Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jeremy Bryan Jones

A Deadly FBI Error

John Paul Chapman was a good-looking, charismatic guy living in a Douglasville, Georgia trailer park, where he always found himself in trouble with the law.  He fancied himself quite the ladies' man, but as with most alcoholics and addicts, his addiction always came first, and under the influence he did some bad things.

He'd been arrested for drugs, for indecent exposure, and for trespassing.  His neighbors remembered him as being a scary kind of guy, paranoid from drugs and alcohol, always worried that the police were closing in on him.

Every time he was arrested, his fingerprints were sent to the FBI, and they came back only as matches to his previous arrests in Georgia.

Logo: Federal Bureau of Investigations
Logo: Federal Bureau of Investigations

This eventually proved to be a very costly error.

One neighbor, who played cards and drank regularly with Chapman, mentioned once that prayer might help John with his problems. He even suggested that they pray together.

It was a bad suggestion.

Chapman flipped out, saying he couldn't handle prayer in his house.

He was indeed a scary guy. Young Amanda Greenwell lived in and disappeared from the same trailer park.

Nobody had any idea that John Paul Chapman was anything but a small-time druggie doing small-time crime, because the FBI's fingerprint database failed to confirm his true identity.

FBI Fingerprint ID System
FBI Fingerprint ID System

"Law enforcement lost an opportunity to prevent further criminal activity by this individual," the FBI later said in a statement, according to the Chicago Tribune.

"Law enforcement agencies across the country submit roughly 50,000 fingerprint comparison requests a day to the FBI system, which contains 45 million sets of prints. Given the size of the system, some errors are bound to occur," said the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification.

Like more than eighty percent of the fingerprints submitted to the database facility in West Virginia, Chapman's fingerprints were submitted as digital images. Sometimes the quality of these images can lead be a problem, leading to errors either false identifications, such as the implication of an Oregon lawyer in the Madrid train bombings in 2004, or as in this case, the failure to correctly identify John Paul Chapman.


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