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    Clues lead forensic business to new home: Largo

    Several factors attracted ballistics specialist Forensic Technology Inc. to the area.

    [Times photo: Boyzell Hosey]
    Zach Kidd demonstrates Tuesday how an Integrated Ballistic Identification System machine works during an open house at Forensic Technology Inc.

    By MICHAEL SANDLER
    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published November 28, 2001


    Throughout the world, crimes are solved by forensic experts with an eye for detail.

    Beyond the fingerprints and hair, most rely on tiny markings left by firearms on used bullets and cartridges. Those lines and dents can break a case, and they are now being magnified in Pinellas County.

    The area has become the industrial center for this highly specific science, now that Forensic Technology Inc., the leading supplier of ballistic technology to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Fire Arms and the FBI, opened its main operations center just south of Largo in unincorporated Pinellas.

    The business office at the Pinellas STAR Center, which opened in May, will be the main training facility and call center for the global, multimillion dollar company that serves 26 countries.

    The company created the Integrated Ballistic Identification System, an advanced database system forensic experts have come to use to examine markings on bullets and match them to other crimes in seconds.

    "What we are looking for is like a fingerprint," said Jeffrey Stirling, chief of the ATF's National Integrated Ballistic Information Network, which serves federal, state and local law enforcement. "It's really the same concept. What you are able to do is tie together crimes that maybe could have never been tied together."

    The device looks very much like a high-powered microscope connected to a computer. But inside the task-specific microscope are two cameras, one for cartridges and the other for bullets.

    Experts place the ballistics in the scope and a magnified, digital image appears on the screen. Experts can see the various lines and scratches left behind by firearms. At the same time, the cameras take photos and match them with thousands of similar images, previous evidence stored in the database.

    "Basically, what we are looking for are horizontal lines, arcs, cross hatches," said Zach Kidd, a systems instructor for Forensic Technology. "Every time a bullet is fired, (the gun) leaves unique, identifiable patterns that vary from one weapon to the next."

    Forensic Technology had been searching for a location for several years and selected the STAR Center for various reasons, said company president Robert Walsh.

    The area is served by a large international airport in Tampa and has a computer-literate work force skilled in industrial applications (35 people were hired this year and 10 more are expected to be brought on next year).

    Also, the center is convenient to South America, where the company is developing significant business. And the weather certainly did not hurt.

    Last year the company generated about $32-million in sales; nearly 35 percent of those sales were with the U.S. government.

    A public demonstration at the company on Tuesday piqued the interest of local law enforcement officials. Sheriff Everett Rice stopped by for a look.

    "The main purpose is to solve crimes, and this is just another example of how computers have revolutionized our business," Rice said.

    - Michael Sandler can be reached at (727) 445-4174 or sandler@sptimes.com.

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