Mutilating Fingerprints

To avoid ID, more are mutilating fingerprints; police say scarring can thwart detection

A surgically altered finger is seen in a photo from the State Police.
By David Abel  |   GLOBE STAFF  |  July 21, 2010 
So desperate was one man to conceal his identity that he began biting his fingers and drawing blood while being booked.
Some have used eyedroppers filled with acid or pressed their fingers onto burning metal to blot their fingerprints. Others have spent thousands of dollars to hire shady doctors to surgically alter their fingertips, hoping to scar them beyond recognition.
The numbers are still relatively small, but in the past decade, State Police detectives say they have seen a sevenfold spike in people arrested with mutilated fingertips, a disturbing trend they said reflects dire efforts to evade the harsher punishments that come with multiple arrests, to avoid deportation, or to fool the increasingly sophisticated computers that do most fingerprint checks.
Since 2002, when State Police started to keep count of suspects with deliberately scarred fingerprints, they have recorded 72 arrests, 20 of which occurred last year. There were just three when they began keeping records.
``It's definitely an increasing phenomenon,'' said Detective Lieutenant Kenneth Martin, commanding officer of the State Police division that oversees fingerprint analysis of crime scenes. ``We've seen it all: self-inflicted mutilation, surgical efforts to cut out the core of fingers, and having the skin stitched back in strange ways.''
In the last month, federal and local officers in the area have made multiple arrests in three separate cases involving people who sought to hide their identity by trying to erase their fingerprints.
While authorities have had some recent successes in identifying those with mutilated fingerprints, most have not been identified. Indeed, of the recorded arrests this decade in Massachusetts, only 17 percent were positively identified by matching their scuffed fingerprints with previously recorded prints.
Moreover, detectives suspect they are missing many others who may have been recorded as new fingerprints by the state's computer system, which receives on average about 700 fingerprint cards a day from some 360 law enforcement agencies around the state.
The 24-year-old State Police computer system, which determines whether a print matches one on record or is a new, unrecorded print, sends only 25 percent of all fingerprints to department analysts for review.
``Unfortunately, mutilation can work to evade our system,'' said Detective Lieutenant Deborah Rebeiro, commanding officer of the State Police unit that oversees the state fingerprint database, which has about a million records on file and can tap into national and other state fingerprint databases with nearly 100 million records. ``The system isn't perfect, but as we increase our networks and this becomes more of an issue, I think you'll see we'll get better at it.''
Rebeiro and others noted that fingerprint mutilation is part of a long history of criminals trying to conceal their identity, which has included everything from assuming the names of dead people to undergoing extensive plastic surgery. Among the most notorious cases of a criminal destroying his fingerprints was John Dillinger, the bank robber who had been on the lam for years in the 1930s and used acid to burn his fingertips.
But fingerprint scans have become more sophisticated over the years, and police now require those arrested to dab all their fingers in ink or have them scanned digitally, including a nail-to-nail roll that takes in far more of the loops, whorls, and arches than just capturing an impression of the fingertip.
Officials at the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement said they do not keep national records of the number of suspects found to have deliberately disfigured their fingerprints.
``It's not something we really track, but I have heard fingerprint examiners mention a slight increase of people trying to mutilate their fingerprints, enough for them to take notice,'' said Steven Fischer, a spokesman for the FBI's division of Criminal Justice Information Services. ``We've found that most often people who do this are those who can afford it or a prominent criminal arrested before who fears multiple arrests.''
Joe Polski - chief operations officer of the Minnesota-based International Association of Identification, the world's largest group of forensic scientists - said analysts at the group's conference this month told him they are seeing an increase in such cases.
``I wouldn't describe this as an overwhelming problem, and it's worth noting that once a fingerprint has been changed and it has been recorded, we have those prints on record,'' Polski said. ``There are a lot of minutiae in a fingerprint that can't be changed.''
Last month, such residual data taken from previous bookings helped local authorities identify Leonel Lopez-Ortiz, an alleged drug dealer from Randolph, and Jorge Falcon Ortiz, who was arrested in Boston, also on drug trafficking charges. Police said both had sought to frustrate efforts to identify them by mutilating their fingers.
Last week, prosecutors charged three people in a federal court in Massachusetts with plotting to help illegal immigrants avoid detection by trying to alter their fingerprints. Among those arrested was Jose Elias Zaiter-Pou, a doctor who flew from the Dominican Republic and allegedly planned to surgically remove the fingerprints of illegal immigrants for a $4,500 fee.
At the State Police office of Crime Scene Services in Sudbury, Lieutenant Martin showed samples of mutilated prints he has collected over the years.
Some of the images revealed small rectangular patches of skin from another part of the body surgically implanted in the middle of the fingertips, in which the ridge patterns are distinctly different from the surrounding skin. Others showed crisscrossing lines or other odd patterns that blurred the surrounding swirls, probably reflecting cuts from a knife or deliberate burning.
He said some suspects do better than others in obscuring their identity. Surface cuts do not do the job, he said; the marring must go deep under the skin, which grows back with the original patterns if not sufficiently disfigured.
``The people who do this are pretty desperate,'' he said. ``I can't imagine the pain it must take. You have to get deep down, in the nerve endings. I see these people, to go to this extreme, as a real danger to society.''
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.