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    STAR Center's new tenant: crime fighter

    By MAUREEN BYRNE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000


    SEMINOLE -- A multimillion-dollar plant that makes computerized equipment to help law enforcement agencies across the country solve crimes will open in January.

    Forensic Technology Inc. will be the newest tenant in the STAR (Science, Technology and Research) Center, a county-owned magnet for high-tech businesses at the former GE plant at Bryan Dairy and Belcher roads.

    The company manufactures a system that produces high-resolution images of bullets and shell casings used in crimes. The system, the latest in forensic ballistics technology, speeds up the process of identifying bullets used in crimes.

    As each fingerprint is different, each bullet expelled from a firearm is marked with unique impressions. Until recently, microscopic comparisons of these impressions were done manually by a firearms examiner.

    "We can do in about one hour what a well-trained firearm examiner can take months to do," said Jim Lightfoot, vice president of Forensic Technology Inc., or FTI, which has plants in Montreal and Dublin, Ireland.

    A bill recently approved by Congress will provide $26-million to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. If President Clinton signs the legislation, the federal agency will use those funds for the initial setup of the plant and installation of 150 machines in crime laboratories nationwide.

    FTI eventually will hire about 50 employees for its STAR Center operation, Lightfoot said. The plant will house the company's customer service center, which will provide information to clients worldwide.

    The company also will conduct training and maintenance programs for its computer technology, called Integrated Ballistics Identification System, or IBIS, in Seminole. Finally, assembly of the units, which will be shipped to crime laboratories in the United States and South America, will also take place there.

    "It will take people with some skills to do this," Lightfoot said.

    The plant will be in a new building on the STAR Center's 96-acre campus, said Ken Hall, director of the county-owned facility. The former plant, which made electronic components for nuclear weapons, was sold in 1995 for $2.6-million to the Pinellas County Industry Council. Today, the center, which features a main building and more than a dozen free-standing buildings, is home to 23 companies.

    "Forensics Technology fits our criteria for technology," Hall said. "The equipment that they assemble and sell is computer-oriented and high-tech in nature. It's going to create some very good jobs here."

    IBIS was developed in 1989. Since 1993, FTI has been selling its product to the ATF. In December, the ATF and the FBI unified their ballistic technology programs creating the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, or NIBIN.

    NIBIN has a large ballistics image data base filled with crime gun data that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies can use in solving crimes, said Tracy Hite, a special agent with the ATF.

    The images are compared with thousands of images of previously recovered evidence. As new images are entered, the system searches the existing data base for possible matches.

    This allows shell casings and bullets involved in separate crimes committed in the same or different cities to be linked, Hite said.

    "Oftentimes, we get a hit in another location," she said. "Law enforcement previously wouldn't have known that because they didn't have the technology."

    There are 225 sites that together contain more than 800,000 images, Hite said. These systems have produced more than 8,000 matches in more than 16,000 cases, she said.

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