Written By Joe O’Donnell
Photography by Chuck St. John
An April evening in the spring of 2015. It is 8 p.m. and Birmingham police respond to a report of gunshots at a city residence where Angela Smith lives. Witnesses said a man named John Wall had pulled up to the residence, got out of his vehicle and began firing a weapon. Angela Smith was hit and transported to the trauma center at UAB for treatment. (names have been changed in this story due to privacy concerns)
The night wasn’t over for either Angela Smith or John Wall, or for the police. At 11:30 police were called to another residence to respond to a report of domestic violence. Witnesses said in this incident the couple fired weapons and both left the scene before police arrived. More cartridge casings were recovered at that residence.
A couple of weeks later, on April 20, 2015, during an attempted robbery Tommy Bruhseco was shot in the head and died from his wounds. The assailant was unknown but several fired cartridge casings, including .45 Auto casings, were recovered at the scene of the crime.
The unknown man was later identified as John Wall. The processes and technology employed to tie the perpetrator to the crime is a study in modern crime-fighting methods that lead to pulling criminals off the streets.
On May 10, 2015, the United States Marshals Service obtained an arrest warrant for John Wall for various incidents and questioning. USMS stopped a vehicle where John Wall was a passenger and arrested him. Upon his arrest, John Wall was found to be in possession of a loaded Smith and Wesson 45 Auto caliber semi-automatic pistol. He was taken to BPD to be interviewed. Homicide detectives asked John Wall about the Smith and Wesson pistol he was caught with. John Wall offered no information.
On May 19 2015, the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) indicated a link between the Smith and Wesson 45 Auto caliber pistol that John Wall possessed and the three cases, including the homicide that would have been unsolved without NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistics Information Network).
Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Special Agent Alicia Hanne worked with the BPD Firearms and Toolmark unit for this case, organizing information and identifying suspects. The result: ATF Agent Hanne arrested the suspect John Wall and he was prosecuted and convicted on charges of kidnapping 1st degree, robbery 1st degree and homicide.
In 1999, ATF established the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network (NIBIN) to provide federal, state, and local partner agencies with an automated ballistic imaging network. NIBIN is the only national network that allows for the capture and comparison of ballistic evidence to aid in solving and preventing violent crimes involving firearms. NIBIN is vital to any violent crime reduction strategy, because it provides investigators the ability to compare their ballistics evidence against evidence from other violent crimes on a national, regional and local level, thus generating investigative links that would rarely be revealed absent the technology.
Since the program’s inception in 1999, NIBIN partners have captured approximately 2.8 million images of ballistic evidence and confirmed more than 74,000 NIBIN hits, but the true performance metric of NIBIN is the successful arrest and prosecution of shooters.
Forensic Technology offers IBIS (Integrated Ballistic Identification System), which enables the sharing and comparison of exhibit information and images across a network of imaging sites. It also gives suggested correlation results of likely matching bullets or cartridge cases. Software and hardware of BulletProof and BrassCatcher created the first system of IBIS known as the Heritage system. BulletProof is the software and hardware designed to acquire bullets, while BrassCatcher is responsible for fired cartridge acquisitions. They work by using special lighting to cast shadows on the fired ammunition and then store the image of topographic information of fired ammunition. The photos are stored in the system as an algorithm and shared with other agencies using the system. This network of stored information is referred to as NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistics Information Network).
New technologies have been developed for IBIS technology called TRAX-HD3D that includes exceptional 3D imaging, advanced comparison algorithms, and a robust infrastructure. BRASSTRAX for fired cartridges captures high-resolution specific characteristics of cartridge case markings and precise 3D topographic information on fired cartridge cases at the micrometer level. BULLETTRAX captures high-resolution images and topographic information from fired bullets at the nanometer level. The 3D sensor technology provides optimal performance for the specific characteristics of bullet markings. The acquisition process is fully automated. The automated system ensures consistent image quality for visualization and uniformity for optimal comparison performance.
