Tuesday, June 19, 2018
News Roundup

Henry Brommelsick pored over fingerprints until he found a match

On the witness stand, Henry Brommelsick might have come across like a kindly professor, explaining why the whorls, ridges and furrows of the defendant's fingerprints matched those left at a crime scene.

That gentle demeanor put countless criminals behind bars, some for good.

Mr. Brommelsick, who headed fingerprint forensics for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, found a career match peering through a lamp-mounted magnifying glass for hours on end. He worked everything from routine burglaries to sensational murder trials.

Expertise and tenacity turned an amiable man into a formidable court weapon.

Mr. Brommelsick died Nov. 1 of heart disease. He was 75.

"He was the renowned fingerprint guy, both in collecting them and analyzing them," said former Pinellas County Sheriff Everett Rice. "We relied on fingerprints particularly back in the day" before DNA evidence and other sophisticated forensics came along, Rice said.

The job suited Mr. Brommelsick, who found excitement in work others might consider monotonous.

"Quite honestly, it's a tedious job, looking at fragmentary pieces of prints," said William Schade, the fingerprint records manager for the Sheriff's Office and a former colleague of 20 years.

Prints can mean anything or nothing. Most serve merely as leads.

"You've got to be meticulous and you've got to be a problem-solver," said Schade, who called Mr. Brommelsick the "mother hen of forensics. That was the nature of Henry."

Mr. Brommelsick had always relished life's small details. His family described him as a trivia buff, prone to fire off questions on the order of who played The Siren on the original Batman television series (Joan Collins), or the name of Tonto's horse on The Lone Ranger (Scout).

"He liked jokes, though he couldn't tell them very well," said Ginny Brommelsick, Mr. Brommelsick's sister-in-law. "He got lost in the details. You'd have lunch and then you'd have dinner, and the story's still going on."

Ginny Brommelsick, the wife of retired Pinellas County Sheriff's Sgt. Willy Brommelsick, had worked as a sheriff's radio dispatcher while Henry Brommelsick was working in fingerprints.

"He tried to get me into it," she said. "My eyes started to cross when I looked at the arches and whorls and loops.

"He said, 'Don't you see the difference?' "

Henry William Brommelsick was born in Paterson, N.J., in 1937. He threw the knuckleball and slider for his high school baseball team.

The Air Force stationed him in Alaska during the Korean War. He photographed Korea from a reconnaissance plane.

After four years he moved to Pinellas Park and joined the police department, working some of that time in a K-9 unit. He married Sarah Pfeiffer, a neighbor, in 1962.

Mr. Brommelsick joined the Sheriff's Office in 1967 and retired in June 1999. He spent years in a patrol car before working full time in the fingerprint office, said Rice, who joined the department at the same time.

In court, he talked about bifurcations and ridges and pores like an "old-school, Mister Rogers grandfather type," Schade said. He had a hand in investigating some of most highly publicized cases of his time.

"In the 1980s, Henry Brommelsick was fingerprints in Pinellas County," Schade said.

He struck fear into the hearts of defense lawyers in the same way that forensic scientist Henry Lee does today.

Mr. Brommelsick stayed at the Sheriff's Office long enough to usher in the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS), which analyzes fingerprints from a database. The software helped, but it is still humans who solve crimes, not machines.

A devout Jehovah's Witness, Mr. Brommelsick believed he was helping victims, not just putting criminals in prison. He also believed that even the smallest crime matters.

"(Most people) haven't had a murder," Schade said. "But I'll bet they've had their house broken into or their car stolen.

"There is no minor crime if it's happening to you."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

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