Criminals go to Painful Extremes to Mutilate Fingerprints

Fingerprints start developing at about the fourth month in utero and traditionally remain unchanged until sometime after death when decomposition takes over. That's why they are such an important tool for law enforcement. Shortly after someone is booked for a crime, police officers take an inked impression of each fingertip, and run the prints through a database to check for prior arrests and convictions. The computer checks for two different and distinctive features – whorls and ridging – and can generate a result in less than five minutes.

Criminals altering their fingerprints is not new, but their methods have changed. In the 1930's, the infamous bank robber John Dillinger poured acid into cuts in his fingertips in an attempt to erase them. He was eventually shot and killed by Chicacgo Police in 1934.

Erasing Fingerprints Hard to Do

A few years later, another criminal named Roscoe Pitts had surgery to remove skin from his fingertips and replace it with smooth skin from his chest. Pitts was eventually identified by some smaller markings on the sides of his fingertips.

More recently, Marc T. George, who had a previous conviction for money laundering, was arrested in New Jersey in 2005 for drug dealing. After he was released on bail, George had his fingerprints surgically altered in Mexico and was arrested again trying to enter the United States with a stolen passport. He was eventually charged with obstruction of justice – after officials discovered the altered fingerprints.

And so it goes with many suspects who have tried to alter their prints. According to Jake Wark of the Suffolk County District Attorney's office, they eventually end up getting caught. "Fingerprinting is an old-fashioned identification tool. And because it's the first means of identifying somebody, defendants think if they alter their prints they won't get caught. But we have facial recognition software, we can take major case prints which are inked impressions of a person's entire hand from the edge of the fingertip down to the palm. So if a person is carving up the center of his fingertips, that still leaves the sides which are identifiable," said Wark.

As for Mr. Ortiz, he is currently being charged with drug trafficking and is due in court in Boston Friday.

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