Investigator Tom Johnson knows the value of a fingerprint.
As one of three crime scene investigators for the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, Johnson spends his days analyzing fingerprints, collecting evidence and taking investigators the gold that can tie their cases together.
In 2012, the investigator was asked to analyze evidence from a 1986 homicide cold case. Neither Johnson nor the violent-crimes investigator expected much, but new technology helped Johnson identify Jimmy Lee Riley, 53, as a suspect in the death of 87-year-old Pauline McCoy with an old fingerprint.
“That was a good feeling,” Johnson said.
But Johnson, 45, said it’s not just the big cases that give him the sense of making a difference. Closing a case on a string of burglaries plaguing a neighborhood has the same effect.
Although Johnson has been in law enforcement for 14 years, he said he didn’t plan it as a career.
“I was the type of person who tended to notice things,” Johnson said. “People said ‘You should be a cop,’ but I didn’t want to be a cop.”
His grandfather, after whom he is named, was a police officer in Massachusetts, but Johnson said he had hoped to follow his father’s footsteps in military Special Forces.
Life, however, led him down a different path and into the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, where he found his application lost in a stack of other hopefuls’. To stand out among the competition, Johnson enrolled in the police academy and was hired as a deputy in 1999. He was promoted to the violent crimes division in 2004 and did a brief stint in homicide before moving to an open position in the crime scene unit in 2008.
The three-man group processes evidence for Richmond County but also smaller agencies in the surrounding area.
Like many police jobs, Johnson’s isn’t 9 to 5.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re doing when the call comes in. You have to go,” Johnson said. “I have been in the grocery store with a full cart and had to leave and say, ‘Sorry, can you put this back?’ It’s inconvenient, but it’s what you have to do.”
On the job, crime scene investigators collect fingerprints, cartridge casings and other evidence, which can be one of the most time-consuming aspects of the job. Anything DNA-related or ballistics-connected is sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
“That can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours,” Johnson said.
Back at the office, Johnson sometimes can get a positive match with a good print in under 15 minutes.
He said today’s technology is impressive but that not everything is as easy as it appears. One common misconception generated from Hollywood is that they can zoom in on a still image enough to clearly read a tag number or see other details.
“A lot of the things they show on TV are based on fact but they ‘Hollywood it up,’ ” Johnson said. “A lot of times we go to a scene and people expect us to do something we can’t do. That flows into court when we have to explain to a jury what we cannot do.”