FBI Throws Data-Sharing Tech at Serial Killings

The FBI is taking a page from industry in looking to tech to improve collaboration and how it collects and shares mission-critical information. But while enterprises aim to cut costs and beef up productivity, the feds have quite another goal in mind: putting an end to decades of serial murder cases across the country.

The FBI this week launched its Highway Serial Killings initiative, a program that uses databases to track killers who pass through many jurisdictions as they commit their crimes — creating an obstacle in coordinating data and efforts among a number of disparate law enforcement groups, officials said.

“It just creates a unique challenge for law enforcement whenever there’s cross-jurisdictional crime,” Supervisory Special Agent Mike Harrigan said during an interview
published by the FBI

The government decided to act when members of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and police from Grapevine, Texas, began tracking a pattern of serial killings along Interstate 40, which crosses the entire continental United States and passes through both states.

They contacted the FBI, who used a database of crimes to track the serial killers. “We took a look across the country in our database and we found there was a pattern across the country of a large number of homicides, sexual assaults, and unidentified dead bodies found on or along the highway,” Harrigan said.

Collaboration tech meets law enforcement

Businesses have long been interested in tapping collaboration and enterprise search tools to save money. Just last month, CTO Padmasree Warrior told VoiceCon that collaboration saves the company millions of dollars per year.

The FBI has another metric by which it judges the success of collaboration tools and search databases, however: the number of criminals caught.

The solution to the problems of collaboration and data collection in the highway killings cases proved to be a national crime database, the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (ViCAP). Although the database was established in 1985 by the Department of Justice, only in 2008 were police departments granted access to it.

“We have a secure link over the Internet … Previously only the Bureau could see those cases, but in July of 2008 we rolled out this Web access which now allows all agencies in the country to access all the information going back since the program started in 1985,” Harrigan said.

The results of this cooperation between the FBI and local law enforcement are now becoming visible. The FBI has built a map that shows where bodies or remains have been found along highways over the past 30 years.

Getting results

Even better, arrests have been made, the FBI said on its Web site. “So far, at least 10 suspects believed responsible for some 30 homicides have been placed in custody… including a trucker arrested in Tennessee charged with four murders, and a trucker charged with one murder in Massachusetts and another in New Jersey.”

Additionally, the original case surrounding murders along Interstate 40 also has been partially solved. “Two people who were working together have been charged with some of the murders… and the investigation to tie them to others continues,” the FBI said.

The database has even helped law enforcement solve crimes that occurred before the database was created, the FBI claimed. For instance, Pennsylvania investigators in 1989 entered a case from 1951 into the ViCAP database. Later, law enforcement personnel from Illinois entered an unsolved case from 1957 into the system.

“ViCAP analysts noticed similarities in the two cases,” the FBI said. “Due to these similarities and other related evidence, detectives in Illinois were able to solve a crime that occurred almost 40 years ago and finally resolve a terrible mystery for the parents.”

The FBI has not responded to requests for further comment.

It’s clear that the database contains more than just text. The FBI Web site says that the database contains: “Agency information, Victim information, Offender/Suspect information, Offender Time-line information, Modus Operandi, Dates and Exact Geographic Locations, Crime Scene information, Types of Trauma Inflicted on Victim, Weapon information, Sexual Activity, Vehicle information, Evidence Tracking, Narrative Summary, Holdback information (which is restricted to the submitting agency, the hub agency (if applicable), and FBI-ViCAP), and Attachments (photographs, crime scene diagrams, composites, etc.).”

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