Fingerprint files find pattern in burglaries
By BILL VARIAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2001
One burglar struck often in 1998, breaking glass to enter stores, restaurants and churches, and stealing cash and other items he could easily sell.
He left behind fingerprints, like a trail of bread crumbs. But without a suspect, investigators had no fingers with which to compare them. And so the string of burglaries went unsolved.
Today, Gray Alan Combs, 36, of Homosassa stands accused of 21 west Citrus burglaries. And the Citrus County Sheriff's Office is crediting a new $134,000 piece of technology for his arrest.
The Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), purchased late last year, allows deputies to compare fingerprints in-house with those in a state law enforcement database. Investigators with the Sheriff's Office are hailing the acquisition as a large step forward in tracking down hard-to-nail criminals.
"This is just one more element of technological advancement in the agency," said Sheriff Jeff Dawsy.
Already, the AFIS equipment has enabled deputies to identify suspects, and sometimes witnesses or victims, in some 50 cases, said Sgt. Tim Martin, with the evidence and identification section of the Sheriff's Office.
"The amazing thing about this is it provides you with a name when you don't already have one," Martin said.
Combs is the most notable arrest so far.
Investigators had few leads as one business after another reported break-ins from April 1998 through May of last year. Deputies said they thought some of them were linked, though they weren't sure of others.
The prowler hit as many as six places in one day, according to court records. He typically broke glass to enter the building, investigators said. He took $216 from the Masonic Lodge on S Memorial Drive late one April 1998 night, another $1,200 from Dan's Clam Stand on W Grover Cleveland Boulevard a few nights later. He struck churches, a coin laundry and at least one home, all in Homosassa, according to court records.
No names came up. But investigators removed fingerprints from five of the burglarized buildings, said agency spokeswoman Ronda Hemminger Evan. They filed them.
Deputies have been able to ship fingerprints to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime lab for analysis. But they typically reserve that option for those cases where they have a suspect in mind. After all, if every law enforcement agency in the state shipped fingerprints from every crime scene, the backlog would be enormous.
Last year, the Sheriff's Office obtained a $100,310 federal grant, and matched it with another $33,690. The office purchased the AFIS in the fall.
It essentially enables detectives to scan fingerprints lifted from crime scenes into a computer. Officers trained to look for the ridges and swirls that make each print unique then highlight eight or more of the distinctive characteristics.
They hit the "enter" button, and the computer combs archives of fingerprints for convicted criminals on file with the FDLE, using an online link. The computer spits out possible matches -- I.D. numbers only -- that detectives can use for a close comparison.
Since AFIS arrived last fall, the three trained detectives in the Sheriff's Office evidence section have been feeding AFIS prints from old, unsolved cases. Every once in while, Martin says, he'll hear one of his fellow detectives come up with a hit.
"He yells, "I've got one!' " Martin said. "We're like kids in a candy shop with this thing."
That's essentially what happened with Combs, who had a prior record, and therefore prints on file with the FDLE. He was initially confronted with some of the new evidence and denied any involvement.
Detectives went back again when they got a few more hits, and this time, Combs admitted to the burglaries and others for which they did not have prints, according to the Sheriff's Office.
Combs already was enrolled in Drug Court, a relatively new diversionary program for people who commit drug or other crimes because of their addiction. He told detectives that he broke into the businesses to pay for his habit.
Because the charges stemmed from burglaries committed prior to his involvement with Drug Court, Combs was allowed to stay in the program where the charges can be dropped after 18 months. There, he is considered one of its model participants, according to Drug Court coordinator Ray Cox. Combs has kicked his habit and been one of the first to make it to a critical third stage of rehabilitation, Cox says.
"Gray has done everything he's been required to do and continues to do more than expected," Cox said.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111