Sniper leaves a mark

Two fingerprint databases helped officials track down suspects in the Washington, D.C., sniper case

Two electronic fingerprint databases turned out to be keys to cracking the Washington, D.C., sniper case.

One, operated by the FBI, gave authorities the identity of a 17-year-old suspect in the three-week killing spree. The other, operated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, led police to the 41-year-old suspected gunman, John Allen Muhammad.

Initially, the databases were tapped by Montgomery, Ala., police who were investigating a murder that appeared to be unrelated to the sniping spree.

A liquor store manager, Claudine Parker, was killed and a store clerk wounded Sept. 21 in what appeared to be a robbery in Montgomery. Police arrived at the scene quickly and chased the assailant, who escaped on foot but left behind a gun magazine bearing a fingerprint.

According to a government official, the Montgomery police turned the fingerprint over to the FBI, which compared it to prints in the bureau's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) database.

The FBI "got a hit" on John Lee Malvo. The IAFIS information told investigators that Malvo had once been arrested by INS.

That prompted a search of INS' IDENT fingerprint database. A hit there yielded more details and a digital photograph of Malvo. Most importantly, it pointed investigators to Malvo's INS arrest file, the official said.

According to the file, Malvo and his mother, Uma James, had been arrested by the U.S. Border Patrol in Bellingham, Wash., Dec. 19, 2001, and were charged with violating immigration laws. The Border Patrol had been called by Bellingham police who were investigating a dispute between James and Muhammad.

The link the records established between Malvo and Muhammad may have been the most important connection to solving the sniper case, the official said.

According to the records, Malvo and James were turned over to INS, the parent agency of the Border Patrol, and jailed for about a month. As part of the process, Malvo and his mother were fingerprinted.

The Border Patrol collected digital prints of their index fingers, which were added to the IDENT database — a system containing the fingerprints of 10 million foreigners who have been arrested in the United States by INS.

The agency also collected "ink and paper" prints from every finger and sent those to the FBI, the official said. The FBI then digitized the prints and added them to IAFIS, its database of about 43 million digital criminal fingerprints.

The mother and son were released when a deportation hearing was scheduled for Nov. 20, 2002.

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