Detectives Turn From Shoe Leather to Software

Computer programs help investigators see details they may have otherwise overlooked.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For David Wheeler, tragedy has proved to be the mother of invention. In 1981, his father, a wealthy businessman in Tulsa, Okla., was murdered outside his home in a Mafia-style hit. As Tulsa police detectives struggled to find clues, Mr. Wheeler used his frustration to think up a better way to solve crimes.

His tool was the computer, which could be trained to see patterns where detectives might only see details. And today, while his father's murder remains unsolved, Wheeler's invention, a software program called Detective Toolkit, is the hottest thing going in criminal justice.

"This is a whole new field," says Wheeler, from his Spartan corner office overlooking the tree-covered hills of north Austin. "I did this because I couldn't get to my father's killer, but I could get to others who were doing this same thing and not getting caught. In a way, it's even better, because I can stop more crimes."

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Called a "similarity-search engine," Wheeler's investigative software is just one of an arsenal of high-tech gadgets that are changing the face of modern law enforcement. Toll-free numbers help victims keep tabs on their assailants in prison. Parabolic microphones can record conversations a football field away, and global positioning system (GPS) can track more dangerous parolees within a few yards.

"You have to absolutely do everything" to ensure the public's safety, says Victor Rodriguez, chairman of the Texas Board of Paroles in San Antonio, which has begun testing GPS anklets for its higher-risk parolees. The goal of the new technology is better public safety, he says, not just using technology to be more efficient. "I see us moving that direction in Texas."

Gigabyte gumshoes

Today, Wheeler's company, Infoglide, is testing his law-enforcement-oriented program, Detective Toolkit, in dozens of police agencies around the country, from local police departments to state police to federal antiterrorist agencies.

Admirers say it copies the way detectives think. Instead of focusing on a few categories, such as height, weight, and race of a suspect - areas that witnesses are most likely to make mistakes on - Toolkit allows investigators to include an infinite number of quirky details, such as that a suspect smelled of gasoline or that he chewed his fingernails.

Sgt. Mike Huff of the Tulsa Police Department still remembers the case that proved the worth of Detective Toolkit. In the mid-1980s, a spree of convenience-store robberies went unsolved, mostly because witness descriptions of the suspect were too vague. But there was one small detail that linked the robberies. The suspect always purchased a Diet Coke and a package of Kool cigarettes. During the 16th robbery, the suspect was captured, soda and cigs in hand, and he admitted to the 15 other robberies.

"We spent hours going through old reports and discovered that 16 cases were linked. Toolkit would have done that in seconds," says Sergeant Huff, noting that using Wheeler's program has helped Tulsa reduce the robbery rate by 17 percent. "The power of Toolkit is to identify a crime spree before everybody else in the world figures out they have a Southside Stalker on their hands."

Cracking fraud

But while Detective Toolkit has gained the most attention thus far, Wheeler's company expects to see the greatest windfalls from a program aimed at insurance fraud. Called Fraud Investigator, the program has already cracked a $100 million Medicaid fraud ring in Illinois, and now it is being tested by a number of national insurance companies, including Allstate and Travelers.

Down the hall from Wheeler's office, software programmer Paul Leury offers a peek at the power of Fraud Investigator. With the click of a mouse, he opens a case file for an auto accident, provided by a large insurance company that is testing the product.

He clicks on a name and sees a red diamond beside it. That means this man's name exists elsewhere in the database. The man's Toyota has a red diamond next to it too. So do the seven passengers who were in the car at the time of the accident.

"This person [was] not only ... in two accidents, but he also happened to be traveling with the same people," says Mr. Leury.

Finding too much, too quickly?

To him, that's a signal of a possible fraud ring. Leury runs into these kinds of cases all the time - even while he's training new fraud investigators. Last month, Leury says, trainees from an insurance company got so caught up in all the fraud they were seeing that he was having trouble keeping them focused on the training. "They kept calling the main office, giving them names and case numbers," he says. "They were upset."

Jerry Flora, an insurance-industry expert in Waco, Texas, predicts that Fraud Investigator and other Infoglide products will eventually help lower the cost of insurance, as insurance companies get more efficient and better at catching fraud.

For his part, Wheeler barely has time to revel in his success. He's looking for other ways to use his similarity-search engine, such as avalanche prediction, fingerprint databases, even helping people find the perfect home.

"Fraud and crime are just a small fraction of what we're looking at," says Wheeler. "What we've got is much bigger than that, a better search engine."

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