World’s best bullet tracers helping to solve gun violence crimes in Chicago

No other city sends more bullets from crimes to the national bullet tracing lab outside Washington, D.C. run by the ATF.

In fact, the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives investigators tell WGN Investigates, last year alone it made 1400 bullet trace hits from Chicago alone.

A hit is when they connect a bullet to a gun in a crime.

What’s it like inside that lab which is crucial to our city, that is drowning in gun violence?

It begins on the streets where there’s been a crime and starts with the yellow tag.  It’s a clue that marks a spot. Sometimes a bullet is recovered while other times it’s a shell casing that’s found. Either one can lead to a killer.  It’s a sort of X marks the spot because a bullet or casing shows marks unique to a specific gun.

It’s like a ballistic fingerprint.

Walt Dandridge is the Chief Forensic Firearms and Toolmark Examiner at the National lab for Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).  He said, “If we come up with a hit, that’s information that the investigator didn’t have before. And so he can run with that information.”

Dandridge took us on a special tour of the inner workings of the ATF’s lab in Maryland. It is here where the ATF ties bullets and shell casings to the guns used on the streets of Chicago. Dandridge says it is an important role because, “Law enforcement speaks for those who cannot speak for themselves. And, we do that through the forensic evidence that has been recovered at the crime scene.”

The morning WGN arrived at the lab, 10 guns came in from Chicago including six handguns and four long guns.

When they have the crime gun, it is tested in the national lab. The process works like this according to Dandridge: “We shoot in the water tank to recover a fired bullet in a pristine condition.” He adds, “It’s the base of the bullet, that area of the bullet that touches the barrel last, that will get our best marks.”

The analysis that follows that links a bullet to a particular gun may help in a conviction or even an exoneration. Dandridge says it is important to do a physical comparison between the bullets. “We will recover the two bullets and we’ll put those two bullets on a comparison microscope to see if in fact we can make a comparison,” he says.

The gun itself goes through its own test. A crook thinking a scratched off serial number means it cannot be traced should see the magic trick the lab performs. It is similar to a process where you write really hard on a notepad, peel up one page and find an imprint below.

Using a mix of chemicals, a technician is able to restore the serial number.

However, in crime scenes, it is never that easy. Often the shooter has vanished, the victim is not talking and no gun is left behind. It may be that all that is left is the tiniest bit of evidence: A shell casing.

Inside a storage cabinet at the National Lab in Maryland are bullets of every make and kind. Using the exact model, a sample shell casing is created. This tiny shell casing is packed with information. There is enough data to find a match to other crimes across the country.

None of this is a guarantee and the ATF is quick to point out its lab is only one investigative tool that can link a gun and shell casing to a killer or free an innocent person. The ATF Director in Chicago, Jeffery Magee knows that all too well.

According to Magee, “We have to do something different in fighting violent crime in the city of Chicago. And the key is using technology. We can do it the old fashioned way where you depend on the citizens of Chicago which is very important, but right now as you look at some of police investigations and the trust in the city. The trust around the country regarding police officers or agents investigating cases, we have to use technology. It’s there. There are some incredible leads to build that relationship with the community.”

As Chicago’s ATF director points out, gumshoe police investigations in a neighborhood certainly works as well, but it can be slow and leads dry-up. Enter the bullet tracers in Maryland.

Dandridge says, “Speed counts.”

Speed is especially important for a city like Chicago which uses this place more than any other American metropolitan area with more than 1,400 bullet trace hits from Chicago, last year alone.

Magee says, “Chicago is the number one gun recovered city in the United States. They recover more guns than LA and NY combined.”

So that’s the bullet side.

What about the guns?

Tomorrow night, WGN Investigates takes you from Maryland to West Virginia where it's the ATF’s job to keep track of the nation's privately owned guns.

Our cameras were allowed inside, where you'll also see an incredibly wide array of confiscated guns including from Saddam Hussein and earliest Wild West Winchester pistol.