Number 1 with a Bullet
10/11/2004 at 01:00 AM EDT
The gun used to kill rapper Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. "Biggie Smalls," in Los Angeles seven years ago has never been found. But ask Richard Smith, the LAPD's star firearms analyst, to describe the murder weapon based on his examination of shell casings found at the scene, and he doesn't hesitate. Although he hasn't even glanced at details of the case in years, he's able to summon a startlingly precise profile from memory. "The casing had parallel indentation on its back face as well as a larger firing-pin aperture," he begins to explain in the jargon of his trade. "In my opinion, it was a Ruger semiautomatic pistol—9mm." Almost sheepishly he adds, "But since we never got the gun, I couldn't prove it to you for sure."
One thing that is for sure, however, is that in recent years Smith, 47, has gained a reputation as one of the most gifted practitioners of his craft anywhere in the country. With the eye of a master jeweler, he's able to recognize—and remember—the subtle nicks and scorings left on bullet casings that distinguish one firearm from another. So adept is Smith that last year the LAPD instituted a "Walk-In Wednesday" program, in which detectives from all over the department can bring him guns that have been used in crimes to see if they match weapons employed in other cases. From 1998 to 2002 Smith recorded more than 400 "cold hits," meaning he was able to link weapons from separate incidents and thus increase the chance of police making an arrest. "There are swimmers, and then there is Michael Phelps," says Dominic Denio, a ballistics expert at the FBI lab in Quantico, Va. "There are firearms analysts, and then there is Rich Smith."
As Smith is the first to acknowledge, though, his work isn't all that glamorous. For one thing, in contrast to the spiffy world of forensics depicted on the various CSIs, he toils in a cavelike warren of offices in a nondescript building in northeast L.A. Smith sometimes spends as much as eight hours working with a single shell casing. (The actual lead slugs of a bullet are considered less reliable for identification because they tend to get mashed up on impact.) After he records the characteristics of the suspect shell, the department's computer provides digital images of as many as 400 similar shells. Then comes the tedious task of comparing them one by one, hoping to spot a match, with minute scratches often the only difference between shells from different guns. Of course, that's a step up from the method used as recently as 10 years ago. "Before, there was basically a bulletin board with about 25 Polaroid pictures of recently fired shell casings," says Smith. "If yours didn't match one of those, you were out of luck."
Smith got into forensics more or less by chance. Born in North Carolina, he was raised all over the South, where his father was a Baptist minister who worked closely with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement. "Being a minister's kid and growing up around religion it was impressed upon me that you should always be finding a way to help your neighbor," says Smith. After graduating from college with a psychology degree, he focused on becoming a police officer in California, where his parents had moved. Joining the LAPD in 1981, he started his career in uniform, then went undercover in some of the city's most blighted neighborhoods, including South Central. Tough as it was, he loved the work, which also enabled him to showcase his remarkably acute eye. "When I was working patrol I could see license plates a block down," recalls Smith, who was on the scene for over 150 homicides, "and I found that I could spot street signs before anyone else could."
It was a gift that came in handy. "There are patrol officers who can be shown a photograph of a suspect who's wanted, and three or four or five days later they'll see that face and remember and recognize it, despite a different hat or hairdo or whatever," says Smith's current boss, Doreen Hudson, supervisor of the LAPD firearms analysis unit. "They can see past the distractions and pinpoint the face. Rich was that type of officer." But child-custody issues stemming from the breakdown of his first marriage in the early 1990s forced Smith to give up patrol duty and look for a job in the department that would allow him more regular hours and less stress, which led him to ballistics. (Smith, who has two children from his first marriage, and wife Karen, 35, an accountant, have 4-year-old twin daughters.)
Smith admits he misses the gratification of chasing down and collaring a suspect himself. These days his role is slightly more removed—but no less important. "It does make it exciting," says Smith, "when you make that call to the detective and say, 'Hey, I think I've got something here.'"
Which is what happened earlier this year, when Smith helped crack one of the department's most troubling cases, the murder of 12-year-old Gregory Gabriel, who was the innocent victim of a random gang shooting on Valentine's Day. The detective on the case, Eric Baker, immediately brought the shells to Smith. A week later a seemingly unrelated witness-intimidation shooting yielded more shells. In a matter of moments Smith was able to link them to the Gabriel murder. "Rich noticed right away that they were similar, so we were given a heads-up," says Detective Baker. "It ended up being the way we solved the case."