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Software aids in searches for suspects

Of the 28 people in the world trained in geographical profiling analysis, three work in Pinellas County.

By CHRIS TISCH
Published February 16, 2004

LARGO - Robin Wilfong does not carry a sheriff's star. She does not holster a gun or drive an unmarked cruiser with a flashing light on the dash. She doesn't run after bank robbers or stake out neighborhoods for cat burglars.

Wilfong comes to work at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office in civilian clothes. Most of the time, she sits at a computer surrounded by photos of her family.

She is not a detective. But she is one of their best friends.

Wilfong is one of only a couple dozen people in the world who have been trained in geographic profiling, a fancy bit of computer and mathematic wizardry that can help predict where serial criminals live.

"It's almost like they can look in crystal balls sometimes," said Lt. Gary Schobel, supervisor of the sheriff's office's crime analysis unit.

If, for instance, a burglar was riddling some local neighborhoods, Wilfong could zero in on where the thief was most likely to reside. If a robber was sticking up banks throughout the county, Wilfong could give investigators insights into his hangouts.

"Everybody has a pattern to their lives," Wilfong said. "Even criminals do."

The notion of geographic profiling began more than 10 years ago when Dr. Kim Rossmo, a Vancouver police inspector, developed a mathematical formula that could analyze a series of crimes, then plot on a map the most likely area where the suspect lived.

The formulas take principles of criminology into account, but also use a form of math akin to what retailers use to determine where to open a new store.

On its own, profiling isn't much good. But with deputies or detectives out in the field, it can help them focus their search for a suspect.

The system leans heavily on the notion that career criminals, who are thought to commit about 70 percent of the nation's crimes, like to strike close to home and in areas with which they are familiar. This is particularly true when they begin sprees.

"Your normal offender, say career criminal, they're pretty lazy and they're going to be in an area they're comfortable with," Wilfong said.

After Rossmo invented geographic profiling, the training initially was limited to crime analysts with national law enforcement agencies or large regional departments as they investigated serial murders or rapes. But the skills have trickled down to local departments and now can be used to catch even serial car burglars.

The program caught the eye of Pinellas sheriff's officials, particularly Schobel. He sent Wilfong and two other analysts to a two-week training session in geographic profiling. Currently, there are only 28 people in the world trained as geographic profiler-analysts, and Pinellas County has three of them.

Not bad for an agency that just six years ago was tracking crime waves on maps using push pins.

The training, along with Wilfong's salary for up to four years, has been paid for largely by state and federal grants.

Wilfong, a 27-year agency veteran, is the only Sheriff's Office employee dedicated full time to geographic profiling. The sheriff's office also gives her the leeway to help other Florida agencies, and even police departments outside the state or the country.

"I just got an e-mail from South Africa," said Wilfong, a 47-year-old mother of three.

To work their magic, profilers need a series of at least five crimes. They enter the data into a computer program that spits out a map of where the suspect may live. The map looks almost like an infrared image showing signs of heat - red and yellow are the hot spots where a serial suspect likely lives.

Since getting the program in late 2002, Wilfong has analyzed 22 cases. She has been on target in half of them.

Armed with Wilfong's information, detectives can conduct more targeted surveillance or canvasses.

The system proved successful last summer when a man was holding up businesses in the Seminole and Largo areas. Once the man had robbed five stores, Wilfong entered the information into the computer and came up with an area in Seminole where the suspect most likely lived.

Deputies searched in that area, but he instead was arrested days later after he held up another business in Largo. His address, however, was almost in the middle of the area Wilfong's computer had predicted.

The robber later was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

"She was right on the money," said Sgt. Kathy Hamilton-Scott patrol supervisor. "Everything they have done for us so far has been fantastic. I can't say enough about it."

Though some detectives were at first reluctant to admit computers could be so helpful, most are now on board. During a recent day in the crime analysis office, detectives from burglary, robbery and homicide all dropped by to ask for help. Crime analysis offers all kinds of computer assistance in addition to geographic profiling.

"Crime analysis helps us organize the information we get," said Cpl. Paul Martin, a robbery detective. "It still takes detectives to solve a case. I'm not worried about being replaced by a computer. But it's more efficient. We use it more and more every day."

[Last modified February 16, 2004, 01:31:39]


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