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Database expands reach of Interpol

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CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated Mr. Noble's history with Interpol. He was elected secretary-general of Interpol in November 2000 and removed himself from consideration for FBI director by the incoming Bush administration.

A distance of 2,900 miles — and two time zones — separate Vaduz, Liechtenstein, and Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

But experts at Interpol, the 85-year-old international police agency with 186 members, recently used DNA to link seemingly disparate jewel heists in the two locations.

What's more, they ultimately found a global network of jewel thieves — dubbed the "Pink Panther" bandits — that has stolen about $147.1 million in gems, Interpol Secretary-General Ronald K. Noble said in a recent interview.

Without technology, he said, the cases might never have traced back to an amorphous group of criminals that originated in the Balkans. Now, some arrests have been made and other jewel thieves are being sought.

Mr. Noble will host a global gathering when the General Assembly of Interpol opens in St. Petersburg on Monday. Guests for the event include Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

A veteran senior official in the Clinton administration who served in the Justice and Treasury departments, Mr. Noble was elected secretary-general of Interpol in November 2000 and is on his second five-year term.

Once a 9-to-5 clearinghouse, Interpol under Mr. Noble has become a 24/7 global agency turning a focus on some of the world's most difficult - and distressing - crimes.

"A jewelry store robbery occurs in a mall in Dubai. A car is driven through [the front windows]. People leave with millions of euros in stolen jewelry," he said, describing the scene of one heist by the global jewelry thieves.

"In this case, Dubai sent 14 DNA specimens to Interpol headquarters. We put it in our global database of anonymous DNA, and we were able to link it to an armed robbery in Liechtenstein, matching four DNA specimens. Through DNA, fingerprint analysis, linked to 99 other crimes involving the same [modus operandi] in Europe, Asia, Japan and the Middle East."

Mr. Noble said the group is known as the "Pink Panther" bandits because they used a jewelry-hiding technique employed in one of the movies in that series.

Michael J. Garcia, U.S. attorney for New York's Southern District, which includes Manhattan and the Bronx, said Mr. Noble's stewardship at Interpol has produced impressive results.

"He has done an incredible job moving that agency into the 21st century," Mr. Garcia said.

Mr. Garcia lauded Interpol's help in both the recovery of stolen artwork that made its way to New York from South America, and the arrest of two murder suspects who made their way to the city.

"In 2008 alone, picked up two folks wanted for murder in Spain and Greece on red notices" sent out by Interpol, an innovation that Mr. Noble introduced, he said.

The art fraud database helped in the return of stolen items to Brazil, he added.

Mr. Garcia also said Interpol´s database of stolen passport information is of great value.

"With respect to stolen passports, you have Interpol providing something others don't, which is a database for stolen passports from all over the world, and you can see how that plays out," he said.

Interpol helped orchestrate the 2007 arrest of pedophile Christopher Paul Neil, also known as "Vico," when scientists were able to "unscramble" his image and use what Mr. Noble called "'CSI'-style techniques" to identify the location of images showing Neil sexually abusing children in Asia.

"We came up with a system, using technology, that allows police from any country to send images to Interpol, in an encrypted fashion, and, upon receipt, those images can be compared with over 500,000 unique images that we have in our database to determine whether the victims had already been identified or not been identified, to determine whether the assailants had been identified or not, and to determine the location of the abuse that was photographed," he said.

Those forensic investigations can not only identify the location of the crime but also allow local police to circulate photos of the victims in the hope of identifying and finding them, he added.

Mr. Noble also said the Interpol databases — of photos and fingerprints, as well as DNA — are being used to fight terrorism. The May 16, 2003, suicide bombings in Casablanca, Morocco, killed 33 people as well as the 12 bombers. Some suspects got away, however, though they left fingerprint evidence behind.

"A year later, an arrest is made in Iraq," Mr. Noble recalled. "Name doesn't match our records, the photo doesn't match with our database, but fingerprints match and connect the guy to the Casablanca bombing. Now, the Iraqi cops know the guy is a tried-and-true terrorist. And they have real proof, that terrorists had come from outside of region, even as far off as Morocco."

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