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Catching criminals with trace evidence

The smallest speck of evidence can lead to an arrest. It's called trace evidence and it can yield big results in criminal cases (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Hagit Limor) The smallest speck of evidence can lead to an arrest. It's called trace evidence and it can yield big results in criminal cases (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Hagit Limor)
Noffsinger has fractured matched vehicles lights and mirrors in hit and run cases, as well as masking tape in a homicide case (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Hagit Limor) Noffsinger has fractured matched vehicles lights and mirrors in hit and run cases, as well as masking tape in a homicide case (Photo: FOX19 NOW/Hagit Limor)
CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) -

When it comes to catching criminals, the devil is often in the details. The smallest speck of evidence can lead to an arrest. It's called trace evidence and it can yield big results in criminal cases.

"I don't ever get bored," said Suzanne Noffsinger, a forensic scientist with the Ohio Attorney General's Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI). “If it's not a biological sample or a drug-related sample, they send it to trace.”

Noffsinger analyzes trace evidence at BCI headquarters in London, one of three state crime labs.

“I go from gunshot residue to footwear to fibers to fracture matches. Just depending on what needs to be done,” she said.

Trace evidence is exactly that – trace, particulate evidence. Noffsinger said it can include glass fragments, paint chips and fibers.

Noffsinger also looks at things that include impression evidence from footwear and vehicle tires, and broken or torn items such as vehicle lamps or tape, for possible fracture matches. A "fracture match" - matching broken or torn objects - is similar to putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The edges and surface markings are used to align the items in question. This may substantiate that two or more pieces of an object may have a common origin or at one time were one complete unit.

PHOTO: Missouri State Highway Patrol

Noffsinger said fracture match evidence is conclusive. “When something breaks in a unique way we can take two pieces of plastic or tape or wood and match those back together, we know those were once conclusively part of the same object,” she said.

Noffsinger has fractured matched vehicles lights and mirrors in hit and run cases, as well as masking tape in a homicide case.

Another piece of evidence Noffsinger often analyzes – footwear impressions. When a suspect leaves a foot impression at a scene, Noffsinger is tasked with identifying the type of footwear and then comparing the impression with a suspect's shoes.

BCI has a database of about 35 thousand tread designs for footwear that goes back about 10 years.

In a 2014 burglary case from Middletown, shoe impression identification helped police built a cases against two suspects. Middletown police said a someone broke into a vacant paper processing plant multiple times. The suspects stole copper wiring and vandalized machines, causing about $100,000 in theft and damage. Police said there were no witnesses and they had no useable DNA evidence. What they did have were very good shoe impressions.

“There was a large piece of white paper that had unrolled,” recalled Middletown Police detective Tom McIntosh. “There were obvious footprints on the paper when one of these individuals had walked through hydraulic fluid.”

McIntosh sent the shoe impressions to Noffsinger at BCI headquarters.

“The impression had gouges and cuts everywhere that made those shoes, those treads have such unique characteristics,” she said. “As soon as I looked at it I knew I had an identification, if the characteristics were in the suspect's shoes, which they were. The detective in Middletown was jumping up and down when we talked about his case.”

McIntosh said that conclusive evidence was key to solving his case.

“It's hard to argue with facts, being the trace evidence,” he said.

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