FAIRVIEW HEIGHTS, Ill. (KSDK) - The tiny gold and silver bullet sitting on a desk in a secret office in a federal building holds answers.
Hundreds of bullets just like it end up in the hands of the forensic scientists who put them in a black case that opens from the hard drive in their computers.
In minutes, the computer captured the fingerprint of that bullet. The journey to solving a crime starts with this little cartridge case, the impression in the middle of it and the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network or NIBIN.
LINK: Gun Crime Database
It's the only technology of its kind to connect the dots in the crimes.
"Their goal is to link shootings to each other and ultimately try to link those shootings to a firearm," said Joseph Thibault, group supervisor for the Illinois State Police Forensic Science Center in Chicago. The state police share the building with Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. ATF owns the technology. The agencies work together in labs across the country to analyze gun crimes for police agencies.
They have a similar lab in Fairview Heights, and KSDK journalists are the only journalists in the country to see NIBIN in action. We watched as a forensic scientist compared the impression from the cartridge to other cartridges. They used the same technology to link 19 crimes to one gun in the Metro East in one case several years ago.
"There was a gun exchange, a gun fight between two vehicles, 50 something rounds were fired during the incident," said now-retired ATF Special Agent in Charge Larry Ford.
Scientists were able to analyze some of the 30 casings from that shooting to track down a gun a year later that was linked to other crimes. The Fairview Heights ATF office services close to 200 agencies in southern Illinois. Scientists already worked 626 cases so far this year. That's as much as they had all of last year. They don't know how many crimes they are helping agencies solve because agencies don't report back when they close a crime. But they know they are getting hits on crimes that link cases on both sides of the Missouri River, between the St. Louis area and southern Illinois.
"There's a firearm that may be recovered in one city, and may also have been utilized in a crime in other cities. Some of it is tied to homegrown gang bangers who want to live the thug life," said Ford. He also said not all agencies are using the free NIBIN technology. They may not have enough officers to collect and send the evidence, they may not have access to resources, they may not think it will make a difference.
"When you are sharing info you are collecting intelligence, you are learning who are the people responsible for pulling the trigger," said Ford.
The technology is so important in crimefighting, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin told agencies if they don't use it, they won't get federal grants.