Before the NIBIN program, firearms examiners had to manually compare fired ammunition from case to case, which was extremely labor intensive. With IBIS, images of the fired evidence are correlated against the database and images which share a certain amount of similar characteristics will be provided to the examiner. Then, those suggested possible hits can be viewed on the screen and compared to the cartridge of interest. If there are similarities that the examiner thinks are significant enough to be a possible match, then that fired cartridge case or bullet can be further examined under the comparison microscope for verification. This system basically eliminates the amount of non-matching evidence that examiners used to have to compare against the suspect cartridge or bullet. The NIBIN system allows links between crimes to be discovered more quickly. The information in NIBIN is stored and shared across jurisdictional boundaries, enabling different agencies to work together to stop crimes.
Essentially, the function of a firearm toolmark examiner is to provide investigative leads based on physical evidence that is collected at a crime scene. Once the evidence is submitted to the laboratory, an examiner can provide the detective with the following information: The number of firearms that were fired at a particular crime scene; The caliber of firearms; The possible manufacture of the firearms involved; Which pieces of evidence were fired in/from the same firearm; Which pieces of evidence were fired in/from the submitted firearm
It is the role of the firearms examiner to understand and be able to explain the type of firearm, its capabilities and limitations, and how this information correlates with the facts of the case. Having an understanding of how particular firearms function allows the examiner to determine what type of identifiable microscopic marks may be present on submitted bullets and cartridge cases.
Gunshot residues are used by firearms examiners to determine the distance of the muzzle of a firearm from a target at the time it was fired. This is sub-discipline of the forensic firearms specialty that requires testing only when the suspect firearm is available. The firearms examiner must do visual and microscopic examination of the evidence items for residues. Evidence item can be tested using a sequence of chemical tests that are specific for certain metals or compounds typically produced by fired ammunition components. The examiner can test the suspect firearm and similar ammunition to create standards to reproduce the residues and compare these residues to the residues developed on evidence items.
Toolmark examinations are the core area of study for firearm and toolmark examiners. Firearms are essentially an assemblage of different tools that make markings on the ammunition. Therefore, a firearm is a specialized subset of toolmark identification. Microscopic comparison and potential identification of striated or impressed toolmarks are central to identification. Tools such as screwdrivers, firearms, bolt cutters, or anything that is harder of the two objects being brought into contact will bear unique microscopic characteristics due to the manufacturing processes they undergo, as well as use over time. Like markings from firearms, there are class and individual characteristics on tools that are reproducible and identifiable with a particular tool.
In the Birmingham Police Firearm and Toolmark Unit, Beverly Keyton and Samara Hunter are hard at work, testing and chronicling the clues left behind when a bullet is fired.
Beverly Keyton grew up in Athens, Alabama. She received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from Judson College in 2012 and her Masters of Science in Forensic Science from UAB in 2015. Although she grew up around firearms within her extended family, she only recently developed an interest in firearms through her MSFS coursework. She has been working as a forensic scientist with the Birmingham Police Department for two years.
“Working as a firearms examiner is a fast-paced experience. Throughout the course of a day, I could be test firing a pistol, examining bullets, doing administrative work, or checking the IBIS database for cases that could be linked. We generate a lot of information in our lab, and I have a rare opportunity to see how my work is helpful to the investigators, agents, and officers that we work with. Working at the police department also holds sentimental value for me as my great-grandfather served as an officer here. I like to think of the legacy he left and that, in some small way, I am continuing it,” Keyton says.
Samara Hunter grew up in Huffman. “At a young age I really enjoyed science and chemistry. I knew before going to college I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives with the career I choose. When I first started at UAB, I majored in biology and minored in chemistry. I worked as a research technician at UAB’s Biology Department and as a patient care tech at UAB’s Trauma and Burn Unit, Hunter says. In 2008 she received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from University of Alabama at Birmingham. She then worked as a PCR Technician at Biolife Plasma Services, where she learned about the forensic field. She decided to go back to school and get a Masters of Science in Forensic Science from UAB in 2012. Hunter has been working as a forensic scientist with the Birmingham Police Department for more than three years now.
“I enjoy my career as a Forensic Firearm and Toolmark examiner because our systematic approach allows information and material evidences to be put together to function as proofs in meticulous investigations. It is a process that justifies unseen stories behind a certain event. It serves as the answers to unending questions that are hard to solve. Forensic science becomes the gateway to an honest justice system,” Hunter says. •