To the untrained eye, the misshapen lump of lead looks utterly worthless. But to the examiners in the windowless lab of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in Rockville, Md., this is pure gold: a fragment of the slug that could link the latest victim of the sniper rampage to the ones who came before. Like the other bullets, this one is carefully carried into the lab and hand-delivered to Walter Dandridge, 50, the principal examiner in the case. Using a bit of sticky wax, he attaches the crumpled slug to a slender rod suspended under his Leica comparison microscope, positioning it side-by-side with one of the bullets fired by the sniper. Then he rotates the slugs 360°, turning them back and forth like paired dancers beneath his eyepiece. After a long study, he pushes away from the table. It will take several hours for section chief Timothy J. Curtis, 46, to formally confirm the findings, but the outcome seems clear. The bullets match. The Beltway killer has struck again.
If there's any consolation for horrified Americans watching the drama of the sniper slayings unfold, it's that now, more than ever in history, officials have the skills to catch so slippery a killer. Even as the shooter--or shooters--taunted investigators by picking off more victims last week, authorities unleashed an unprecedented arsenal of tools to crack the case: geographic-profiling computers to try to pinpoint the killer's home, ballistics databases intended to link his unique bullet markings to other crimes and trace-substance technology to lift whatever clues (fingerprints, DNA) might adhere to a shell casing or a tarot card.
Even with all this data in hand, good luck or a good tip may still be necessary to nab the suspect. But investigators are less dependent than ever on chance, and what they have unveiled this week is only a sampling of what they have in their high-tech kits. There are computer programs that turn muddy surveillance videos into crisp digital images. There are chemical scanners that probe evidence, one molecule at a time. There are experimental--and controversial--sensors that analyze a suspect's brain waves and determine what he knows and what he doesn't. The business of tracking down and picking up crooks is undergoing a technological revolution. The public, always hungry for the Next Big Thing, has not failed to notice--and neither has the entertainment industry.
TV viewers can tune into a forensics drama almost every night of the week, starting with the trendsetting CSI on CBS; its first-season spawn, CSI: Miami, also on CBS; and Crossing Jordan on NBC. On cable, The Forensics Files is Court TV's biggest prime-time show ever, while Autopsy is wooing--and spooking--viewers on HBO. "The combination of science and police work really drives a drama," says Tim Kring, executive producer of Crossing Jordan.