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Cops gain new high-tech fingerprint device

The Jackson County Sheriff's Department's ability to lift usable fingerprints from evidence just got a significant upgrade.

A new piece of forensic equipment, called a Vacuum Metal Deposition unit, uses small amounts of gold and zinc in a vacuum to better display fingerprints left behind on items. Even items submerged in water, which weakens the print, or those on pieces of clothing can be found when other options such as fingerprint powder and "Super Glue" adhesives come up short. 

"(The metals) are attracted to areas where someone may have touched an item," said Detective Eric Fox. "It's one of the most sensitive ways that we can develop prints."

Even if it doesn't find fingerprints, the unit can still be used to identify spots on objects that were touched by people, which Fox said could potentially lead to DNA evidence.

"You can identify somebody through that means as well, so there are a lot of applications there," Fox said.

The department hopes to have the device up and running in two to three months after employee training is complete. As a bonus, the department didn't have to spend a dime on the unit. The U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland donated it.

"Pretty much the only expenses we had to pay were to move it and do basic electrical setup and things like that," Fox said. 

Ken Goddard, director of the Fish & Wildlife Forensics Laboratory, said they originally had the unit built for about $70,000 five years ago. The agency had intended to use it for cases in which suspects handled animal parts and products such as rhino horns and antlers. They also handle evidence that comes out of the ocean, which can be problematic because saltwater erodes fingerprints over time.

To test the VMD unit's capabilities, Goddard said, laboratory officials handled a conch shell, then left it in saltwater for 30 days. They were still able to get fingerprints off of it.

"We had great plans for it," Goddard said.

But the plans didn't quite pan out. The caseload ended up being slim, and the employee who would have overseen all the cases left the laboratory for another job.

"We had every reason to believe this technique would work well, and it did, but we had relatively few cases," Goddard said.

He asked the sheriff's department whether they wanted to use it, and they said yes. The machine left Ashland and traveled to its new home at the sheriff's department headquarters off Highway 62 last week.

"It's a powerful tool," Goddard said. "It has great potential and ought to be used, and I'm delighted it will stay here in Jackson County where it can be used."

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryanpfeil.

Community Service Deputy David Rathbun explains to Jackson County Sheriff Corey Falls the workings of the department's recently acquired vacuum metal deposition chamber. The equipment is used to lift fingerprints off evidence. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch