When Edgardo Tirado took off his gloves in the Lawrence police booking room to be fingerprinted after his Feb. 7 drug arrest, police saw rows of thick stitches on the tips of his fingers and thumbs.
"I thought right away, this guy is hiding from something in his past and is not who he says he is," said Detective Daron Fraser. "His story was not believable."
Tirado told officers he got the wounds defending himself in a fight with another man who had a knife, and the man cut the tips of his fingers and thumbs. He wouldn't tell police where the fight took place.
Fraser didn't believe him, and the next day, the detective would learn his hunch was correct.
Edgardo Tirado turned out to be Gerald Perez, 33, of 4 Lynch St., and the stitches were part of a procedure he had performed in the Dominican Republic to obliterate his fingerprints, making him impossible to identify through normal law enforcement means. An officer who had dealt with Perez before was the one who made the connection.
Police are seeing more and more cases of fingerprint obliteration as criminals become more and more savvy in trying to avoid detection. Fraser said a lot of criminals go to the Dominican Republic to have the procedures performed, and the procedures are not being done by licensed medical people.
"It is a cash business with no set fee. It runs $1,000 to $7,000 to have it done," Fraser said. "This is not something someone is doing in the confines of their home."
He said police have seen similar cases five or six times during the past two years.
Fraser said once the fingerprints are obliterated, it is easy for the criminal to spend $300 to $3,000 on the black market for new identification documents, such as a birth certificate and a Social Security Card, the amount depending on how clean the person wants the criminal record to be.
"If someone goes to the extreme of altering their fingerprints, they have found a way to get a new identity," he said. "Altered fingerprints are like a red flag to most cops who see them."
And, he said, it is not too often police see someone with all 10 digits altered.
"It's very shocking to see someone go to that extreme to continue in criminal activity," Fraser said.
In Perez's case, police believe he was afraid of being deported. He did have a visa, but he also had served prison time on some prior drug convictions, Fraser said.
"He can be deported. That is my belief as to why he had his fingerprints altered," Fraser said.
Cutting and stitching tops of fingers is not the only procedure being done. Lawrence police Chief John J. Romero said criminals have also been known to use an acid or other caustic material to obliterate their fingerprints.
A federal court recently sentenced an Arizona plastic surgeon to 18 months in prison for replacing the fingerprints of a man involved in a drug ring with skin from the bottom of his feet. The doctor had been practicing in Mexico and was caught when a man was caught sneaking across the U.S. border bandaged and limping badly from the painful procedure.
The legendary Chicago bank robber John Dillinger is believed to have attempted to burn his own fingerprints off unsuccessfully. The FBI says it was still able to match what was left of the prints.
"They are people who obviously wanted to hide their identity. It has the opposite effect in many instances. An officer seeing that will inquire further," Romero said.
In more serious crimes, palm prints are also taken and can help identify someone, he said.
"We look for other avenues for identifying people," he said.
In 2006, facial recognition technology was used at the Middleton jail to identify a prisoner who had bitten off his fingertips to avoid being deported.
Jail officials took a picture of the prisoner with a digital camera and fed the image into the computer. The way the software works, the program breaks up images of individuals' faces and assigns them numeric values, in much the same way the Automated Fingerprint Identification System works.
When the numerical values for the man's face were fed into the computer, within seconds the computer returned three matches to him, and all three matches had the same date of birth and home address in Lawrence, according to law enforcement documents.