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Reall-life CSI
Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office crime scene investigator Lt. Gerald Carter looks at a set of fingerprints taken at the scene of a recent burglary.

According to the warrant, "the defendant ... did enter the victim's residence ... with the intent to commit a crime therein. ...

"This incident occurred in the nighttime," the warrant continues.

Each month, the court docket is liberally mixed with individuals facing a charge of burglary in various degrees.

"We take them just as seriously as any other crime out there," Lt. Gerald Carter said of burglaries.

"Percentages show the average person will (more likely) become a victim of burglary than a violent crime."

FBI statistics from 2009 show burglaries went down in every region across the country except for one - the South. Here, burglaries actually increased by 0.4 percent. Out West, the rate dropped by more than 4 percent.

With that in mind, investigators either become adept at what they do, or they become something else in a different department.

As an 18-year law enforcement veteran and now crime scene investigator with the Orangeburg County Sheriff's Office, Carter says the solving of a burglary comes down to four methods: caught in the act, eyewitness account, backtracking from the recovered stolen property and physical evidence.

Caught in the act is self-explanatory. Deputies answer a call of a burglary in progress and arrive in time to effect an arrest.

Eyewitness accounts can be nearly as effective as actually catching someone at the incident location, police say. The burglar may have made good on his escape from the scene, but investigators at least have an idea as to who could be a possible suspect.

A witness can speak with investigators directly, or contact law enforcement agencies or Crimestoppers with information about a burglary anonymously.

On July 22, a Cannon Bridge Road man was asleep in his home when he heard a noise outside. As he went to the front door, he heard two individuals outside talking. The would-be burglars then forced the door partially open.

The man said that as a hand entered his now-opening door, he grabbed something, he doesn't remember what, and hit it. He later told deputies they'd be looking for a man with a broken hand.

Those suspects remain at large. However, had the timing been a minute one way or the other, one or more individuals could have been facing a judge. And perhaps a doctor.

Police can also backtrack from the stolen property to find out who committed the burglary in the first place.

Recently, a man called police saying he spotted his trailer being towed through Orangeburg. Police stopped the truck in question. They learned the trailer may have been purchased in what was thought to be a legitimate deal.

Although more of a theft than a burglary, the same means - backtracking - left police investigating the original seller.

The man's trailer was returned to him.

The most well-known means of solving a burglary, police say, is old-fashioned gumshoeing it. All patrol deputies are supplied with fingerprint kits and use them where surfaces allow.

Officials say the initial law enforcement response to a burglary is the road deputy. But should the road deputy decide the crime scene has the potential for more evidence, a crime scene investigator is called in.

Certified as a crime scene investigator with the National Forensic Academy, Carter said it's up to the investigator to determine which method is best to employ, if not all of them.

"Once I arrive, I'm going to assess the scene because every scene's different," he said. "I then determine what forensics application is needed, fingerprinting and collect DNA."

Carter stressed that not all surfaces will be conducive to recovering fingerprints.

In fact, many "police" techniques seen on TV are simply Hollywood creativity, including many methods of collecting DNA.

"That's very detrimental to law enforcement," Carter said. "That is entertainment, make-believe. You can't believe everything you see on TV."

Any DNA evidence collected is then preserved and eventually transferred to the State Law Enforcement Division for analysis.

Fingerprints are sent to the Orangeburg Department of Public Safety to be run through their fingerprint comparison unit AFIS, the Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

"I'll take them, I'll look at them, I'll do a comparison," said ODPS CSI Sgt. Carl Shultz. "If I have a suspect, I won't put it through AFIS."

On TV, an AFIS machine is running a hundred fingerprints a minute, complete with flashing visual aids of fingerprints being sorted.

In reality, the AFIS may find several potential matches in as little as 30 seconds or it could take all day, Shultz said.

The city's CSI related one incident in which a warrant was obtained the same day a print was lifted and matched.

"Before the day was over, we had a suspect," he said. "It's something that can happen, but it's not typical."

Most of the time, fingerprint comparison is time-consuming, careful analysis by either Carter or Shultz of potential matches developed by the AFIS unit.

Shultz said the AFIS does not produce the one perfectly matched fingerprint as Hollywood suggests. Rather, the unit produces dozens or more potential matches that are then screened carefully by the fingerprint expert.

Cores, bridges, ridges, ending ridges, dots, lakes, islands, bifurcation, double bifurcation. The feature list goes on, but examiners have to search each print for each unique anomaly of that print.

As Shultz examines a print, he says it's a left thumb print. It's not a very good print, more of a smeared side thumb print. He's trying to match "points," or features, between a sample taken from a scene and the AFIS candidates.

"This is what you generally get, very little of the finger," he said as the print is examined in high resolution.

Whether or not Shultz finds a match, he makes a report to turn in with the fingerprint. From there, the investigator collects that report to continue the investigation.

With the ODPS AFIS serving at least six area police agencies, OCSO spokesperson Keisa Peterson said the county has already submitted requests to obtain an AFIS machine as part of a county-run crime laboratory.

"We would like to process evidence ‘in-house,'" Peterson said, adding that the time delay in DNA and fingerprint analysis could be reduced with their own unit.

Meantime, if a DNA "hit" or possible fingerprint match is made, investigators attempt to find that person to determine why he or she was present at the crime scene. A warrant may be obtained at that point if the story doesn't add up.

First-degree burglary - breaking into an individual's home at night - carries up to a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Not everyone is armed and ready for an illegal entry at home, as in the July 22 incident. But police say residents can help themselves by helping investigators.

A few simple steps, such as leaving a crime scene rather than wading into the middle of it, can prevent contamination.

"Evidence can be destroyed by just moving something, making it unusable," Carter said.

The longtime investigator said also that up to 20 percent more burglaries could be solved in this community if residents and business owners would take the time to record the serial and VIN numbers of their possessions.

"Take photographs of your possessions, one (per item) will do; get the serial number, which is positive identification," he said. "They can use an etcher, a permanent marker, scratch it - that can be tracked back to the owner."

However open they are about fingerprinting and DNA, police say there are techniques and equipment used to solve a burglary that simply will not be discussed.

"The scientific procedures involved in identifying burglary suspects are well-known to the public," said Mike Adams, ODPS captain of investigations. "However, the means in which the these procedures are employed in the investigative process tend to be closely guarded."

In the end, the best tool remains not in the police headquarters or fingerprint locker - it remains in the community itself. No tool for solving burglaries is better, police say.

"You have to depend more than anything on our citizens and the public," ODPS Chief Wendell Davis said. "Be your brother's keeper."

n Contact the writer: rwalker@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5516.

 

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** Totals ** are the total number of robberies within a county that were reported to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

** Rate ** is the ratio of crimes in an area to the population of that area; expressed per 1000 population per year.

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* SOURCE: South Carolina Law Enforcement Division

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