Ballistics identification database helps police track gun-crime suspects
A man in a pickup truck peppered the North Charleston sky with eight gunshots before dawn one morning, the shell casings spilling onto Spruill Avenue.
By the numbers
Weapons testing at Charleston Co. Sheriff’s Office
Yearly average of gun casings entered into the system
Average number of matches to other cases
The man blasted a final round before he and two others in the truck sped off into the darkness.
The purpose of the gunman’s display of firepower that morning in March 2007 baffled investigators at the time. But the incident later cracked another case wide open and put investigators on the trail of a killer who struck four months later and several miles away.
At the heart of the case was a tool used frequently by Lowcountry investigators. It’s Charleston County’s Integrated Ballistics Identification System, or IBIS, and it matches bullets and guns to crimes.
The system played a key role in solving a triple homicide that took place July 10, 2007, in Dorchester County.
Sheriff’s investigators found a woman, Diane Grant, and her 20-year-old son, Jatavius DeVore, shot to death in their Archdale Forest apartment off Dorchester Road. Grant’s 14-year-old daughter, DeAnna DeVore, was taken behind another building and shot multiple times, authorities said.
Investigators with the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office hit a brick wall as they investigated the killings — no weapon, no motive and no one who saw what happened.
“We had no witnesses,” Maj. John Garrison said. “We were shaking the bushes.”
On the ground, though, investigators found some .40-caliber shell casings. And with the aid of IBIS, those casings would help identify a gunman who had escaped detection that day.
Tool of the trade
IBIS is a national database that houses the unique marks, or so-called “fingerprints,” that each gun leaves on a shell casing or bullet when a round is fired. Charleston County Sheriff’s Office is one of two agencies in the state to house an IBIS lab where evidence from gun-related crimes is analyzed and stored for future comparison.
Boxes of bullets and guns are piled up at Charleston County’s lab on Pinehaven Drive in North Charleston. Every day, crime-scene workers examine and test guns and slugs submitted by deputies and other area law enforcement agencies.
They test-fire the guns into a special tank and then place the casings under a microscope, where their identifying marks are photographed and recorded into a computer system connected to a worldwide database.
The sheriff’s office started operating the system in 2003. About 100 agencies around the state now submit guns to the lab for testing.
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, paid for the equipment, which cost $250,000. ATF also funds the communication line for the system, costing $30,000 a year. The rest is paid for by Charleston County, including IBIS technician’s salary and the cost of ammunition. There’s been talk about having the outside agencies help pay for the service, but sheriff’s officials said they’ve ruled that out.
“It’s a public service. It affects everybody,” said Senior Sgt. Paul McManigal, the forensic services supervisor for Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.
Both Charleston and Dorchester County Sheriff’s offices enter every gun that comes through their doors into the system, according to McManigal. That increases their chances of getting a “hit” to match the guns to other crimes.
When investigators are able to link more than one crime to the same gun, the chance of finding the person connected to that gun and those crimes increases, McManigal said.
That’s what happened in 2007 as Dorchester County investigators worked to solve the triple-slaying at the Archdale apartment complex.
They sent .40-caliber casings found at the murder scene to Charleston County for testing. There, they found not one but two matches.
Those casings came from the same gun fired on Spruill Avenue on March 4, 2007. It had also been used on March 20, 2007, when a gunman shot at a vehicle and a building on Hunters Ridge Lane in North Charleston, Garrison said.
Investigators looked back at the case file for the Hunters Ridge Lane shooting and found witnesses had named a possible suspect, Garrison said. With that, they had a solid lead.
Investigators tracked down the man who had been named as a suspect and he told them the shooter was actually 25-year-old Anthony Sanders of North Charleston, authorities said. They began to wonder if he had also used the gun to kill Grant and her children, Garrison said.
Investigators began to hone in on Sanders. A check of his cellphone records placed him at the apartment complex on the day of the killings, Garrison said. Then, tests of DNA evidence collected from DeAnna DeVore’s body came back as a close match to Sanders. He was arrested in August 2007, and was convicted of murder in March 2010.
Sanders agreed to forgo a jury trial and any appeal in exchange for the First Circuit Solicitor’s Office’s agreeing not to pursue the death penalty. He is now serving a life prison term.
The forensic tool that cracked that case is one used nationwide. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey has been working with DNA, fingerprint and ballistics testimony since the mid-1980s and works closely with the National Forensic Science Technology Center.
IBIS has become an essential tool for law enforcement in Denver, according to Morrissey, who said they enter every gun they come across. “We get more hits than anywhere else in our region because we’re extremely active in putting those cartridge casings in the system,” he said.
Morrissey stressed that the system is only as good as agencies’ participation. If you don’t enter every shell casing you find, you have less chances of getting a match, he said.
All of the agencies within a reasonable driving range participate with Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, even Myrtle Beach, McManigal said.
“I will continue to invite other agencies but I think we’ve plateaued over the last year,” McManigal said. He hopes more agencies will realize the value of the service that’s provided to them for free. “I am planning on reaching out to more and more agencies and encourage them to bring us their evidence. The more cases we enter, the more cases we can link together.”