Sandia LabNews

Shooter id kit succeeds in the field

Instant Shooter ID kit developed at Sandia helps solve five real crimes, including four murders

In Nassau County, N.Y., homicide detectives had a hunch. They wiped the back seat of a car with a swab, then doused the swab with a clear liquid chemical.

The blue specks that appeared on the swab seconds later gave investigators an important new piece of information: The person who killed the couple in the front seat had fired the gun from the back seat, not from the street as one witness had reported.

When faced with the new evidence, the witness confessed to committing the murders himself.

The case in September was the most recent of five crimes solved by police departments using, as part of each investigation, a new product called the Instant Shooter ID Kit® created by Law Enforcement Technologies (LET), Inc., of Colorado Springs.

The kit employs a Sandia-developed concept for packaging a laboratory chemical detection technique useful for identifying minute traces of gunpowder residue left at the scene — and on the shooter’s hands, arms, and clothing — whenever someone fires a gun (Lab News, Feb. 8, 2002).

Lab bench to police beat

Last summer Sandia explosives engineers, who routinely use similar chemistry to detect explosives in their laboratory, presented the concept to LET founder and CEO Greg MacAleese, a former Albuquerque Police Department violent crimes investigator.

MacAleese, who is working with Sandia to develop several other law enforcement technology projects, sponsored laboratory and live-fire tests at Sandia late last year. The results were promising, so LET licensed the technique from Sandia in February this year and turned it into a product that is compact, affordable, and usable right at the crime scene.

Soon after, LET began shipping samples of the kits to police departments for field trials. As word spread, demand grew, says MacAleese.

Each kit costs $17 and is about the size and shape of a VHS cassette.

Today there are more than 1,600 of the kits in the hands of police departments across the country, he says, with orders coming in every day.

"At first there was some resistance from the forensics lab community," he says, which traditionally analyzed gunshot residue samples in the laboratory using scanning electron microscopes (SEMs). But the forensics labs are underfunded and overworked, and each SEM analysis typically costs hundreds of dollars and takes a month or more, much too long for some police work.

"I think now they have begun to view the kits as a way to reduce their workloads and focus on the higher-profile crimes," he says. "Now we are seeing a lot of 40-kit orders from police departments that initially ordered a few."

Subsequent field trials conducted by LET have demonstrated that the kits are more than 90 percent accurate, adds MacAleese, another critical factor in the ID Kit’s acceptance.

Blue on white

Each Instant Shooter ID Kit includes a round fiberglass swab that can be rubbed on the hands, arms, or clothing of someone suspected of firing a gun, or on the surfaces of a crime scene.

When the swab is soaked in a proprietary liquid chemical, spots where trace amounts of gunpowder residues are present turn blue against the white swab. A detection takes 3 to 5 minutes.

Other crimes solved with assistance from the Instant Shooter ID Kit include:

  • In Glendale, Ariz., officers interceded in a potential confrontation between rival gangs at a park. When they approached one group, the officers noticed a towel on a nearby concrete picnic table concealing a lump, which turned out to be an automatic weapon. None of the individuals claimed ownership of the gun, so police took them all into custody and swabbed them all. The Instant Shooter ID Kit detected gunpowder on one suspect, who had been released from prison the previous day. He confessed to handling the weapon, a clear violation of his parole. "He was back in jail that night," says MacAleese. "You don’t even have to fire a weapon for the shooter ID kit to work. It can detect residues from handling a weapon."
  • Each of six victims in three separate apparent double homicides (Falls Church, Va., Flagstaff, Ariz., and Midland-Odessa, Texas) were swabbed. The Instant Shooter ID Kit helped detectives conclude that each crime was a murder-suicide — in each case one of the victims had fired the gun that killed the other, then turned the gun on himself. Narrowing down suspects, scenarios

The kits have proven most useful in helping investigators quickly narrow the list of suspects right at the crime scene or piece together details of a crime so detectives can focus on the most plausible explanations, says MacAleese.

"Pretty good for a product that’s been out only a couple of months," he says. "As police departments are confronted by an increasing number of violent crimes, there is a need for a fast and low-cost alternative to lab work. We are seeing a major increase in demand, and the feedback is all positive."

Sandians involved in the project include project leader Pam Walker, Phil Rodacy, Susan Bender (all 2552), and Kevin McMahon (1321).