Behind the scenes look at equipment used to trace gun crime cases at Newport News forensics lab

Posted at 6:09 AM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 19:47:45-05

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - News 3 Investigates' "Trigger Trace" series has been taking an in-depth look at tracing firearms in Hampton Roads, including a system highlighted before called the NIBIN (National Integrated Ballistic Information Network) system.

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It collects images from evidence to connect crime scenes in Hampton Roads and around the nation.

News 3 Investigates got a behind-the-scenes look at the equipment at a forensics lab in Newport News.

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“It's very busy. It's something new every day,” NNPD NIBIN Technician Kayla Smith told News 3. “We live here. We're locals. It's important to us to help reduce crime.”

Smith works side-by-side typically with Hampton Police Division Master Forensic Specialist Ashley Frescatore.

“It's very exciting to link cases together, and to see it all come together,” Frescatore said.

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Frescatore and Smith said the NIBIN machine located in Newport News is a collaboration between the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), Hampton Police Division and Newport News Police Department to help local and federal firearm investigations.

“There's not a day that goes by that we don't have something to put into NIBIN,” Frescatore said.

The technology through ATF analyzes shell casings with a mission of cutting down on time during investigations to help solve crimes.

WATCH: Behind-the-scenes look at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Tracing Center

“The state lab would return results in months, and Ashley and I can return results in less than a day,” Smith said.

“It gives them within hours to be able to go and track down our leads as far as locations or suspects,” Frescatore added.

“As soon as a crime happens, evidence starts to deteriorate going forward,” Sgt. Matthew Schmitt with Newport News Police said. “We're better able to preserve evidence. We're better able to locate evidence.”

News 3 asked the ATF why the equipment focuses on shell casings, specifically.

“Firearms leave unique markings on shell casings, which allow the firearms examiners to correlate those cases to each other when they're examining them in the system,” said Jason Kusheba, Resident Agent In Charge of the ATF Norfolk Field Office and ATF Newport News Satellite Office.

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So, the big question: How does the technology work?

Smith told News 3 once a firearm is confiscated and submitted for testing, investigators conduct a test fire on the gun to find out if it's functional.

One of those test fires is then put into NIBIN.

“What that means is we put the cartridge case into a machine, and it takes the pictures that are left on the cartridge case by the firearm, and that's unique to every firearm that's fired,” Smith said.

“We put each cartridge case under a microscope, and we determine how many shooters were present in one event,” Smith added, “We just look at the cartridge cases under the microscope to determine which test-fired cartridge case left the best markings. It uses different levels of light and focus, and it captures the images in different filters that I use to make potential associations.”

“Recently, we've had cases that have ties between jurisdictions, Hampton, Newport News, York County, where before we had this technology in house, we'd have to send those casings off to the state lab, and it would've taken months to get those results,” Sgt. Schmitt said. “By having that technology here in-house, we were able to get those results within a matter of hours, instead.”

Kusheba said other NIBIN sites in Virginia Beach and Norfolk have opened within the last two years.

“An increase in NIBIN equipment has increased the speed at which law enforcement are getting leads back,” he said.

As for Smith and Frescatore, they hope law enforcement around Virginia will continue to take advantage of an asset leading to faster answers.

“We don't always see what comes of it, but just knowing that something could come of it is important,” Smith said.

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