How A Tip — And Facial Recognition Technology — Helped The FBI Catch A Killer

Aug 21, 2019
Originally published on August 21, 2019 11:32 pm

Walter Yovany-Gomez evaded authorities for years before the FBI put him on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list.

Gomez, a member of the MS-13 street gang, was wanted in connection with a brutal murder in Plainfield, N.J., that took place in May 2011. Police almost nabbed him a month afterward — but Gomez jumped out a second-story window and escaped.

Investigators finally tracked him down and arrested him in August 2017 in a gym parking lot in Northern Virginia.

Gomez's capture made headlines at the time, but the details of how investigators put the pieces together — with the help of a tipster and facial recognition technology — have not been previously reported.

Interviews by NPR with law enforcement officials and others now reveal the role that digital facial recognition software played in the case at a time when authorities' use of such technology is under increasing public scrutiny.

Some lawmakers and civil liberties advocates warn that there are little to no transparency and few rules governing the use of facial scan software and its vast surveillance potential, leaving the door open to possible abuse. Researchers, meanwhile, have found the software is less accurate with women and people with darker skin.

The FBI began phasing in its use of facial analysis software around 2011.

Local and state police also have used the technology for years, and proponents say it's an important investigative tool that can help find missing children, prevent driver's license fraud — or, in Gomez's case, help track down a suspected killer.

The murder

The FBI added Walter Yovany-Gomez to its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives after years of fruitless pursuit. Then it got a tip, which led investigators first to Facebook.

Gomez, a Honduran national who was in the U.S. illegally, belonged to a branch of MS-13 in Plainfield, outside New York City.

The gang began in Los Angeles in the 1980s but has expanded since then and now has a presence across the U.S. and Central America. Like many gangs, MS-13 is involved in drug dealing, prostitution, extortion and murder. It tends to focus many of its activities in immigrant communities and has set itself apart through its sheer brutality.

MS-13 is not a rigidly hierarchical organization, according to experts. Instead, it has various branches, or cliques, that operate under the group's umbrella but with their own internal leadership and rules.

In the spring of 2011, the Plainfield clique's leadership ordered Gomez and another man, Cruz Flores, to kill a potential recruit, Julio Matute, who was suspected of disrespecting MS-13 because he associated with members of a rival gang.

On May 8, 2011, Gomez and Flores spent an evening at Matute's apartment drinking, smoking weed and watching TV, according to investigators. They then beat him in the head with a baseball bat, stabbed him 17 times in the back with a screwdriver and slit his throat.

"He was stabbed so many times that when his body was discovered a week later, police officers thought that he had been shot with a shotgun," said FBI Special Agent Dan Brunner of the bureau's Newark Division.

Two years later, federal prosecutors indicted more than a dozen members of the Plainfield MS-13 clique for racketeering, murder and other crimes. Gomez and Flores were charged in that indictment in connection with Matute's murder.

By the end of 2016, Flores and the others had been apprehended, tried and convicted.

The one member who remained at large was Gomez.

In April 2017, the FBI placed him on its Ten Most Wanted Fugitives list. His official poster included three photographs — a young man with short black hair and an earring — and described him as an extremely violent criminal. It offered a $100,000 reward for information that led to his arrest.

The tip

A few months after Gomez appeared on the most wanted list, the FBI received a tip with a possible lead. The information made its way to the FBI's Washington Field Office and the desk of Special Agent Richard Stallings.

Investigators believed the tipster appeared legitimate; he knew the players and gang dynamics in Northern Virginia. What the tipster told them was that he recognized the man in Gomez's most wanted poster. He knew him by a different name, but he was sure it was the same man.

After a few more meetings, the source provided more information to help push the investigation forward, including Facebook profiles that he said had pictures of the individual he believed to be Gomez.

"He gave us some screen names we were able to track down," Stallings said.

Stallings and his fellow investigators went through the Facebook pages and downloaded photos that the source identified as Gomez.

Not any photo will do; the perspective has to be right and the file itself must be good enough to be of use to investigators.

"The quality of the picture has to be reviewable. If it doesn't have enough of the facial features, they're not going to be able to plug it in and have a solid match," Stallings said. "So we had to screen and find enough of the pictures that we thought had the qualities needed to make the matches and assessments."

Jesus Lopez Centoreo

Stephen Lamm, supervisor with the ID Fraud Unit of the North Carolina DMV, looked through photos in the facial recognition system. Authorities also have access to many photos on social media.
Gerry Broome / AP

Stallings sent those photos off to the FBI's FACE Services Unit, which ran the photos against those contained in the bureau's databases.

"We sent this information off to say, 'Hey, can we identify this guy? Are we looking at the right guy?' " Stallings said.

About a week later, they got a reply.

The FACE Services Unit came back with a match — but not for Gomez. Instead, the photos matched a man in official records named Jesus Lopez Centoreo.

Centoreo had been picked up for marijuana possession in 2014 after jumping a Metro turnstile in Arlington, Va. He had gone through initial processing — his fingerprints were taken and he was photographed for a mug shot — but was then released. He didn't show up for his court date, and so a warrant had been issued for his arrest.

Despite the name confusion, investigators still felt their source was solid, Stallings said, in part because there were other physical identifiers, including tattoos, that made them think they were on the right track.

