MIDDLEBURY — When it comes to fingerprints, you might say that Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley has the Midas touch.
With a reputation earned from years of training and the successful resolution of many needle-in-a-haystack cases, Hanley has become a go-to source for fingerprint identification — both locally and nationally. His talents received national exposure in the July 12 issue of The New Yorker magazine in an extensive article that chronicled, among other things, Hanley’s investigation of alleged Jackson Pollock fingerprints on a mystery painting.
Hanley has honed his specialty during more than three decades in law enforcement. Prior to becoming chief of the Middlebury Police Department almost 20 years ago, Hanley toiled as a detective for the Wallingford (Connecticut) police force, where he received special training.
“All the detectives were required to have a specialty in some aspect of criminal investigation,” Hanley said. “Mine was fingerprint identification and crime scene reconstruction.”
He attended Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) schools for fingerprint identification, knowledge that he has had to periodically refresh to keep pace with evolving technology. He explained that fingerprint analysis has come a long way from the powder-brush technique as portrayed in Hollywood films. Adobe Photoshop software tools can now “remove” clutter from fingerprint images. The surfaces upon which fingerprints are found can now be chemically tested for various substances that can provide further links to a suspect.
“It’s much more of a science than it used to be,” Hanley said.
While DNA analysis has grown as a method of establishing the guilt or innocence of suspects, Hanley said that fingerprints remain one of the most solid tools in an investigator’s arsenal. He noted DNA can be purposely or accidentally transferred from one site to another with ease without the owner’s consent. Someone can sneeze or bleed on the back of someone’s shirt and the carrier could lean against a wall and leave that DNA profile.
Fingerprints, he noted, contain loops, swooshes and lines that are unique to an individual.
“Identical twins have the same DNA, but they have different fingerprints,” Hanley said. “DNA will never supplant fingerprints.”
And in the vast majority of cases, Hanley explained, the presence of fingerprints at a crime scene means the “owner” of those fingerprints was there.
But there are, of course, exceptions to that rule, as Hanley would learn through analyzing fingerprint evidence in an artwork authentication case he conducted in 2007 for the Fine Art Registry (FAR) — an organization that helps artists, collectors and museums establish provenance and record ownership of artwork.
PRINTS ON A PAINTING
The case, referenced in The New Yorker, revolves around Montreal-based forensic art expert Peter Paul Biro and his purported discovery of abstract impressionist Jackson Pollock’s fingerprints on two unsigned paintings believed to be the late artist’s work.
One of those paintings had been purchased for $5 at a California thrift store by a woman named Teri Horton. Biro examined the painting on which he claimed to have found fingerprints linking it to Pollock, ostensibly pushing its value into the many millions of dollars. He published his results in a report titled, “Teri’s Find.” The alleged Pollock painting became the subject of a movie titled “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock?”
The provenance of the painting came under new scrutiny, however, when an artist named Francis Hogan Brown — whose art technique is inspired by Pollack — said he believed he might have created Horton’s painting.
The Arizona-based FAR therefore asked Hanley, whose name is on file with the International Association for Identification, to review Biro’s work in identifying the alleged Pollock fingerprints on Horton’s painting. Hanley had earned a reputation in the field, particularly during his time in Wallingford, where in one case he and his colleagues were able to trace a palm print on an apartment building in Connecticut to a suspected rapist in California.
Hanley found the Pollock case intriguing, and decided to take it with two caveats: That he be able to research it on his own time and with the blessing of the town of Middlebury; and that FAR accepted his unbiased findings, regardless of where the evidence led.
“I don’t do a lot of these cases; a couple of cases a year, if that,” Hanley said.
“Being forensic scientists, we are sworn to look for the truth,” he added. “It is not an advocacy case at all. You are asking for an opinion, and you are going to get a blind opinion.”
His investigation in the case got off to a rough start.
“There are no recorded fingerprints of Jackson Pollock,” Hanley noted. “He’s been dead for 54 years. We were unlikely to find any known exemplars.”
Pollock had previously been arrested on a drunk driving charge, but Hanley found no evidence in Suffolk County, N.Y., of any arrest fingerprints for the artist, who died in 1956 at age 44 in an alcohol-related car crash.
