The one thing Boston Police noticed about Jorge Falcon Ortiz, in addition to the 361 grams of heroin allegedly found stuffed down his pants, was that all 10 of his fingertips appeared to be mutilated. "It appeared to his investigators…to be done by burning them, placing them on the electric coils of a stove perhaps or possibly by a chemical," said Jake Wark, of the Suffolk County District Attorney's office. "We see this almost exclusively with heavy-weight drug cases."
Mr. Ortiz's case is not unique. According to law enforcement officials, intentionally altering or mutilating the fingertips is a drastic -- not to mention painful -- way for criminals to avoid being linked to their arrest record. And the number of criminal suspects engaging in the practice seems to be growing. "One individual while he was being arrested started chewing and biting away at his fingers to disfigure them. Another actually had the core cut out of all ten of his fingertips, then they pulled the skin together and stitched it," said Detective Lieutenant Kenneth Martin, head of the Massachusetts State Police Crime Lab division that oversees fingerprint analysis.
Once a fingerprint sample is taken, a computer can spit out the results in less than five minutes. "It is still a reliable means of identifying someone…but now it takes someone who is doing the processing to be on alert for those individuals who may have altered their prints," said Martin.
And when law enforcement gets wind of an altered print they pay close attention. "Imagine burning your finger. Now imagine purposely doing that on all ten of your fingers. Imagine the pain. If someone were to go to those lengths, that's someone we want to know," said Martin.
Massachusetts State Police have a record of at least 20 individuals last year alone who were arrested with deliberately scarred fingertips. Just last week, a doctor was charged in federal court because he allegedly planned to surgically alter the fingerprints of illegal immigrants for a hefty fee. In Europe, law enforcement officials have also reported an uptick in migrant workers discovered with altered fingertips – apparently in an effort to avoid detection by immigration officials.
Although there are no national figures, fingerprint experts say they have detected a rise in the number of incidents. "It's like a little outbreak of cases," said Kasey Wertheim, a West Virginia-based fingerprint identification expert and the author of several papers on intentional fingerprint mutilation.
Wertheim said that the ways criminals alter their fingerprints ranges from the low tech – rubbing the skin, burning fingertips on a stove, dousing fingers in acid, and self-mutilation using razors – to high tech surgery. Wertheim fears the next step could well involve dermal lasers commonly used for plastic surgery. "Skin on the fingers and soles of your feet is actually quite thick but there has been speculation that lasers could potentially penetrate the friction ridge skin on your fingertips and alter the print."