Advertisement
A fingerprint examiner at the FBI Latent Print Unit. (Photo: Courtesy of the FBI)

Magalie Francois was stabbed and beaten to death in Elizabeth, N.J. on Oct. 30, 1993. Her boyfriend Wilmane Nicolas was quickly a suspect, but he couldn’t be found. A warrant for his arrest on a charge of homicide was issued by local authorities on Jan. 28, 1994.

Nicolas remained wanted, at large, armed and dangerous, for 23 years. But that’s because he never made it very far at all—not even past the Union County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Nicolas was himself killed by a car on a busy local street two days before his girlfriend’s body was even found. The alleged killer was carrying no identification—and although his fingerprints were taken, it was before national databases were available, with advanced matching systems. Even when the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) came online in 1999, no match was made. 

Instead, the breakthrough was made through a new partnership in 2017 between the FBI and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs. The pilot program began in February with a massive backlog of prints which had never before been examined by the FBI. Since then, a steady stream of “hits” from the unidentified deceased have produced hundreds of names, faces—and leads. What began as a pilot program in February has already transitioned into the normal workday routine for the some 35 FBI fingerprint examiners—although the results have proven to be anything but routine.

“To be honest, we had no idea how successful this was going to be,” said Bryan Johnson, major incident management program manager at the FBI’s latent fingerprint support unit. “It’s been a great team effort to work to get these successes.”

Wilmane Nicolas was a suspect in the 1993 murder of his girlfriend, Magalie Francois, and despite a warrant out for his arrest, he was nowhere to be found for 23 years. It wasn't until a partnership formed between the FBI and NamUs that Nicolas was identified and discovered to have died after being struck by a car two days before Francois' body was found. (Photo: Courtesy of the Union County Sheriff's Office)

202 NAMES

To date, 202 matches have been produced out of a NamUs submission of 1,813 cases.

The hits include the names of 25 homicide victims—potentially “heating up” those cold cases, according to the experts.

The success has been a mix of factors: a link between databases, better matching technology and the ability to look at single prints with greater detail than ever before, those experts added.

NamUs has a trove of fingerprints which were uploaded to their system—but the FBI had not previously had access to many of them.

Kim Edwards, chief of the FBI’s latent fingerprint unit, said there are a litany of reasons why the hundreds of matches are being made now. AFIS, which revolutionized matching at the turn of the millennium, was replaced with the next-generation identification, or NGI, system in 2013. The algorithm and image matching potential of that new system is much more powerful—and the database the FBI uses is larger than the state and local repositories of prints that may have been used on old cases, she explained.

“There are a number of reasons why these may not have hit previously,” said Edwards. “The technology is so much more improved … At this point, it’s just the right place, the right time, the right examiner.”

For instance, cases going back to the 1990s and earlier were made with paper-and-ink impressions—and sometimes the condition of the fingers on a decomposed body would not yield a good print, Johnson said. Oftentimes, matches are made off a 10-print search of all the digits. If fingers are missing, that was a hurdle to previous matching systems, Edwards explained.

But now, the FBI can search single prints out of the system—and make matches that were not possible before, Edwards added.

“Taking them in house, we were able to treat the fingerprint card as individual fingers, and search them as individual prints,” she said.

The program began with a chance series of discussions between Johnson and NamUs staff, at a conference focused on mass fatality response and major disasters. Together, they decided that the NGI capabilities of the FBI may be able to power more matches.

“It was just a series of conversations looking at the quality of the records and querying what they had done so far and what we could add onto it,” said Johnson. “We decided to give it a try to see if maybe this new tech and a different way of looking at the records may yield a different search.”

‘WHY WOULDN’T WE UPLOAD IT?’

The hits have continued to come. Across the country, breakthroughs in decades-old cases in dozens of states have resulted from the new partnership.

In Riverside County, California that meant identifying two men: a Mexican national who was run over by a vehicle crossing a highway in June 1997; and a homeless person struck by a train in July 2011. 

In Huntington Beach, California, the partnership produced the positive identification of a Virginia woman who was killed trying to cross the Pacific Coast Highway on foot, on April 1, 1990.

In Washoe County, Nevada, the FBI/NamUs partnership named a man who apparently drowned in the Truckee River in 2008.

New Jersey, which has consistently updated all its NamUs profiles since the program’s inception in 2006, has seen significant success. The Garden State has had seven positive hits for identifications, according to Donna Fontana, forensic anthropologist for the New Jersey State Police. (New Jersey also has over 300 unidentified deceased in the database, as well.)

The ID of Wilmane Nicolas, wanted for his girlfriend’s murder for nearly a quarter century even though he was dead by the time he became a suspect, shows the power of the new partnership, Fontana said.

“It was just a matter of it being in the system, so it could be searched,” said Fontana. “The fingerprints were there, but when the pilot program started, they were able to have access … It really is the collaboration between the FBI and NamUs (that made the breakthrough).”

It’s not just fingerprints or DNA that break cases, however. Facial reconstructions Fontana creates at her lab have made the difference in getting a name put to a body, and tattoos are also individual signifiers which can make a difference in a case. Sometimes, it’s even down to personal belongings, like unique clothing or even a common eyeglasses case from Costco, which can make the difference. All of it should be in the same place—and all of it should be accessible to make crucial connections that aren’t necessarily predictable, she added.

“We have the information—and so why wouldn’t we upload it into NamUs?” said Fontana. “The other alternative is keeping it in the drawer of a file cabinet. It’s an opportunity for the world to see this information.”

Edwards, the FBI latent print chief, said the policy formalizing the “humanitarian” role of checking the NamUs prints could become final in October. That means one or two examiners spending about an hour a day looking at the fingerprint cards which are now submitted every Friday by NamUs, Johnson added.

Seeing the news accounts of the fingerprint partnership successes pile up has been rewarding for the examiners, Edwards added.

“It’s actually been very rewarding for our examiners,” she said. “Oftentimes, we don’t see the results of the work. The fact there’s been such good success with these—it’s given us a little bit more visibility into the results of the work that we’re doing.”

“We never know what the so-called ‘shiny cases’ could be,” added Johnson. “We provide the science to the investigators, and they do what they do best.” 

Advertisement
Advertisement