Computer gets credit for arrest.
By Nick Pron, Toronto Star Staff Reporter
Since early June, the predator had broken into a dozen homes and sexually assaulted eight women. But the computer program —a prototype —was able to spot the similarities in the tips, and that eventually led to Saturday’s arrest of a suspect, Eli Stewart Nicholas. The hunt for the latest predator was reminiscent of an earlier dragnet, the one for the Scarborough Rapist more than a decade ago, a case that Toronto and other forces were widely condemned as bungling.
Paul Bernardo eventually was convicted for the sexual assaults in Scarborough, but not before he had gone on to rape and murder teenagers Kristen French and Leslie Mahaffy. Mr. Justice Archie Campbell wrote in his 1996 report that the Bernardo investigation was badly flawed, hampered by outdated investigative tools and turf wars between forces in Toronto and St. Catharines. The judge scolded the police, saying the “dangerous lack of co-operation” between forces had to end. Several times, Bernardo had been in police sights, only to elude investigators. The police, it seems, were listening to what Campbell had to say.
A task force was put together, under the leadership of Ontario Provincial Police Detective Inspector Bill Van Allen. They set up shop in a drab, fourth-floor office in a government building that overlooks Highway 401 at Keele St., and filled the room with computers. The officers, who jokingly call themselves ‘the Barney Miller squad,” a reference to the old television police comedy series, began work in July, 1997, on the computerized system envisioned by the judge. They worked on the theory that it would be a great leap forward if the various forces in the province were able to investigate major crimes in the same way — that is, collect information in a standardized fashion. And if they could talk to each other via a common computer system, it might lead to quicker arrests. The task force eventually purchased a computerized program called PowerCase, a system developed by Xanalys in Boston, Mass.
The program works on about 80 megabytes of a computer’s hard drive, roughly the same size as some of the more popular computerized games. Under a contract agreement — Van Allen won’t say how much it cost — the task force got 100 licensed copies of PowerCase and distributed them to the Toronto, OPP and Peel police forces to use in a pilot project. Earlier this month, the program was credited for helping investigators make an arrest in what was dubbed the Midnight Rapist case, another sexual predator who stalked women in west Toronto and Mississauga.
- Software was able to connect vague tips
The Toronto police sexual assault squad was one of the units that got the PowerCase program, using it in the Bedroom Rapist case. The information management system keeps tabs on all incoming information, such as phone tips. Investigators with the squad got three such tips from different people, all of whom had seen the composite sketch.
As tips go, each was vague, said one Toronto police source, and taken separately the leads might have been filed away for future reference. But PowerCase was able to phonetically pick out similarities in the spellings of the names that came from the callers. It pointed to a possible suspect.
Last week, detectives went looking for a man they believed could be the feared Bedroom Rapist. They had a simple request for him: Would he mind giving police a sample of his saliva? He wasn’t under arrest. It was just a request. He agreed. A cotton swab was rolled inside his mouth, bagged and then rushed to the Centre of Forensic Sciences for a DNA analysis. The famed downtown Toronto crime lab didn’t repeat the mistake made a decade earlier when a forensic sample from another suspected rapist languished in cold storage for nearly two years before getting tested — one belonging to Paul Bernardo.
- Fast teamwork made quick arrest possible
Scientists in the biology section worked feverishly through the night, analyzing the saliva for what’s commonly called a genetic fingerprint, a trait different for every human being on earth, except identical twins. While the lab coats worked, a team of undercover officers secretly watched the suspect.
The police were under pressure to make a pinch. Women were marching in the streets in protest, demanding action. For the residents of that part of the city, it was like the repeat of a nightmare, a harking back to the Scarborough Rapist days. But it was different this time. Investigators had a new tool in their arsenal, one they didn’t have in the late 1980s. And it helped lead investigators to a suspect.
Now that the province has given the project the go-ahead, all police forces in Ontario will have the computerized software program, along with a standardized method of investigating certain crimes, called major case management. The forces are linked to a central computer that analyzes data in cases ranging from homicides and sexual assaults to cases of criminal harassment by strangers, and missing-persons cases where foul play is suspected. When possible links between crimes are spotted, the various forces are notified automatically by the central computer.
Says Van Allen:
The system and the software is selling itself. Success stories will convince investigators of the need for a common case management system.