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Program lets bullets point out shooters
Drugfire technology compares casing marks to national database

OGDEN -- After the drive-by shooting, he didn't run up to his victim's home and smear his fingerprints all over the doorknob, but he might just as well have.

This time, it was the rounds from a 9mm handgun stuck in the wall that served as the finger that pointed out the suspect.Technology is fast making it harder for criminals to avoid detection. DNA is fearfully effective at identifying a culprit -- and it can be left behind in the most innocent or sinister of fashions.

Fingerprints are an old-fashioned but competent way to catch a crook, and now Ogden has the FBI's Drugfire, a computerized database that can match markings and striations that occur on bullets and shell casings.

Ogden criminalist Art Terkelson said when any bullet is fired from a gun, imperfections in the weapon's barrel are transferred to the slug and the shell casings. When police recover a round used in a shooting, that evidence can be turned over to a forensic examiner who enters the information into the database.

That information is then reviewed and cross-referenced with thousands of other records compiled locally and across the country.

Although the technology has been at Utah's main lab for several years, this year it moved to Ogden because of more space.

In the next couple of weeks, a criminalist will be sent to the FBI's National Academy for training on Drugfire, which is one of many ballistic identification systems in operation across the country.

Like fingerprints, the characteristics of firearms do not change over time, making a record produced three years ago potentially valuable to a case a detective gets today.

Studies have shown that even after a gun was test fired several hundred times, the last bullet fired could still be identical to the first.

Paul Bresson, an FBI spokesman in Washington, D.C., says the technology has been invaluable.

"This can be critical in supplying a lead," he said. "It basically serves as a fingerprint as to what gun was used."

Bresson said systems like Drugfire are especially effective at catching serial shooters.

A drive-by shooting in which shell casings are left behind may be linked to a drive-by shooting six months down the road because the database can show the same gun was used in both incidents. That tells police it may have been the same shooter.

"The system works pretty well," said criminalist Dave Wakefield, a forensic firearms expert with Ogden's crime lab.

"Because of this, we're able to link them through the system, whereas before it was too labor-intensive."

Bresson agrees.

"To do a manual search was like looking for a needle in a haystack."

The technology that is new to Ogden accompanies the crime lab's expansion that was celebrated earlier this year at an open house.

For years, the lab was scrunched into tiny working space at Weber State University, where criminalists often bumped into each other because of the cramped quarters.

The Ogden bureau now is at the former Defense Depot Ogden, where criminalist Art Terkelson is gratefully overwhelmed at the size of the expansion.

From an increase in the size of the ballistics tank to a future firearms range, Terkelson said the move accommodates an always-growing caseload.

"We handled more than 2,000 cases a year, and there's nothing to indicate it is going to slow down."