Fingering the bad guy might solve more crimes

Last week in a crime story that would make a good storyline for “NCIS,” a California cold case of 31 years was solved — we are confident — 2,500 miles way and in St. Pauls.

The big difference is, unlike the popular CBS television show, what unfolded was not fiction, but real life.

If you read these pages you are familiar with the case, but even if you don’t, it is likely that you have heard about the arrest of a 62-year-old man who now stands charged with the murder of a 79-year-old woman in San Diego in 1987 in her single-bedroom cottage apartment. Grace Hayden was also raped before she was strangled to death.

If the story is retold in a television documentary, and our bet is that happens, it will be easy to identify the hero — John Blount, a 14-year deputy for the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office.

It is a myth that most crimes are solved in a lab, although it makes for some intriguing TV. But that is exactly what appears to have happened in this case.

In May 1987, when Hayden, a widow who had buried her two children and appears to be only survived by a grandson, was murdered, a national data base of fingerprints was not available, and scientists had yet to contemplate how DNA would revolutionize crime investigations.

Both those tools are the reason that Hayden is likely to find justice from her grave.

Blount, in 2015, during a routine investigation of an allegation that Kevin Thomas Ford had threatened someone at a local pharmacy, made the fateful decision to take fingerprints from him, even though he had led a mostly crime-free life and lived it quietly on N.C. 20 with his second wife.

Blount told this newspaper the decision was because the FBI had asked local law enforcement to be more aggressive in collecting fingerprints in crimes that often escalate later, such as communicating threats, domestic violence, and simple assault. So Blount did so.

Over on the West Coast earlier this year, Tony Johnson, an investigator with the San Diego District Attorney’s Office, was looking at cold cases when he discovered there was preserved DNA, a fingerprint and a palm print that remained as evidence in the Hayden case. Johnson entered the fingerprint into the national data base, got a hit, and that set into motion a series of events that led to Ford’s arrest.

Circumstantial evidence followed, including that Ford did not deny being in San Diego at the time, describing himself as a strung-out cocaine addict who was homeless after a divorce. The science says the likelihood of the DNA from the crime scene not belonging to Ford is an unimaginable 240 trillion to one against.

The take-home to us is pretty clear: A decision by a deputy to check all the boxes provided the impetus for an arrest in a 31-year-old murder across the country.

One of the common complaints we get concerning the Sheriff’s Office is that routine crimes, such as break-and-enterings, rarely inspire much more than a report for insurance purposes, and a determined investigation, including the taking of fingerprints, is the exception not the rule. We understand that our Sheriff’s Office is outmanned and has limited resources.

But we can’t help but wonder if fingerprints were gathered in a more aggressive manner if more arrests would follow. We are curious as well what kind of hits might occur if the fingerprints that are on file at the Sheriff’s Office were systematically run through the national data base.

It would take a lot of time and effort, but the payoff could be huge.