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."
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.
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.