Tattoos as evidence: How the ink on their skin got people arrested for murder, rape, burglary

Charles Combs, inset, convicted of robbing a bank, and his “Most Wanted” tattoo gave prosecutors “a nice piece of the puzzle.”
Charles Combs, inset, convicted of robbing a bank, and his “Most Wanted” tattoo gave prosecutors “a nice piece of the puzzle.”
Published Sept. 3, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG — As the man rushed past the Mariner Car Wash, an employee couldn't help but notice his distinctive forearm tattoo: "Most Wanted."

When police investigating a bank robbery came around a few days later, the worker mentioned the man, confirming DNA evidence police had that tied a man with just such a tattoo to the crime.

Charles Combs, 43, had a previous arrest for bank robbery and a black ink "Most Wanted" tattoo in block letters running down his right forearm.

"It was certainly a nice piece of the puzzle," said Assistant State Attorney Evan Brodsky, who prosecuted Combs this summer.

Combs, who got 30 years, is not the only Florida criminal betrayed by his own skin, so to speak.

Many Floridians have learned to their dismay that their unique ink can help police catch them — and persuade juries to convict them.

Tattoo evidence isn't as high-tech as DNA evidence, or as new. And a tattoo alone probably won't send anyone to prison without additional evidence to support it.

But tattoos have exploded in popularity, and police agencies increasingly photograph, catalogue and distribute them. These trends make it all the more likely that a few lines of ink can help solve a case.

When bystanders saw a man shoot 30-year-old Marquell Burge last year behind the Ninth Street Pool Hall in St. Petersburg, one of them had an easy way to identify the killer. He said "the suspect has a 727 tattoo on the back of his neck, and just shot pool the other day," according to a police report.

At that time, Dwayne M. Bailey had spoken to police because he heard he was a suspect. It's not clear whether Bailey has a special love of his area code or if the tattoo carries a different meaning. He has pleaded not guilty to murder and is awaiting trial.

In another St. Petersburg case, John C. Andrews was charged with three counts of sexual battery against three young women. Before his arrest, two of the women described the same tattoo on their attacker: "Ride or Die." Andrews, who had those words etched permanently on his neck, is now awaiting trial.

A few tattoos figure into "dumb criminal" stories from the Tampa Bay area and beyond. Take Sean Eric Roberts, accused in 2009 of breaking into a home in Riverview. He was identified by the outline of the state of Florida, helpfully inked onto his face.

And, in what may be the most bizarre example of body art imitating life, a California man named Anthony Garcia was convicted of murdering a man outside a liquor store. The case had gone unsolved until a Los Angeles County (Calif.) sheriff's sergeant was sorting through photos and saw one of Garcia's chest. It was covered with a tattoo depicting the murder scene.

But not every tattoo is helpful, said Mike Puetz, a St. Petersburg police spokesman and former homicide sergeant. All kinds of people seem to have inscribed themselves with crosses, hearts and skulls, so those don't exactly separate anyone from the crowd. But when a guy tattoos his girlfriend's name in cursive on his neck, that's a different story.

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"The more unique it is, with a unique location, the better," Puetz said. It also helps that most people getting tattooed don't think to themselves, "Gee I wonder if someone will be able to identify me from this?"

Police have checked out tattoos for decades, but computers now make the job easier. Many police agencies enter descriptions of tattoos into computer databases whenever people get arrested.

So if a victim remembers the mugger had "THUG" tattooed on his knuckles, "we run it through the database to see if the tattoo can match anybody who's been arrested," said Sgt. James Sessa of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

Sometimes, tattoos combine with other forms of evidence — such as surveillance videos — to help authorities.

For example, St. Petersburg police recently investigated a woman who used credit cards stolen from vehicles at local stores. Surveillance video showed a cartoon character tattooed on her right shoulder, visible because she was wearing a tank top. Later, when a woman was arrested trying to break into cars, she was wearing a tank top that revealed the tattoo.

Detective Michael Gray showed her the surveillance images. That's my tattoo, he said she admitted.

Tampa police hope another tattooed woman gets arrested because of a surveillance video released late last month. The woman is suspected of snatching a purse at a Tampa Publix on East Hillsborough Avenue and then using a stolen credit card at a nearby fast food restaurant.

The video shows the woman in the driver's seat, with a large tattoo on her right thigh and a smaller one on her left shoulder. After more than a minute of being filmed, she looks overhead and spots the surveillance camera.

She turns down the sun visor to block the view of her face. But her tattoos stay in plain sight.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at (727) 893-8232 or Follow him on Twitter at @ckruegertimes.