CROWN POINT – Dusty Malugen basically had nothing.
No fingerprints, no DNA, no description of the getaway car.
His investigation into the most serious crime in Wayne County, Tennessee, in 2017 had gone cold.
All he knew was that one of the robbers walked funny.
“We were just reaching and grasping for anything,” said Malugen, a detective with the Wayne County Sheriff's Department.
But the armed heist wasn't something investigators in the county of 16,748 were going to forget.
“I was actually at church when I got the call. It was kind of nerve-wracking,” Malugen said.
“It was something that doesn't happen around here very often.”
So he pored over video surveillance footage of the crime scene. Then one day, seven months after the armed robbery at Berry's One Stop – where people along the Alabama border stop for lottery tickets and pizza – something caught his eye.
A man, entering the store in the days leading up to the crime, walked like one of the assailants: His feet turned outward.
But would this be enough to convict the robber?
Malugen wanted to locate an expert who could corroborate what he was seeing.
He did a Google search and found Dr. Michael Nirenberg, a Crown Point podiatrist who is one of the preeminent forensic analysts in the U.S. when the evidence at hand involves feet.
Malugen called Nirenberg, and the doctor agreed to take a look. His finding: The robber and the suspect were the same man.
Nirenberg said gait analysis has been used to solve crimes in the United Kingdom for nearly 20 years, but it's new to the U.S. He believes this case is the first in which it was used to nab a suspected criminal.
“See this guy here on the right,” Nirenberg said on a recent day at his Crown Point practice, Friendly Foot Care, pointing to video surveillance of the robbery scene. “You can see how he's walking. His feet and knees are out-toed. You can see the way his head is positioned on his shoulders. His head hangs forward.”
Malugen took this evidence to the county attorney, who brought it before a grand jury, which indicted the suspect. That man gave up his two accomplices. The three men are expected to be sentenced soon.
In his forensic career, Nirenberg started out analyzing footprints, then investigated a shoe left behind by a suspect. His testimony helped secure a murder conviction in 2015 in Wisconsin. He believes doing gait analysis is just a natural progression. He also has done it for a murder case in Texas; so far, no one has been charged in that investigation.
The podiatrist said each of us has a distinctive way of walking. “It's caused by a combination of heredity, aging, our environment, the shoes we wear,” he said.
He noted that gait isn't a unique characteristic, like a fingerprint. But in a county as small as Waynesboro, he said, it's unlikely you'd find more than one individual who walked the same as the robber.
He notes that robbers often visit the places from which they intend to steal ahead of time, meaning they can potentially be matched from earlier surveillance footage, including the way they walk.
He and Malugen both would like to see the use of gait analysis by law enforcement agencies, working in concert with podiatrists, become more widespread.