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Clipped from The Hampton Roads Daily Press, VA
April 23, 2004

Expert Leaves Imprint on Crime


By DAVID CHERNICKY

NEWPORT NEWS, VA - Larry Roberts lost count a long time ago on how many crimes he's helped solve.

The 27-year crime scene technician pauses briefly, then answers, "Hundreds."

So many, in fact, that the Newport News police lieutenant keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs from some of the more memorable cases - the peeping Tom he identified from lip prints or the serial rapist in Denbigh.

But at 60, Roberts is closing the curtain on his career as a fingerprint expert. He's one of about 700 certified fingerprint examiners in the world and the only one in Newport News and Hampton. Roberts will still be around, though. He plans to work part time for the Hampton Police Division, where he started his law enforcement career.

Roberts' career has paralleled the improvements in crime scene technology, which has changed the way police look for fingerprints, blood, hair and fibers.

In 1988, Roberts helped Newport News become the first police department in Hampton Roads to tie into a statewide fingerprint database, known as the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, or AFIS. Instead of manually searching through volumes of index cards for a fingerprint match, a technician simply feeds the fingerprint from a crime scene and waits for the computer to search the database for close similarities.

Roberts traces his interest in the science of fingerprinting to an article he read while in the Air Force.

"Something inside just clicked," he said.

Roberts joined the Hampton police in 1970 after eight years in the Air Force. He worked a year in patrol before transferring to what was then called the Identification Bureau. He left in 1976 and a year later joined Newport News Police Department.

He enrolled in the Institute of Applied Science in Chicago, an 18-month course devoted to the science of fingerprints, the best known means of identifying a human. Identical twins have the same DNA. Nobody has the same fingerprints.

Roberts remembers some of the really bad cases or the unusual. Sometimes he has to read newspaper clippings he's kept to get the details right.

In 1997, there was the peeping Tom case. In a 21/2-month span, seven women living in a Denbigh apartment complex reported a man either peering through their windows or doors at night. In several of the incidents, the man exposed himself.

When a burglary detective checked a window for fingerprints, she noticed several smudges. She transferred the impressions onto an index card and showed it to Roberts.

"I told her they look like a lip impression," Roberts recalled.

Roberts was venturing into uncharted territory. He learned from his research on the Internet that Japanese scientists conducted extensive research on lip imprints for criminal identification.

While working a homicide scene one morning, an officer called Roberts and told him about an overnight arrest. Robert N. Smith, 41, of Boulder Drive was a prime suspect in the Denbigh cases.

Roberts practiced on his own lips in preparation for taking Smith's lip prints. He compared the prints to the impression from the window and found they matched. Smith pleaded guilty.

This was the first time in Virginia and only the third time in the United States that lip impressions were used to solve a crime.

Roberts worked extensively with detectives in solving the 1978 murder of Muriel Hatchell, wife of a local car dealer. He found a fingerprint on the victim's car that matched a print from the suspect, ex-Portsmouth cop Frank J. Coppola.

At the trial, the prosecutor referred to the fingerprint evidence as "the icing on the cake." Coppola was driving a car seen in the area at the time of the murder. Roberts helped connect the dots.

He also helped detectives track a man responsible for attacks on at least six women in their Denbigh apartments in the 1990s. Police dubbed him the Denbigh rapist.

Roberts compared fingerprints from each scene and found they matched those of suspect Charles Minor, who was later arrested and convicted.

Detectives gave Roberts the names of 125 potential suspects. He went through fingerprint cards on all 125. He started on a second batch and found a match on number 126.

Police are only as effective as the crime scene technicians, said James Williamson, a retired Newport News detective supervisor.

"We pursue the leads, interview suspects and witnesses in an attempt to try to resolve the case, but it is through the hard work and dedication of your crime scene and forensics people that enables the detectives to arrest a suspect, prosecute and convict."

Roberts is modest about his contributions to the police.

"All of those investigative tools are great," he said, "but that still doesn't eliminate the need for good, old-fashioned police work."

 

Copyright 2004, Hampton Roads Daily Press, VA

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