Robert M. Stock, FBI fingerprint expert

Robert Stock
Robert Stock (Baltimore Sun)

Robert M. Stock, a retired electrical engineer and FBI fingerprint pioneer whose work led to the establishment of the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, died Wednesday of complications from a stroke at his Severna Park home.

He was 83.

The son of a restaurant purveyor and a homemaker, he was born and raised in Syracuse, N.Y., where he graduated from Eastwood High School in 1946.

He served in the Army Signal Corps from 1946 to 1949, and then enrolled at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in a five-year program that allowed him to earn both his bachelor's and master's degrees in 1954 in electrical engineering.

Mr. Stock subsequently earned a master's degree in business administration from the University of Buffalo.

After graduation from Cornell, Mr. Stock went to work for Hughes Aircraft in Culver City, Calif., as a project engineer on the development of the first operational heat-seeking air-to-air missile, the AIM-4 Falcon.

In 1956, he went to work for Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories, later Calspan Corp., where he was project manager on numerous military projects, including terrain-following radar and the Aegis anti-ship missile defense system.

His most important work was begun at Cornell Laboratories and then continued in his role as chief engineer of the FBI's Automation Division, with special responsibility for the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or AFIS.

Mr. Stock was a key technical pioneer in the conversion of fingerprint identification from a largely manual process to a computer-automated one, and held many of the early patents related to automated fingerprint technologies.

Mr. Stock's fingerprinting system replaced the one that had been in use for a century. Investigators would have to search by hand the 10-print cards on which a booked criminal had rolled all 10 fingers in an ink-soaked ink pad.

Under his system, suspects taken into custody are fingerprinted on a live-scan fingerprinting terminal. Copies of the digitized print, along with the suspect's name, address, birth date, Social Security number and the type of offense, are then transmitted to the state's law enforcement authorities and fingerprint repository, where they are stored.

They are then forwarded to the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division's Wide-Area network and finally to the FBI's fingerprint repository in Clarksburg, W.Va.

By the late 1970s, as a result of his work, fingerprints could for the first time be matched to unknown subjects by high-speed automated methods, which resulted in thousands of crimes, some decades old, being solved.

"I was telling my sister that Dad invented the Google of fingerprints," said a son, Gary R. Stock of Sherman, Conn. "Today, the system is worldwide, and the system that was adopted was the FBI's."

By 1998, the technology allowed the FBI to electronically process 62,000 10-point searches per day.

A successful test of the fingerprinting system came in the mid-1980s when Richard Ramirez, a Los Angeles serial killer who became known as the "Night Stalker," was apprehended for murder and rape.

"It came from a single print on an automobile mirror," said another son, Christian D. Stock of Annapolis.

"The state of California reached out to the FBI. They were desperate to solve the case, and the FBI stepped in," said Gary Stock. "They got down to 11 names, and one was Richard Ramirez. My father was very proud of that."

Since 1999, the system has been known as the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and is "the world's largest collection of criminal history information," wrote fingerprint expert Kenneth R. Moses in his book "Fingerprint Sourcebook."

Mr. Moses writes that the system can "provide criminal search requests in less than 20 minutes and civil background checks in less than three hours and continues to improve as a vital asset to law enforcement agencies."

Mr. Stock's original AFIS system hardware is on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American History in Washington, including his own fingerprint card, which is part of the exhibit.

Mr. Stock left the FBI in 1987, and took a job with NEC Information Systems in Washington as director of research; he continued to work in the field of fingerprinting.

After leaving the company in 1991, he became a private consultant. One of his clients was the Jamaican government, where he worked on a voter-registration anti-fraud system based on fingerprint scans.

Mr. Stock had a large workshop in his Severna Park home. He enjoyed doing metal work and making furniture. He even built a Lancer, a one-engine, two-seater airplane.

He had his private pilot's license and was a volunteer with the Civil Air Patrol at Lee Airport in Annapolis. He was a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association and the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

He also was an avid photographer and liked sailing and trap shooting.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at Barranco & Sons Funeral Home, 495 Ritchie Highway, Severna Park.

Also surviving are his wife of 20 years, the former Rosella O'Doherty; another son, Todd M. Stock of Germantown; three daughters, Valerie L. Hawes of Glen Burnie, Tricia M. Stock of Edgewater and Pamela S. Newhart of Havre de Grace; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandson. An earlier marriage ended in divorce.


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