AUSTIN (KXAN) — What seemed like a home run case: fingerprints appearing crystal clear on the window of a burglarized home, took more than a year for Austin police to file burglary charges.
On Oct. 3, 2014, someone broke into David Timberger’s home on Windy Brook Drive and stole his passport, two televisions and a tablet. The burglar entered through a kitchen window, but it’s the window of opportunity to commit more crimes that followed that Timberger says he can’t shake. At the time, investigators told Timberger while the fingerprints were good, the process of evaluating the prints would be a longer ordeal.
“I was told, and it was true, that the evidence would sit in a drawer. And it really did sit in a drawer, and it’s been 15 months,” Timberger said. “It’s really frustrating having to wait, and wait, and wait, while you know that somebody’s out there. You know somebody’s out there who had probably done this before and may be doing it again. And you got nothing that you can do about it.”
Now more than a year later, police believe the fingerprints belong to 25-year-old Candido Benitez. Benitez already has at least six prior arrests, and four home burglary convictions on his record. Timberger says police called him back in June to let him know they made a fingerprint match but the fingerprints still needed confirmation by trained examiners, which took an additional seven months. Benitez was originally arrested in November 2014 for a separate crime but was released from jail on parole in June 2015.
“These kinds of things start with the break-in, but who’s to say it’s not going to because a personal crime, a physical crime after that,” Timberger said.
APD’s latest numbers show its backlog for testing fingerprints tops 8 months right now.
“There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these kinds of cases in Austin and I understand this is a property crime, it’s a low priority, it should be a lower priority than the others. But something has to give here,” Timberger said.
In December 2014, APD told KXAN its goal was to eliminate the backlog in a year. But the department still has a long way to go. On top of the fingerprint backlog, DNA analysis, on average, takes more than 8 months as well. A blood alcohol analysis takes 2 months, drug analysis, a month and a half, and firearms analysis, more than 2 months.
and Firearms analysis, more than 2 months. APD says it needs four more latent print examiners to get the backlog under control, positions City Council did not approve in the most recent budget, and at least two more DNA analysts.
Last February, a KXAN investigation found many serial burglars reach plea deals for shorter sentences, only to reoffend when they’re out. Two months later, APD and the Travis County District Attorney launched a new task force to crack down on these offenders. The idea is to funnel all of the cases through a single prosecutor so he can focus on securing tougher sentences. We reached out to Austin Police and to the DA’s Office to get an update on their progress, but learned we will not have an update until Wednesday.
When fingerprints are collected from a crime scene, they are brought to the crime lab and a technician determines if they are suitable for entry into AFIS or the Automated Fingerprint Identification System. AFIS holds data on millions of fingerprints in local, state, and federal databases. If the prints from the crime scene potentially match prints in AFIS, it is considered an association or a “hit.”
The process of running prints through AFIS can be done in a matter of hours, but just because AFIS returns an association does not mean the prints have been successfully identified. That task must be done by a human latent print examiner who sits down and does a hard copy examination.