West Technology personnel. They are now prepared to utilize it in investigations and testify as expert witnesses about its findings.
Latent prints analysis is just one area of expertise held by FIU detectives. They also provide expert analysis and testimony in the forensic disciplines of ballistics, crime scene, and digital and multimedia evidence, the county said.
The FIU crime lab is recognized as a public forensics laboratory under New York State Executive Law and is regularly assessed and accredited by outside experts.
“The expertise of the detectives in our Forensic Investigations Unit is second to none,” Gleason said. “VMD technology enables FIU to take its expertise to an even higher level than ever.”
Latimer also praised the team, which included Chief John Hodges and Lt. James Polanzo of the Westchester County Police Department.
“These are men whose life has been in law enforcement and they are now applying the most recently available technology,” Latimer noted.
They aren’t necessarily as comfortable in front of the camera as elected officials are, but they are the real experts, “the ones that do this work every day,” he said, adding, “This is how we capture criminals. When we capture criminals and bring them to proper justice, then we’re protecting the public. And that’s what they’ve done so brilliantly”
To see the demonstration, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raVF_SOKg80&feature=youtu.be