Crime scene investigators hit prints

Crime scene investigators hit prints

Michele Ellson

Larry Valiska of the Alameda Police Department's crime scene investigations unit.

Larry Valiska likes fingerprints because they form before you are born and remain the same for the rest of your life. After three and a half decades with the Alameda Police Department he’s become an expert at finding and capturing them at crime scenes, and he can pinpoint more than a dozen identifying characteristics in one in a matter of seconds.

Valiska comprises one-third of the department’s civilian crime scene investigation unit, whose duties include crime scene photography, videography and evidence collection. All three – Valiska, Joe Castañeda and Karen Watson – are fingerprint experts, a distinction that only five other people working in Alameda County law enforcement share.

It’s a career in which Valiska and his colleagues have done everything from dusting for prints at burgled homes in Alameda to conducting thousands of fingerprint identifications for Venezuela’s national elections.

“I never dreamed I would be doing this for a living,” the self-described former hippie who took a pay cut to come to Alameda after working as a jailer in Oakland said.

The crime scene crew is serious about providing a good service whether they’re working a murder or an auto burglary, and about returning stolen purses, jewelry and keepsakes to victims. “To us, it may be just routine. But to that person, it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened in their lives,” Valiska said.

Alameda police still investigate crimes other departments don’t; the Oakland Police Department, for example, doesn’t investigate most crimes reported through its online system, a list that includes residential and vehicle burglaries, theft and hit and run cases. On the day a reporter visited, Watson stopped in and offered a quick handshake before heading off to videotape a dog bite hearing.

While eyewitness testimony is considered circumstantial, a court views fingerprint evidence as “a positive thing” that puts a suspect at the scene of a crime, Valiska said.

“You can’t say, ‘I lent my fingers to a friend,’” he said.

The fastest Valiska ever identified a suspect was 15 minutes, he said. That was after someone broke into the trunk of a car belonging to a visitor from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

Castañeda, who trained Valiska, figures he’s looked at more than 10 billion fingerprints in his 40 years at the Alameda Police Department. During a murder investigation in the late 1970s, he pored over 25,000 sets of fingerprints at the Oakland Police Department in his effort to find the killer.

“It took me a week,” said Castañeda, a round man whose sparkling brown eyes greet a visitor over a pair of reading glasses and whose watch is set five minutes fast.

After 15-year-old Ichinkhorloo “Iko” Bayarsaikhan was murdered in Washington Park, in 2007, the team worked for days to process evidence, a job that included pulling prints off an entire AC Transit bus.

“Their determination on that particular case just really stands out to me,” said Police Chief Mike Noonan, whose department service has included stints as both the sergeant and the lieutenant who oversaw the team.

Their renown earned Valiska and Castañeda a gig conducting fingerprint matches for Venezuela’s national elections, a job that saw them handling about 8,000 identifications a day that the computers couldn’t make.

“You learn to read prints upside down,” Valiska said.

The crime scene team has pioneered the use of technologies that later became standard, including the use of superglue fuming to pull prints off guns and other items with nonporous surfaces – a technique that involves the use of a fish tank purchased for $10 at a garage sale and a coffee cup warmer. Valiska said the crew used fuming to catch suspects in a heist at Cigarettes Cheaper, pulling prints off a garbage bag full of cigarettes the Uzi-toting robbers left behind.

In 2001 Alameda became the first police department in Northern California to start using the COGENT digital finger and palm print system; four years later it had assembled the largest palm print database in Northern California and made over 1,000 identifications using the system.

“This is more criminal identifications than all other law enforcement agencies in Alameda County combined,” then-Acting City Manager William C. Norton wrote in a 2005 staff report.

The system contains the prints of 36,000 criminals, Valiska said, and will usually offer up around 20 prints similar to one collected at any given crime scene. It still takes the eye of a trained human being to determine whether any of the prints coughed up by the computer are a match.

During an interview, Valiska scanned a shark fin-shaped partial print into the system and looks for matches, highlighting a string of identifying points in a blur of mouse clicks. He says a dozen matching points with no unexplained dissimilarities is the FBI’s standard, and his. In 35 years, he’s never made a bad fingerprint identification.

“I will never make a bad identification. If there’s ever any doubt in my mind, it’s not a match,” Valiska said.

The crew still uses traditional fingerprint powder – lampblack and graphite, so fine it floats – at burglaries and other crime scenes; ninhydrin, which reacts with amino acids, is good for finding fingerprints on bad checks and threatening notes, while ultraviolet light aids in the detection of bodily fluids.

But juries – and even some younger police officers – who have been weaned on more than a decade’s worth of crime shows often expect more high-tech crime fighting, a phenomenon widely known as “the CSI effect.”

“We have to educate people on the stand that we’re not like CSI Miami,” Valiska said.

Even so, times and techniques have changed over the years Valiska and the crew have worked cases in Alameda. Black and white photography gave way to color film and then digital images, and the continuing growth and connection of online fingerprint systems has accelerated the speed at which suspects may be identified.

“When I first started in the fingerprint business, it was six months before you heard from the state,” Castañeda recalled. “Since then, things have sped up.”

Another major change is the introduction of DNA collection. Processing a DNA sample once cost $3,000, but the price has dropped to around $500, Valiska said. He said a 2010 study of the use of DNA evidence to investigate local property crimes produced “excellent results,” though he also noted that only fingerprints can be used to distinguish twins, since their DNA is exactly the same.

Just like the science of crime fighting, Alameda’s crime scene investigation capabilities face an uncertain future, with at least two of the team’s three members at or near retirement and no one being trained to replace them. Every year around budget time, Valiska waits to see what may be cut.

Noonan said the department – which has cut officer positions, shuttered its jail and outsourced its animal shelter to a nonprofit to trim its budget over the last several years – will eventually look at making what the team does a specialized officer assignment and could consider contracting with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to help at major crime scenes.

“We currently have a number of officers who are trained as field evidence technicians. The expertise to get where these three are will take a number of years,” Noonan said.

Valiska said he’s hopeful the service he provides will continue after he retires. As the interview winds down, he and Castañeda offer stories about different cases they’ve handled over the years, including a string of burglaries solved with a drawing of four links of a chain – and fingerprints collected at the scene.

“Again,” Valiska said, “the fingerprints came through.”