They also had another lead to pursue from the Facebook pages.

Agents had found several photos of the suspect with a woman. They ran photos of her through the bureau's facial recognition software.

They got a match from the criminal mug shot database. With the woman's name they were able to get an address, and the FBI and officers from the Fairfax County Police Department gang task force used that to begin keeping tabs on her.

The arrest

On Aug. 12, 2017, officers from the task force called Stallings and said they were heading over to stake out the woman's residence.

"We were hoping to get lucky, get a vehicle, get something else to put a building block together with," Stallings said. "And so they went down there sitting on it and a couple of hours later, I get this call back from their sergeant: 'We got our guy.' "

The surveillance team from the Fairfax County gang unit had followed the woman to a gym parking lot in Woodbridge, Va. A man who looked like Gomez walked up to the woman's car.

Task force members swooped in and made an arrest. The name the man gave was Jesus Lopez Centoreo — which matched the fingerprints on file.

"But we knew from other physical identifiers, from his tattoos, from the picture that we had of him that we had the right guy," Stallings said.

He says the officers showed the man the most wanted poster that named Gomez and asked whether it was him. He said yes.

"So he self-identified as Gomez the night we arrested him," Stallings said. "I think he just knew that it was done. He knew that we hadn't made a mistake in identifying him and putting our hands on him and making the arrest. We had done our corroboration."

Gomez was transferred to New Jersey, where he reached a deal with the government in February. He pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering conspiracy. He admitted in his criminal information to Matute's murder.

Last month, a federal judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

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There's a lot of debate and controversy over how law enforcement uses facial recognition technology. The FBI says it's an important investigative tool. Take the case of Walter Yovany-Gomez.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: One of America's most wanted criminals, a fugitive and an alleged member of the vicious MS-13 gang, now captured.

CHANG: Captured in part because of facial recognition. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas explains how it all went down.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Back in 2011, Walter Yovany-Gomez wanted to become a full member of the local branch of the MS-13 street gang in Plainfield, N.J. In May of that year, he got his chance. Gang leaders ordered him to kill a recruit named Julio Matute who had allegedly been associating with a rival gang. And so after a night of partying with Matute, Gomez and an associate beat him with a baseball bat, stabbed him with a screwdriver and slit his throat. Police closed in on Gomez in 2011, but he jumped out of a second-story window and escaped. For six years, his trail went cold. Then in April of 2017, the FBI made an announcement that put Gomez in the national crime spotlight.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The violent gang member is the newest addition to the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives list. An up to $100,000 reward is available for information leading directly to the arrest of Walter Yovany-Gomez.

LUCAS: The move quickly paid off. A tipster came forward that July claiming to have information on Gomez. It fell to Special Agent Richard Stallings in the FBI's Washington field office to follow up. So Stallings and a gang task force colleague arranged a face-to-face meeting with the tipster. They wanted to vet the source and make sure, as Stallings puts it, they weren't running up a dead tree. They quickly determined that they were not.

RICHARD STALLINGS: He truly was like, I know that guy. And he says, I don't know him by the name that's on the screen, Gomez. But he knew him on a different name.

LUCAS: The tipster pointed the FBI to Facebook pages with photos of the man he believed was Gomez. Agents pulled the photos and sent them to the bureau's FACE Services Unit. There, they were run through an FBI database using facial recognition software in search of a match. About a week later, a match came back but for Jesus Lopez Centoreo. Centoreo had been picked up for marijuana possession in 2014 after jumping a Metro turnstile in Arlington, Va. His fingerprints and mug shot were taken, and then he was released. Centoreo had then failed to appear for his court date, so there was a warrant out for his arrest.

STALLINGS: We were kind of baffled in how we got this name associated with our picture. But then the picture they had that they associated with in the arrest - like, that's our guy.

LUCAS: Investigators still felt the tipster's information was solid, in part, Stallings says, because there were other physical identifiers like tattoos that made them think they were on the right track. They also had leads to work. Remember those Facebook pages the tipster provided? Agents also found several photos of the suspect with a female associate. Agents used facial recognition software to run the Facebook photos of her through a database of criminal mug shots. They came back with a match and an address. So the FBI and officers from the Fairfax County gang task force set up surveillance on her. One afternoon in August 2017, officers set up a stakeout outside her residence.

STALLINGS: A couple hours later, I get this call back from their sergeant. We got our guy. And I was like, what? And he said, no, it's our guy. And, you know, the first thing in my mind, are you sure? Because we didn't know for sure he was here at any point.

LUCAS: The agents had tailed the woman to a gym parking lot in Woodbridge, Va., about 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. And who walks up to her car but a man who looked a lot like Gomez. Their surveillance team swooped in and arrested him, but there was a twist. The sergeant on the phone said the man gave his name as Jesus Lopez Centoreo, the same name that the FBI turned up in its facial recognition search. But when confronted with the evidence investigators had collected, the man said that his real name was in fact Walter Yovany-Gomez.

STALLINGS: So in showing him actually his top 10 most wanted poster and being asked, is this you, he says yes.

LUCAS: Since that night, Gomez has pleaded guilty to a racketeering conspiracy and admitted to Matute's murder. Last month, a federal judge in New Jersey sentenced him to 25 years in prison. Ryan Lucas, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.