Solving gun crimes with new approach to forensic investigations

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Murders, robberies, assaults; many of these crimes involve guns.

This is why police are changing their philosophy about how often and how quickly they use a high tech piece of equipment meant to help solve these cases faster.

After a shooting, the person who pulled the trigger almost always leaves behind a calling card in the form of a shell casing. Every gun in the world makes a unique mark on the casing it fires. No gun will ever make the exact same mark. Therefore, these markings become very much like fingerprints or DNA.

Special agent-in-charge of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives Houston office, Fred Milanowski said the markings on those shell casings can then be uploaded into a massive database called NIBIN, which stands for the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network.

“(This) allows ATF to take shell casings from separate shootings and tie them together,” Milanowski said.

The ATF has three NIBIN systems in our area. One is at the Houston Forensic Science Center, another at the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences and one at the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office. A shell casing is brought to the lab, examined and uploaded into NIBIN. The markings are checked against thousands of other casings from different crimes to see if there is a match. If a gun is found, then it can be fired in the lab and that casing checked. NIBIN can help link shootings police otherwise thought were unrelated.

VIDEO: What is NIBIN?

“When we see a larger cluster of cases linked together, they are typically gang related shootings,” said Darrell Stein, firearms section manager for HFSC.

NIBIN is not a new technology, what has recently changed is how often and how quickly it is used.

“This is about the right answer at the right time,” said Dr. Peter Stout, president and CEO of HFSC.

Stout said the center hired more staff dedicated to working NIBIN cases. In April, HFSC also instituted a 48-hour turnaround on results.

“The right answer that is too late, really is no better than the wrong answer on time,” Stout said.

Houston police also changed policy in April.

Shell casings recovered at crime scenes are now immediately sent to the lab. HPD used to ask the lab to wait five business days before testing a casing just in case there were fingerprints or DNA on it. However, police and the lab realized the chances of getting good fingerprints or DNA off a shell casing were less than 1 percent. Now, each casing is tested immediately.

“Everyone is prioritizing these cases so we can tie these shootings together much quicker and get these trigger pullers off the street,” Milanowski said.

The ATF shared with Channel 2 Investigates one example of how NIBIN helped lead to an arrest. In April 2016, someone tried to rob a Northeast Houston convenience store on Eastland. The clerk managed to lock the door, but the robber fired a shot and left behind a shell casing. That casing was then uploaded into NIBIN.  Three days later, two men were shot at an intersection on Cobalt at Danford. The men survived and more shell casings were recovered.

When casings from the second shooting were sent to the lab, NIBIN determined the same gun was used in both crimes. From there, police tracked down Timothy Alexander Grimes. Last month, Grimes was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

“Who knows how many more shootings he would have been involved if the evidence hadn't come out for six or seven months, and then, who knows if witnesses are still available?” Milanowski said.

Milanowski said since this renewed push for police departments to use NIBIN as often as possible, the ATF has logged the arrest of 23 people involved in more than 50 shootings in the Houston area in one year. In addition to the technology, the ATF also has a NIBIN team. When NIBIN determines different crimes are linked to the same gun, this team goes out and begins canvassing the areas where the shootings happened to potentially find new witnesses or surveillance video.

“If we could take 50 or 60 shooters off the street that are responsible for 120, 130 shootings; we will have significant impact on violent crime in the area,” Milanowski said.

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