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Fingerprint Technology Captured Stalker

Twenty-six years ago today, fingerprint technology captured stalker Richard Ramirez, aka the Night Stalker. It wasn’t the police that found and caught him—it was a group of civilians who recognized him while he tried to steal a car. When he tried pulling a woman out of her car, her neighbors stepped in. One of them recognized him from his picture in the papers and alerted the others—this was the serial killer that had California afraid to go to sleep at night.

While the capture of the Night Stalker was a credit to law enforcement’s use of the media, his identification as Ramirez was the result of another modern technique. The Night Stalker case was among the first major cases to use automated fingerprinting technology.

Today, television detectives run fingerprints from a crime scene through an automated database and get results in seconds—somewhat inaccurately. In reality, the database kicks back “likely” matches and a trained fingerprint examiner must compare them to find an actual match. Still, the technology we use today allows quick searches of a vast number of fingerprints, and if a criminal leaves a fingerprint behind we can see if he’s ever been booked and fingerprinted, or if we have the same print on file from another scene.

Did you know?

The first American national fingerprint register was started by
J. Edgar Hoover in
the 1920s!

In 1985, this use of computers was brand new. Before automated systems, examiners would have to look through fingerprints on file by hand, using ten-print cards (on which a booked criminal has rolled all ten fingerprints in ink). It meant a great deal of time and effort, and was rarely useful without a suspect in mind. Some even admitted that the collection of fingerprints at the scene was frequently done for public relations purposes only—to appear to be doing something to solve the crime.

When computers were first applied to the task, the systems were extremely expensive, making it difficult to sell to agencies with low budgets. That’s why when the California Department of Justice used their brand new automated fingerprint indexing system to immediately identify Richard Ramirez as the Night Stalker, it put these systems on the map—it proved they worked, and that the cost was justified.

For a contemporary article on the use of automated fingerprint technology, go here. For more on the Night Stalker’s crimes, go here.

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