Las Vegas Sun

October 20, 2017

Currently: 72° — Complete forecast

Training on new print ID system leads detective to suspect in slaying

Copyright 2000 Las Vegas Sun

Rick Workman grabbed the old case file of 16-year-old Jessica Heaney's unsolved slaying when he traveled to California last week for some training on a computerized fingerprint identification system.

The file contained the blurry fingerprints pulled from the poolside ladies room in the condominium complex where the Silverado High School student was found dead in 1998. Workman, the new Henderson Police criminalistics bureau supervisor, was just going to use the file for training.

But when he put the fingerprints into the Western Identification Network, it spit out the name Stephen Hodges Finnegan, 30, a man who lived in the Henderson complex where Heaney was found dead. He was never looked at as a suspect.

Within 36 hours Finnegan was in jail, charged with murder, and Heaney's family had some measure of closure. He was in the Henderson jail this morning without bond and has a court appearance scheduled for Thursday.

"It was a 2-year-old case. There weren't any other leads to follow up," said Capt. Richard Perkins of the investigations division. "(Finnegan) was never a suspect. We had knocked on his door during the canvass of the complex (at the time of the slaying), but he wasn't home."

But Perkins said the finding of Finnegan's fingerprints in the ladies room on the top of the walls of the stalls is "pretty damning."

Workman could have grabbed any file to take to California for training in the new fingerprint system put in place at Henderson Police, but he picked Heaney's file.

She was last seen alive about 11 a.m. on March 6, 1998, by her friends, who told police they thought she was on her way to school. She was found dead 24 hours later on a Saturday morning by the president of the Arbor Court condominium association, who was checking the clubhouse area, police said.

At the time of the slaying, detectives were able to recover fingerprints they believe were left by Heaney's killer and surmised that she was probably killed by someone she knew.

"I wanted to try and clear up the case. It was an important case," said Workman, who came to the Henderson Police Department about two months ago after 6 1/2 years as a criminalist for Metro Police.

When the slaying occurred, the fingerprints found at the scene were put into a computer system at Metro Police, but police were not able to match the prints to a suspect. Since then the fingerprints have been sitting in the case file.

The difference that led to Finnegan's arrest Wednesday was just better technology and, of course, a bit of luck.

The Western Identification Network is a database of fingerprints from Western states computerized through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System with millions of sets of fingerprints on file. Finnegan's prints were probably put into the system at some point after Heaney's slaying.

Finnegan is a registered sex offender for a gross lewdness conviction. The arrest on the sex offense occurred before the slaying, but that case was not resolved until months after Heaney's body was found.

At the time Heaney's body was found, police said that she was not sexually assaulted.

Some unsolved cases end in arrests when someone has a pang of guilt or a large reward entices someone with information to come forward. But in Heaney's case, it was the swirls and loops that are different on each person's fingers.

As soon as Workman discovered the possible match through the computer system, he took out a magnifying glass and matched the prints manually.

"Everyone at the training was pretty excited about the match. We all spent hours checking and rechecking," Workman said. "It was exciting to realize how well the system can work and to be able to use it to help solve such a terrible crime."

Hedda Heaney said last week she didn't have much hope left after two years that anyone would be charged in connection with her daughter's killing. But then the phone rang.

"I'm just so happy they continued with it. I'm very happy they found the match," she said.

Workman said he hopes the system will help solve some old cases and bring closure to some families waiting for answers.

Workman has never met Jessica Heaney's family and had never heard the name Stephen Finnegan before last week when he took the old file with him to California.

"Being a part of solving a murder is always exciting and rewarding," Workman said. "I also always think of the victim's family and hope that what we do will help them in some way."

archive