He Was Like Needle in a Haystack : Night Stalker Suspect Nailed by New State Computer

Associated Press

When police recently connected Richard Ramirez to the terrifying string of murders and assaults blamed on California’s “Night Stalker,” the real hero may have been a computer that matched a crime-scene fingerprint to Ramirez’s files.

Soon, that story could be duplicated in police departments across the state. Before it adjourned last week, the Legislature approved a bill to provide remote terminals connected to that central computer in Sacramento.

Computer consultant Tom Ruggles says the system “gives you the ability to do something that heretofore could never be done--the ability to find a needle in a haystack.”

Matching Bits of Data

With the system, the computer does the matching of tiny data from fingerprints found at crime scenes to prints on file. The machine can do in minutes what could take a fingerprint analyst months, even years, to do by hand.

In the Night Stalker case, the computer-aided fingerprint search helped police move quickly in linking Ramirez to the case.


Fingerprints taken from the scene of one of the Night Stalker incidents were flown to Sacramento to be checked by the new state Department of Justice computer, made operational especially for the case, officials said. In 14 minutes, the computer produced the names of Ramirez and five others with similar fingerprint patterns. Ramirez’s name was at the top of the list.

Since then, Ramirez, 25, has been charged with a murder and other crimes in Los Angeles and has been served with an arrest warrant stemming from a San Francisco killing.

Get Results Fast

In San Francisco, investigators have become accustomed to rapid results from fingerprint evidence. The city Police Department installed a system like the new one in Sacramento 19 months ago.

“I knew it would work when we got it, but I didn’t know it would work this well,” said Sgt. Bob Dagitz, a 27-year police veteran and head of the department’s crime scene investigations unit.

Dagitz says the computer has tripled the number of annual identifications made by his department. For identifications made from just fingerprints--when investigators have no suspects to narrow the field--the unit succeeds with nearly as many in a month as it formerly did in a year.

The computer helped police identify 1,234 fingerprints between Feb. 27, 1984, and June 30, Dagitz said.

One File at a Time

Before the computer, an investigator depended on fingerprint traits like whorls, arches and loops to narrow the field, and then went through files one at a time, comparing prints to make an identification.

“It was a painstaking process,” Dagitz said.

He once used a calculator to determine how long it would take to compare a single fingerprint to the more than 300,000 cards the department has on file. He said it would take one person 33 years of eight-hour days.

“With the computer, it would take maybe an hour,” he said.

The department’s computer consists of a fingerprint reader and video screens on which investigators can take a close look at the ridges that form the fingerprint patterns.

Officers can photograph or trace a fingerprint from the terminal, which relays the pattern into the computer’s memory.

Using a stylus and electronic pad, the analyst can “touch up” imperfections in the reproduction and can tell the computer to reduce or enlarge portions of the image.

‘Minutiae Points’ Marked

At a command, the machine marks with red dots the “minutiae points” that distinguish a fingerprint. At another command, it flashes onto the screen tiny red lines that connect the dots in what Dagitz calls a “spider web.”

The investigator then enters all information known about the person to whom the fingerprint belongs, including sex, race and approximate age. At the touch of a button, the computer is off on a search for fingerprints that have similar minutiae points and background data.

“The search takes anywhere from one minute to over an hour, depending on how much information you give it,” Dagitz said. “You always get a candidate’s list back.”

With the system, fingerprints taken from people arrested for the first time automatically are checked against the file of latent prints lifted from crime scenes. Dagitz said the method sometimes uncovers suspects on cases that had been unsolved for years.

Japanese-Made Computer

The new computer in Sacramento works in a similar way and was made by the same company, Nippon Electronics Co. The company also has produced fingerprint computers for the Tokyo Police Department and for the state of Alaska.

Ruggles said the remote terminals the legislative bill would provide will allow local jurisdictions to tap into those files. His firm, Applied Systems Technology Inc. of Carlsbad, did equipment studies for both systems.

The bill, introduced by Sen. John Foran (D-San Francisco), sets aside $7 million and outlines a master plan for the network’s first 1 1/2 years, said Nancy Jo Plescia, Foran’s administrative assistant.

If Gov. George Deukmejian signs the bill by Oct. 2, the $7 million will be used to pay 70% of the cost of terminals connected to the $22-million computer in Sacramento. The other 30% will be paid by local police.

“You ask any officer--there’s a certain satisfaction to catching bad guys,” he said. “They like to solve crimes. With this computer, we have been able to identify perpetrators that would have never been caught under the old system.”