SAN JOSE — Rich Reneau isn't too good at remembering names. Or faces.
But a thumbprint, or one from a pinkie?
He's probably got you nailed.
Reneau is in his 40th year as a fingerprint expert, and he's helped solve countless cases in the South Bay, from the recent string of bank robberies in San Jose, Cupertino and Santa Cruz to the infamous Wendy's chili finger case.
That's not to mention the first cases the 58-year-old handled as a rookie FBI agent working for J. Edgar Hoover in 1970.
"I always tell the new cops that I'm not writing tickets or pulling over drivers," said Reneau, the one-person fingerprint unit at the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office. "I'm working on every major case and minor case that comes through here. I get them all, and I love it."
Take the three Comerica bank robberies within six days in late June. The robber left a demand note at the bank in San Jose. He left his prints as well.
Reneau analyzed the note, sprayed with a chemical solution, and was able to match the prints to Kent Lee Mason, a previously convicted bank robber and suspected marijuana grower from Santa Cruz. Mason was arrested July 1.
When Anna Ayala told the world she found an fingertip in her bowl of Wendy's chili, Reneau ran the finger through a database. No hits. San Jose police investigators did some more follow-up and resubmitted a new name. Reneau compared the name to a set of prints already in the system.
It turned out to be Brian Rossiter, who lost his finger on the job and sold it to his co-worker, Ayala's husband. Ayala and her husband pleaded guilty to trying to defraud the fast-food company. The case received global attention.
"For the detectives, he's like a god," said Sgt. Rick Sung, a sheriff's spokesman. "He's one of the best."
In Santa Clara County, only the Sheriff's Office and the San Jose Police Department have latent-fingerprint examiner units. Both departments perform identifications for cities that don't have their own. San Jose has 10 people in its unit and serves most other cities in the county.
"Traditional wisdom says that you need lots of experience to be good," said Pat Wertheim, a fingerprint expert who has known Reneau for 20 years. "But you also need talent and motivation. If you're tone-deaf and work at it, you can play violin. But you probably can't play Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and make someone cry. Rich can make you cry."
Campbell police Sgt. Richard Shipman said he is amazed that despite the grueling workload of up to 1,300 cases each year, Reneau "never gets stressed or never gets angry. Ever."
Why get upset? The active Bridges Community Church member in Fremont and father of two grown sons admits he's happily married to the job. (Well, maybe he doesn't want to admit that to his wife, Sharon, of 35 years.)
And even though the technology has vastly improved in four decades, Reneau still does a lot of work by hand — cataloging, manually evaluating prints that aren't high quality enough to be put into the computer and trying to get "hits" from many fragmented fingerprint databases used by agencies all over the country.
"The eye is always better than a computer," Reneau said. "Computers only give us a list of possibilities based on their algorithms. Then, it's up to the examiner. I may look at hundreds and hundreds of possibilities before I find a suspect. Computers don't make identifications. That's just a TV thing."
Shipman says Reneau doesn't miss anything.
"He's meticulous," Shipman said. "The results stand up in court all the time. Every time."
One of his most memorable cases involved then-state Supreme Court Chief Justice Rose Bird, who received death threats in the 1980s. The suspect cut out words from a newspaper and taped the threats onto paper. In doing so, he left his prints on the Scotch tape. Reneau developed prints and ran them through the FBI system. He got a hit. An arrest was made.
Reneau isn't perfect. He originally missed spotting Donald Cummings, later convicted of the sex killings of two women near San Jose State in the 1980s. He ran some prints but didn't get a hit. Others asked him to take a second look, which he did. This time, he got a positive result.
Then there was the Acronico case, unsolved for 20 years.
In 1979, Los Gatos socialite Gloria "Tookie" Acronico was kidnapped, robbed and murdered in her Mercedes Benz. The prints sat on his desk until 1999, a year after the Sheriff's Office got a fingerprint computer terminal to search for fingerprint matches.
"We started inputting all our cold cases," Reneau said. And that's when the computer spit out a bunch of possible suspects. One of those possibilities was Troy Lee Johnson, a 53-year-old drifter who had a previous minor criminal record.
Then it required the old-school touch of Reneau to eyeball the prints from inside the Mercedes, created by the soot of the fire inside the car, and compare them to Johnson's prints in the computer. Reneau said the two matched. And in 2000, Johnson was sentenced to prison for life.
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