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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The .40-caliber Glock handgun stolen from a sheriff's deputy claimed the lives of four men in three days and left a trail of evidence in its bullet cartridges, discarded at the murder scenes.
It was a bloody November 2004 in the city.
Two double homicides on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard, labeled revenge killings by police, prompted outcry and community leaders organized rallies. Police told the public the attacks were planned, not random. The only clue detectives had was that the killer used the same gun in the four slayings.
Detectives solved the case by connecting all the bullets using the National Integrated Ballistics Identification Network, or NIBIN. The database analyzed the distinct markings on each of the bullets -- linking them to one gun and one killer.
The case was so successful that West Palm Beach police recently bought BrassTRAX, a camera system that allows officers to capture images of those markings.
"The gun has the fingerprint, it has its own unique microscopic detail," said Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office senior forensic scientist Omar Felix. "That fingerprint is impressed into the cartridge case or on the bullet when it's shot out of the barrel."
When police retrieve bullet cartridges from a crime scene, they analyze and enter details of the markings into NIBIN, the national database. The database will repeatedly search to see if that gun has been used in other crimes.
When officers retrieve a gun, they shoot a bullet into a metal tube called a "bullet catcher." The officer then removes the bullet cartridge and records the markings the gun made in BrassTRAX. That image is then input into the national database.
West Palm Beach police started using the BrassTRAX system -- paid for with $100,000 from the county's Criminal Justice Commission -- in March. The purchase makes West Palm Beach police the second police agency in the county that can enter bullet cartridge images into the national network.
The Sheriff's Office has used the NIBIN network since 2001 and all the police agencies in the county used to take their bullet evidence there. West Palm Beach's newer technology will help reduce the Sheriff's Office workload and cut the sometimes months-long wait to make entries, officials said.
Riviera, Delray and Boynton Beach police departments are also authorized to input their information into the database using the West Palm Beach Police Department's BrassTRAX.
The West Palm Beach Police Department also enters information from officers' guns into the system in case one is stolen and used, like the deputy's gun that was used in the November 2004 double homicides.
Detectives said those cases -- where four men were slain in a hail of bullets from the handgun and two other firearms -- are a good example of how tracing a gun or bullets can lead investigators to a killer.
"We had no witnesses, we had nothing except expended shell casings and projectiles from the victims," said West Palm Beach police Detective Donald Iman.
Investigators began comparing those bullets and were able to link them to one gun -- the Glock. The bullet evidence was the key to linking Derek Dixon to the slayings.
"It's evidence if we can prove that gun was in one person's hands," Iman said.
Police arrested Dixon as a suspect in a carjacking case nearly two months after the killings. He was charged with the murders based on the testimony of a co-defendant and a recorded conversation from the county jail where he admitted to the murders, according to police reports. In March, Dixon, 22, pleaded guilty to the four counts of second degree murder and is now serving 40 years in federal prison for the killings, which will run at the same time as the 40 years he's already serving for carjacking and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Iman documented how the gun evidence and the national network helped map out Dixon's rampage:
To get the sheriff's deputy's gun from the thief who stole it, Dixon traded some stolen jewelry in a street deal in July 2004.
Using the ballistics database to match the bullets fired at each of the scenes, police traced Dixon's attacks between August and December 2004.
He was later identified from surveillance camera images of a Steak 'n Shake restaurant shooting in August. No one was injured but bullet cartridges were left behind.
On Sept. 25, Dixon fired the handgun after a fight at a nightclub on Okeechobee Boulevard but again no one was injured, police said. Victims refused to cooperate but police found more bullet cartridges.
The first double homicide occurred on Nov. 4 when Dixon thought the victims, Reynold Barnes, 23, and Eddie Lee Gibbs, 26, were the people he was firing at in the Steak 'n Shake incident. After leaving an IHop Restaurant, Dixon fired the Glock handgun and another shooter fired a .380 Beretta, police said.
Gibbs and Barnes were hit at least 10 times and died.
Three days later on Nov. 7, Dixon saw Larry Turner, 23, who he thought tried to kill his brother. He followed a car with three people in it and opened fire in a drive-by shooting. Turner was injured but Ali Jean and Turner Norwood, both 22, were killed and bullet cartridges from the handgun were left behind.
At a carjacking Dec. 3 outside an Arby's restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens, shots were fired and a Glock handgun was dropped at the scene.
It was the one police were looking for.
Jerome Burdi can be reached at email@example.com or 561-243-6531.