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FBI Computer Error Possibly Fatal

Times Staff Writers

A man suspected of being a serial killer was arrested and freed three times in the last several years because the FBI’s computerized fingerprint system failed to correctly identify him. During that period, authorities believe, the man killed four women.

Jeremy Bryan Jones, 32, gave an alias -- John Paul Chapman -- when he was arrested on trespassing charges outside Atlanta in January 2004. The FBI then ran his fingerprints through the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or IAFIS. But the system did not connect the prints with earlier prints from Jones, an Oklahoma construction worker wanted on charges of rape, sodomy and jumping bond, said Joe Parris, an FBI supervisory special agent.

“As a result ... law enforcement lost an opportunity to prevent future criminal activity by this individual,” an FBI statement said. Thomas Bush III, assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Systems Division, said, “The FBI regrets this incident.”

The FBI is conducting an internal review of the error within the fingerprint system, a huge computerized database.

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Friends and family of Jones’ alleged victims said they were stunned and angry about the error, which was followed by four slayings last year.

In February 2004, a month after Jones was released, authorities in New Orleans found the body of 47-year-old Katherine Collins, who had been raped, stabbed and beaten with a tire iron. In March, 16-year-old Amanda Greenwell disappeared from the trailer park where she and Jones lived; her body was found with a broken neck and stab wounds. In April, Patrice Endres, 38, disappeared from the Cumming, Ga., hair salon where she worked.

Jones was arrested in September 2004 in the slaying of 45-year-old Lisa Nichols, who was found raped, shot and burned in her home in Turnersville, Ala. He has been charged with killing Nichols, Greenwell and Collins, and is a suspect in Endres’ killing.

“How did this happen?” asked Sue Kascher, 53, a friend of Endres’. “I’m kind of shocked that this was botched. I know there’s human error, but I would think they would be more controlled in this day and age. They could have saved a lot of lives.”

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Randy Heckaman, Collins’ brother, said his anger gradually built Wednesday after he heard the news. “There’s a lot of innocent girls that lost their lives because they didn’t do their job right,” said Heckaman, 45, a construction worker in Indiana. “What’s their excuse?”

FBI officials said the error occurred within IAFIS, a massive computer database that contains fingerprints and criminal histories for 47 million subjects.

The system makes 50,000 fingerprint comparisons a day, with a 95% accuracy rate, Parris said. Every month, IAFIS fingerprint scans result in the arrest of thousands of criminals, he said.

Police in Carroll County, Ga., arrested Jones on suspicion of public indecency in October 2003, and then in January 2004 on a charge of criminal trespassing, said Chief Deputy Brad Robinson of the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office. Jones said his name was John Paul Chapman, and police passed his fingerprints to the FBI.

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Parris said the fingerprint system failed to make the connection between the two names. Instead, it created a new fingerprint file under the name Chapman. When Jones was arrested in June in a neighboring county on drug charges, the fingerprint scan matched him with the Chapman file.

Parris said there was no human error involved in the mistake.

“Nobody did anything wrong,” Parris said. “We can’t make systems work 100% of the time. There was no lapse; there was no inattention. It’s just that the system missed it.”

Even as the fingerprint system has become widely used, its relatively small error rate has remained unchanged, said Kenneth Moses, a San Francisco forensics expert who helped install fingerprint systems in California.

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IAFIS scans take four or five minutes, allowing authorities to hold a person until their prints have been run. The number of errors is infinitesimal compared with the system’s overall benefit, he said.

“When these highly publicized errors are made, it makes them look incompetent, but it’s just a fact of life,” said Moses, director of Forensic Identification Services, a private practice. “These machines are wonderful.”

When police in Carroll County released Jones, he went back to his trailer park in Douglasville, about 20 miles west of Atlanta.

His neighbors described him as a volatile, paranoid man who was often glassy-eyed from using methamphetamine.

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Brian Christensen, 47, said he once saw Jones peeking in another neighbor’s window. When Christensen asked what he was doing, he ran away. Christensen’s wife, Andrea, 38, said she once opened her door to Jones after he asked to borrow her phone. She said he made a sexually suggestive comment, then pushed her against a wall and grabbed her throat.

“You had a strange feeling when you looked into his eyes,” Brian Christensen said. “He was looking at you but looking right through you.”

After Greenwell’s slaying, police questioned Jones, but “there was nothing that aroused anybody’s suspicion,” said Stan Copeland, chief deputy in the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Jones betrayed no clue that his life was anything but normal, Copeland said.

“We get the feeling that he’s a psychopath -- he has no conscience, and he’s very intelligent about what he’s doing,” Copeland said.

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Jones left the trailer park in September, his neighbors said. The break in the case came Sept. 21, when Jones was arrested near Mobile, Ala., three days after Nichols’ body was found.

Police in Mobile sent out a news release announcing the arrest of 25-year-old John Paul Chapman -- and got two crucial responses.

One was from Oklahoma authorities, who said the profile of Chapman resembled Jones, who was wanted on charges of rape by force, rape by instrument, sodomy, failure to register as a sex offender and felony bail jumping.

The second important response came from Missouri officials, who said the real John Paul Chapman was incarcerated in their state, said Christina Bowersox, a spokeswoman for the Mobile police.

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Since then, Jones has become a suspect in a lengthening list of crimes. He is suspected in the slaying of Tina Mayberry, 38, who was stabbed to death in Douglasville in October 2002. He is also reportedly a suspect in six killings in Oklahoma and one in Missouri, where the torso of a woman was found at a rest stop on June 24, 2004. Investigators in California, Arkansas, Kansas and Tennessee have also expressed interest in him.

Police involved in the case said they still had faith in the fingerprint database.

“I’ve seen it catch people on a weekly basis,” said Copeland. “It’s just that it failed on a guy who may have turned out to be a serial killer.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Through the cracks

Jeremy Bryan Jones was arrested under the name John Paul Chapman. A mistake by the FBI’s fingerprint system failed to reveal his true identity as Jones, wanted in Oklahoma on suspicion of sexual assault. Now he is charged with three murders and is a suspect in as many as 20.

January 2004: Jones is arrested in Georgia as Chapman, and his prints are sent to the FBI for identification.

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February 2004: New Orleans resident Katherine Collins, 45, is found raped and slain.

March 2004: Amanda Greenwell, 16, disappears from her home; her remains are found in April.

September 2004: Lisa Nichols of Turnerville, Ala., is raped and killed; investigators announce that Chapman is Jones.

April 2005: Forsyth County, Ga., authorities say Jones has confessed to killing Patrice Endres in April 2004; no body is found and no charges are filed.

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May 2005: An Alabama grand jury indicts Jones in the Nichols slaying.

Sources: Times reporting, Associated Press


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