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CBS13 Investigation: Expert Shortage Creating Huge Backlog of Unsolved Cases

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Steve Large Steve Large
Steve anchors the news on CBS13 on the weekends and reports during the...
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SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Struggling to keep up with fingerprint evidence after a hiring freeze, Sacramento County has quietly stacked up a backlog of almost 600 cases, a CBS13 investigation has learned.

And the backlog is growing, according to Lt. Jim Ortega, who oversees the county’s forensic identification unit.

Instead of being reviewed and matched, hundreds of cases have been put on hold — organized into a filing cabinet while forensic specialists analyze prints from violent crimes and armed robberies deemed a priority, Ortega said.

“We just have not been able to hire,” he said.

The county used to have 10 fingerprint experts — now it’s down to eight, and only seven of those are able to be used, with the other in training.

CBS13′s investigation reveals Sacramento County’s backlog dates back to January 2012, while waiting in the wings are cases such as Robert Henry’s — whose self-owned computer shop couldn’t afford to stay open after it was burlgarized April 3.

Thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment was gone by dawn, when Henry arrived to open the store — a devastating blow to his business and personal finances.

“There are days here I was working 14 hours a day, trying to provide a living for my family and feed my kids, and something happens and it all gets taken away,” he said.

“I’ve been through some hard things in my life,” said the 29-year-old entrepreneur, “but nothing like having to start over.”

Police found fingerprints — 20, according to Henry — but four months later, his case still hasn’t been opened. He was told it could take up to nine months before the fingerprint experts could open his file, he said.

“That’s when I knew I was going to be closing my doors, because I didn’t have the money to replace [the stolen items],” he said.

“It’s hard to explain to them, ‘We’re very sorry, but your crime is going to take a back seat to somebody else’s armed robbery,’” Ortega said. “Each case may entail a lot of work.”

That’s because more often than not, computers can’t make the match, he said. Every print requires a human eye, and often still a magnifying glass, to scan, analyze and identify patterns from the seemingly countless perpetrators.

Every fingerprint expert is trained for a year before taking on any real cases.

Ortega said even if they hire enough people immediately — which the county plans to do, after funding was made available for new hires — the backlog will keep growing while new hires go through a year of training.

“We’re plugging away as fast as we possibly can,” he said.

Henry, now operating as a mobile computer diagnostic repairmen, has lost all hope of recovering his equipment, while his case, like so many others, gathers dust — ready, but not yet able, to be solved.

“You have to keep moving forward, you have to rebuild,” he said. “It’d be nice to get my property back, but at this point I’m not holding my breath.”

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