By Hillary Chabot
The number of criminals trying to hide their identities by burning, hacking and mutilating their fingerprints is skyrocketing in the Bay State -- and local law enforcement continues to see the number rise even as the FBI has targeted Massachusetts as an altered fingerprint hot spot.
Massachusetts State Police officials have identified 867 suspects arrested with deliberately altered fingerprints -- most within the past few years. The first three cases were logged in 2002, and by 2010 only 72 arrests were recorded.
Year-by-year breakdowns were not available, but since 2010, police have made 795 altered-fingerprint arrests, according to state police spokesman David Procopio.
The FBI flagged the Bay State as ground zero for criminal fingerprint erasures after studying records of altered prints across the nation, finding that, “Massachusetts officials had the most encounters with individuals who had altered fingerprints,” according to a 2014 FBI report.
Those include arrests made by local police in Boston, Lawrence and other cities, as well as by state police.
Tewksbury Police Chief Timothy Sheehan identified two drug distribution arrests by the department’s Drug Unit involving men with altered finger prints.
In 2013, Juan De La Cruz, showed a sutured-cut at the tip of each finger, according to Sheehan. His real name was later determined to be Juan Sanchez, of the Dominican Republic. In 2017, Tewksbury police officers arrested a man identified as Genaro Bonilla, who had chemically-burned prints, Sheehan said.
“This officer is aware that criminals alter/destroy their fingerprints to avoid detection by law enforcement agencies,” Salem police officer James Bedard stated in a June 4 arrest report regarding a man that police were unable to properly identify due to scars damaging each print.
Bedard arrested the man, who initially identified himself as Puerto Rico-native Emybel Perez Ortis. Law enforcement in Puerto Rico quickly debunked that identity.
“The information received comes back to a female with the same name, DOB and social security number who resides in Puerto Rico,” Bedard wrote.
Despite the altered fingerprints, an Automated Fingerprint Identification System was able to identify a trail of fake personas and drug busts connected to the suspect.
“A check of his numerous identities shows a pattern of drug related offenses and crimes involving the US Marshalls, DEA and local law enforcement,” wrote Bedard, who charged the man with identity fraud as well as possession of a fake driver’s license.
Sheehan pointed out both Tewksbury and Lowell police departments have sent a number of drug-trafficking defendants into Lowell District Court after they allegedly stole identities from Puerto Rico. The defendants have obtained fraudulent Massachusetts driver’s licenses and Massachusetts benefits with the stolen identities, the police chief added.
“Tewksbury alone has prosecuted 13 impostor cases in Lowell in the last couple of years,” Sheehan said. He added the Bonilla arrest in 2017 was among such cases.
Boston-area FBI officials began to keep an eye out for altered prints in 2014 after two doctors from the Dominican Republic were busted in two separate Massachusetts cases offering to surgically alter fingerprints of convicted criminals and illegal immigrants, said Kristen Setera, spokeswoman for the FBI’s Boston division.
Crime fighters across the country have far more advanced means of tracking identities, such as DNA and facial recognition, but they don’t always employ those measures for suspects arrested on smaller drug offenses, said William Shade, a fingerprint expert with more than 40 years of experience. Those methods also require authorities to have access to the suspect’s previously identified DNA samples and facial images.
Meanwhile, Massachusetts State Police are seeking to combat the opioid crisis by keeping records of all altered-fingerprint cases and having their new homeland security division investigate drug-trafficking organizations, according to state officials.
The Bay State’s surge in altered fingerprints and identity theft comes as President Trump and his administration have blasted Massachusetts as a haven for drug dealers profiting from the opioid crisis -- suggesting that drug dealers who are in the United States illegally seek the commonwealth’s so-called “sanctuary cities” for refuge.
“The sanctuary city of Lawrence, Massachusetts, is one of the primary sources of fentanyl in six New Hampshire counties,” said Trump at a March event in New Hampshire.
Sun Staff Writer Aaron Curtis contributed to this report.