Matters got worse when Biro declined to share his findings and Horton refused to allow an inspection of the painting, Hanley noted. That was surprising to Hanley, noting that fingerprint investigators routinely share their work and findings for peer review.
“In fingerprint work, you never work alone,” Hanley said. “You always get your work verified.”
So Hanley was forced to do his initial analysis using Biro’s published work — less than ideal.
“After doing as much as I could with this fingerprint that was in (Biro’s) published work, I determined the fingerprint was of absolutely no value for identification — it couldn’t be identified as anyone’s fingerprint,” Hanley said.
Two other peer fingerprint examiners concurred with Hanley’s finding.
NEW TWIST IN THE CASE
Fortunately, Hanley’s investigation didn’t end there.
Kenneth Parker, the owner of another suspected Pollock work that had been vetted through Biro’s fingerprint analysis, agreed to allow Hanley to inspect his painting. And Hanley was allowed access to suspected Pollock fingerprints on a paint can at the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center on the Stony Brook (N.Y.) University campus.
Hanley knew something was amiss soon after inspecting Parker’s supposed Pollock painting.
“I was very much concerned about what I had found with the fingerprints on the painting,” Hanley said.
He detected one particular fingerprint that Parker said he had not noticed when he had sent the painting to Biro for identification. That suspect print, Hanley noted, appeared in other areas of the painting and was virtually identical in size and characteristics.
“You could almost overlay one on top of the other,” Hanley said. The chances of picture-perfect, identical prints being left in multiple spots on an object are remote, according to Hanley, because “when people leave fingerprints — especially when handling a big, heavy object such as this (painting), the fingerprints fall at random. Different pressures are used; every time you grab it, you don’t grab it with the same pressure. To get overlay shapes of fingerprints is virtually impossible.”
Hanley also detected a clear-coat substance over the fingerprints. Biro, according to Hanley, had claimed it was a “rosin-based way to develop latent prints.” Hanley checked with some of his peers to see if such a technique existed and “they just laughed,” Hanley recalled.
Given the uniform dimensions of the prints, Hanley suspected they might be fabricated or forged. But since he was not an expert in that particular field, he brought in someone who was — Arizona-based Pat Wertheim.
Together, Hanley and Wertheim took samples of the paint from the painting, which they sent to a private lab. That lab reported the paint to be of a chemical composition not available when Pollock was alive, according to Hanley.
Another red flag, Hanley said: When a person lays his or her fingers on wood or pulp, the person’s pores secrete amino acids, salts and other substances into the food that essentially become embedded in the surface of the wood.
“We’ve taken pieces of paper from rain gutters after six months and developed fingerprints on them,” Hanley said.
But the alleged Pollock prints were raised above the wood grain, something confirmed by an independent lab analysis of a sample of the material.
“I thought, ‘If Jackson Pollock left his fingerprints here 50 years ago, how would those fingerprints still be sitting on top of the wood after all of these years, unless his hands had oil or paint on them?’ But the owner of the painting said these (prints) were not visible, so it wasn’t like he had dirty, greasy hands, and set it down. These (prints) were clean.”
CLUE FROM A PAINT CAN
Hanley and Wertheim took their investigation to the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center, where they used a liquid, silicone-type substance to make casts of a Pollock print found on a paint can that he had used. Wertheim made prints from the casts (later destroyed) and in them detected some of the same prominent defects that were present on the fingerprints found on the alleged Pollock painting.
“We are not going to cast any aspersions here, it’s not my job, but all we can say is there is a likelihood that that fingerprint, from this can, was used to make those fingerprints on the painting… ” Hanley said. “From those silicone impressions you can get a stamp made with the same (fingerprint) detail.”
Hanley and Wertheim investigated the Pollock case for around a year. Hanley suspended his participation for several months while he and his department were working on the case of missing Middlebury College student Nick Garza. They submitted their final report on April 21, 2008.
The results of the investigation have placed Biro and his techniques under more scrutiny in the art world, as chronicled in The New Yorker article.
But for Hanley, it was just another assignment. He was surprised to receive e-mails and phone calls this week from friends, relatives and community members who read of his exploits in the magazine. He confesses to be far from an art connoisseur and is perplexed by the millions of dollars that master works can command. He knows a masterpiece when he sees it — a drawing that his daughter gave him, which he has framed and proudly displays.
“I wouldn’t sell that for $1 million,” he said.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.