Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Extreme Measures Taken to Hide Fingerprints

by Andrea Campbell

John Herbert Dillinger got an extraordinary share of newspaper headlines as a notorious bank robber in the 1930s. His violent gang terrorized the Midwest between fall 1933 and summer 1934. They robbed banks, killed 10 men, wounded seven others, and staged three jail breaks, during which Dillinger killed one sheriff and wounded two guards. It is believed that he tried to obliterate his fingertips, but FBI agents say they were still able to match what was left of his prints.

From the moment fingerprints became the most reliable way to identify criminals and match evidence to crime, criminals have been trying to get rid of them.


Friction ridge patterns that create fingerprints start in about the fourth month of pregnancy. Their purpose is to help us grip objects we pick up. They remain the same throughout our lifetimes, although they  grow larger until we become adults. Then they stay distinctively ours until we decompose.
Jim Patten, a staff writer for The (Lawrence, Mass.) Eagle-Tribune, tells the story of Edgardo Tirado, who, in a February 7, 2008, drug arrest, surprised police when he took off his gloves in the booking room. Lawrence police Detective Daron Fraser says, “I thought right away this guy is hiding from something in his past and is not who he says he is.” When the gloves came off, Tirado showed the booking agent thick stitches in rows on the tips of his fingers and thumbs (photo right). His story wasn’t credible; he told officers the wounds came from defending himself in a knife fight and claimed the other man had cut his fingertips and thumbs. As to where the fight took place, he wouldn’t say. While the police had their doubts, next day information came in from an officer who had dealt with the man earlier.
According to reporter Mimi Hall, writing for USA TODAY, “It was after dark when Border Patrol agents in Douglas, Arizona, nabbed Mateo Cruz-Cruz allegedly jumping the fence from Mexico. At first, they noticed nothing unusual about his fingers. But when they got him to the station to take his prints, special operations supervisor Ulysses Duronslet says, the agents made a gruesome discovery: "The tips of the 25-year-old man’s fingers were blackened and burned.” Apparently, Cruz-Cruz had a prior conviction for sexual assault of a minor in Iowa and was deported in March of 2004.
Officials claim finding more and more criminals who alter their fingerprints by burning the tips, using acid or other corrosives. A 2007 federal court recently sentenced Dr. Jose L. Covarrubias, of Nogales, Mexico, to 18 months in prison for replacing the fingerprints of a fugitive named Marc T. George with skin from the bottom of his feet. Although a U.S. citizen, Dr. Covarrubias holds a Mexican medical license. The 49-year-old doctor faced a maximum sentence of five years in prison. George, a Jamaican national who was involved in a drug ring, was caught and arrested sneaking across the U.S.-Mexico border May 2006, bandaged and limping badly from the painful procedure. He was facing money-laundering charges.

Every time our government ratchets up efforts to catch and identify people, Manuel Padilla, chief border patrol agent in New Orleans, says: “Whenever we do something, there’s always a counteraction to try to beat it.” Since 9/11 and our government’s tightened security measures, more people are taking similar steps to erase fingerprints, just as John Dillinger did when he tried to burn off his prints with corrosive acid in the '30s. 

 When officers suspect something suspicious while printing, they inquire further. Today, in more serious crimes, the printing procedure involves taking full palm prints. Eagle-Tribune writer Patten says that in 2006, police used facial recognition software technology at the Middleton jail to identify a prisoner who had bitten off his fingertips to avoid being deported. (Photo above left. Source: Andover Police Department and an IAI Presentation; Courtesy, Mr. K. J. Burke).
The software breaks up facial images and assigns them numeric values, similar to the AFIS system for fingerprints. Of course, in the case of Middleton jail, officials also took a digital picture of the prisoner's hands and fed the image into the computer.

In Calais, France, migrants hoping to get into Great Britain are also mutilating their hands, often trying to remove layers of skin to prevent analysis. Prefect Gerard Gavory claimed that at least 57 asylum seekers questioned in the port town over the past few weeks “had their finger prints removed.” Often polyurethane glue or cuts with razors are used. The most common method however, was burning all 10 on a stove burner. In response, a joint database within the European Union, called Eurodoc, stores asylum-seekers' prints. Gavory added: “We're not sending them to their deaths, but towards peaceful zones. In organizing a return, we will be sending a strong signal to the Afghans. At the moment they have a sense of complete impunity in Calais.”


Criminals often don’t realize that altering their fingertips in extreme ways also makes them more distinctive and, ironically, thus recognizable. History’s most famous case is Robert J. Phillips, aka Roscoe Pitts, who in 1941 had his fingertips sutured to his chest for weeks in an effort to smooth out his prints. A long time-criminal doing bank robberies and burglaries, Phillips made his New Jersey physician perform this painful operation. Phillips, however, was identified on the basis of the unaltered peripheral skin areas surrounding his fingertips and the pattern on the second joint of his fingers.

Another more recent example, this time rather successful, is Randolph Clifton Kling. Kling managed to obtain 83 driving licenses after altering both his appearance and thumb print. He got by for more than a decade, until finally arrested in 2000.

So what’s next? Likely biometrics — using patterns from the retina and iris. Facial recognition use is becoming more widespread; and, of course, vocal or voice recognition is always an option when circumstances merit. All these systems have their problems though, and so far, DNA is the most reliable. That is, until someone figures out how to manipulate our genes.


FleaStiff said...

Fingerprints? With the level of incompetence exposed in the case of Detective Constable Shirley Mckie, I don't think criminals have much to worry about it.

In the UK, police are insisting upon genetic testing of Irish Travellers and all the children, not just fingerprinting of them.

Ladyred56 said...

Maiming yourself hardly seems like a reasonable option. I would be suspicious immediately upon seeing this.

So so silly! You can buy latex gloves for a pittance in any Walmart. I can do pretty much anything in them as nurse without having to take them off why maim yourself?

Anonymous said...

ladyred56---the gloves come off when u put ur fingers in th ink. people who want a new beginning r willing 2 make a greater sacrifice than ur measly pittance 4 gloves. can't say i wouldn't go 2 greater lengths if my head were on th chopping block...

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