Fingerprint Expert Specializes in Drug Crimes

Alumnus Joel Stephenson is a Supervisory Fingerprint Specialist for the DEA.
Alumnus Joel Stephenson is a Supervisory Fingerprint Specialist for the DEA.

After a teenaged girl was kidnapped from her Arlington apartment, police tracked the case to a hotel, where the victim and suspect were linked by a single latent print. In the center of the victim’s handprint on a bathroom wall was the fingerprint of the suspect.

The girl was later found dead in a shallow grave in an Arkansas nature preserve, buried alive after enduring three days of gang rape and beatings over a botched drug deal with the victim’s two brothers. It was the latent print that helped solve the case and led to a death penalty conviction for the suspect.

The palm and fingerprint that led to a death penalty conviction.
The palm and fingerprint that led to a death penalty conviction.
The man behind that key piece of evidence in the 1994 case was Alumnus Joel Stephenson, a former Crime Scene Investigator for the Arlington Police Department. Since then, Stephenson has transferred his fingerprinting skills to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), where he became the first Supervisory Fingerprint Specialist in the nation. Now he oversees half of the DEA fingerprint labs in the country, including those is Miami, Dallas and San Diego.

“The labs used to be supervised by forensic chemists, who did not know what we did or how we did it,” said Stephenson. “The Department of Justice and the DEA decided they needed someone who was technically knowledgeable in the field, so I was first in the country to be named as a Supervisory Fingerprint Specialist.”

A DEA drug seizures.
Stephenson may be called in to lift fingerprints from DEA drug seizures.
At DEA crime labs, the Fingerprint Specialist specializes in retrieving latent prints from packaging, notebooks, cookbooks and other materials used in drug cases and linking them to suspects in the drug trade. “We process evidence at clandestine laboratories and grow houses, we process large bulk seizures as well as the items that are sent to the laboratory for latent print analysis. We have a lot of different processes we use,” said Stephenson. “It’s a hide and seek thing – you have to hunt and peck around the evidence and process everything.”

The evidence may include common items found in the drug trade, such as the tape used to bundle a shipment; plastic bags and tin foil used to package the drugs; or notebooks that record drug recipes or sales. The fingerprints are compared to known suspects or tracked through the Automatic Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS) run by the FBI. But while AFIS may provide a list of possible matches, DEA fingerprint experts still need to do the tedious work of comparison, using computers or magnifying loops to make a positive identification.

A bloody fingerprint lifted from a coke can.
A bloody fingerprint lifted from a coke can.
“The computer applies a score to each candidate based on how closely the unknown print matches the known subjects' prints in the system,” Stephenson said. “You have to actually compare the prints with a magnifying loop or on a computer screen. The (AFIS) computer program helps narrow the search, but we still have to do the identification.”

Stephenson has specialized in crime scene investigations – especially fingerprints – for most of his 30 year career. Before graduating from Sam Houston State University in 1983, he took a job with the Conroe Police Department in 1982. Shortly after a particularly hard night on patrol, when a woman returned to bail her husband out of jail after he beat her and sent her to the hospital, Stephenson began to question his career choice.

Fingerprint marked with hits.
Stephenson learned to evaluate fingerprints at the Texas DPS.
A week later, the Conroe Police chief was looking for volunteers to serve in a new crime scene unit, a job previously handled by detectives. He jumped at the opportunity and was trained by the Texas Department of Public Safety in the new career path. After seven years in Conroe, he joined the Arlington Police Department in a civilian position in crime scene investigations.

“I feel in love with it,” Stephenson said. “When you walk into a scene, there may be an eyewitnesses or others who may have information or hearsay evidence that may or may not be reliable. As a crime scene investigator, you go in and put a puzzle together based upon the evidence at the scene. You look at the evidence, you listen to what the evidence is telling you, and you use the evidence to see what transpired.”

Lab gloves sit next to evidence bags of different materials.
Fingerprints can be lifted off a wide variety of objects.
During his career, he has lifted fingerprints off of countless objects, including sheet rock, money, guns – and even in dust. The “dust” fingerprint helped him catch a suspect in Arlington, who raped, beat and drowned two women in the same apartment complex a few months apart. The print was photographed on a TV stand and matched a print found on the deadbolt in the previous victim’s apartment. The two crime scenes were less than 50 yards apart in the same complex and were eerie mirror images of one another.

The case remained unsolved for four years, until the man’s fingerprint showed up on a burglary arrest through AFIS. While Stephenson thought the initial case was the work of a serial killer, this suspect actually deescalated in the seriousness of his crimes, instead of following the traditional escalation pattern in serial offenses. The suspect killed his first two victims and then began a series of sexual assaults on at least six different women over the next four years allowing these women to live. These cases were linked through DNA and he was lastly arrested for burglary in a neighboring city.

Both Arlington cases were profiled on the “FBI Files” and “Unusual Suspects” television series and featured Stephenson’s work on the case.

Digitized fingerprints.
Fingerprints can be evaluated using a computer.
“I like the scientific analysis part of it (the investigation),” Stephenson said. “Not everyone can look at the ridge detail and microridgeology to identify or compare fingerprints. The biological aspects of it are very unique. Every fingerprint is different; there is not one that is the same – even in identical twins. They may be similar, but all fingerprints are totally random…Even after 30 years, every time I identify someone to a scene, it puts a spring back in my step."

Stephenson said he fondly remembers his time at Sam Houston State University and has frequently used the skills he learned at the College of Criminal Justice in his career. He also bears the unique distinction of being one of the last two people to set foot in the Old Main building before it burnt to the ground in 1982. A University Police officer at the time, he and his partner were on patrol in the middle of the night when he saw smoke rising from the building. They raced inside to see if cleaning crews were still working.

Old Main on the SHSU campus.
Stephenson was one of the last people in Old Main before it burnt to the ground.
“It was pretty amazing to see all that history go up in flames,” said Stephenson.

After his successful career, Stephenson has some advice to offer today’s students. He suggests getting involved in professional organizations. He is a member of the national and state chapters of the International Association for Identification.

“The contacts I have made allow me to call upon those people for help when I need advice on how to process a certain material or crime trends they are seeing in their areas,” said Stephenson. “It is a network you can rely on if you have any questions.”

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