On a blustery March afternoon in 1988, an Eastport couple called the police to report their home had been ransacked and a 20-gauge shotgun was missing.
The only clues were fingerprints that detectives lifted from a broken windowpane. But they were useless without a suspect until last month, when Annapolis police arranged to use a state-of-the-art computer system at Anne Arundel County police headquarters.
Mary Pat Whiteley, an identification specialist with the city police, ran the 1988 print through the computer and came up with a suspect in the Eastport burglary, although no charges have been filed. She also made progress on three other open cases since logging onto the system, called the Maryland Automated Fingerprinting Identification System.
Anne Arundel County is one of five police departments in Maryland that have the new, $240,000 computers containing a data bank with fingerprints of all criminals arrested statewide. The computers also have a data base on civilians, such as teachers and state workers, who are fingerprinted as an employment condition, said Anne Arundel Sgt. Robert Forest.
Baltimore, Howard and Prince George's counties and Baltimore City also have the computers. Most smaller departments can't afford to install and maintain the system, but can hook into it at the state police crime lab in Pikesville. Since Annapolis worked out an arrangement to share the county's computer last month, Ms. Whiteley has fed some 30 fingerprints through the system.
The computer compares the print taken at the scene of the crime with its data base and lists up to a dozen possible "matches."
Ms. Whiteley compares the print with each potential match. She's come up with six "hits," or direct matches so far, she said.
Before the computerized tracking system, police could dust the scene of a crime for fingerprints, then try to narrow down a list of potential suspects and try to match the prints. Without a suspect, the print was basically useless.
It was "like searching for a needle in a haystack," Ms. Whiteley said.
Now, you don't need a suspect, Sergeant Forest added.
One morning last week, Ms. Whiteley sat down with Ernest Lowman, the county's fingerprint examiner, to check a smudged print taken from the body of a woman who was found stabbed to death in Patapsco Valley State Park. Police later identified the woman as Emma Jean Wantland, 29, of Baltimore.
The computer spit out a dozen possible matches, which the two scrutinized closely by comparing the pattern of ridges. But they did not locate a "hit."
A direct match could be enough evidence to bring charges if there's no reason why the person should have been at the scene of the crime, Ms. Whiteley said. The suspect whose fingerprint matched the one taken at the Eastport burglary, for example, did not live near the area and was not a relative. No charges have been filed yet in the case, detectives said.