Electronic crimes unit coming on strong
In 2013, Roger Holland told police that he found his pregnant wife Margorie dead at the foot of the stars of their Apple Valley home.
Right away, though, Apple Valley police sensed this was no accident. There were bruises and scrapes on her body from her head to her ankles and other physical clues that led them to be suspicious. Deliberately, officers began their investigation, securing Margorie Holland’s cell phone, Roger Holland’s cell phone and their computers, among other things.
Those electronic items were eventually brought to the Dakota County Law Enforcement Center in Hastings, where forensic investigators began looking for clues. One day, Timothy Jacobson, one of those investigators, was combing through Holland’s search history and he found what he was looking for.
One day before Margorie Holland had died, Roger Holland did a web search on his phone that read: “If you pass out and fall down the stairs, can you break your neck?”
The evidence was one of the tools prosecutors used in their case against Holland, who was eventually found guilty and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison. He will never be eligible for parole.
The work done by Jacobson on the case is just one example of how law enforcement agencies are using data mined from cell phones and computers to get convictions.
Just last week, search warrants were executed at three residences in Apple Valley after investigators here had acted on a tip that three men were downloading and distributing child pornography. Investigators had tracked the three down, eventually gathering enough evidence for the search warrants. When they were executed, two of the men admitted to the crime and the third immediately hired a lawyer.
Then there’s the case that Jeremy Roberts just cracked. A woman in the county told deputies that she feared her ex-boyfriend was stalking her. Many times, the stalking can be done because of software on smart phones, so Roberts got to looking through all the regular places. He eventually went through the perpetrator’s emails and found an order confirmation from Amazon.com regarding a GPS unit that can be affixed to an automobile. The unit had just been delivered to the man, and officers stepped in.
Roberts is one of the latest additions to the unit, having just started in March. He’s now one of six people staffing the unit, all of whom are kept busy helping out in countless investigations.
“There’s very few investigations we do now that don’t have some kind of electronic evidence,” said Captain Jim Rogers, who oversees the unit. “(Our investigators) are really doing a great job.”
The unit was the recipient of a unique STOP grant issued by the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, thanks in part to 360 Communities, which provided input about its shelters’ needs to the Dakota County Sheriff’s Department. The grant led to Roberts’ hiring. The bulk of his work is done to help victims of domestic abuse. He spends his days sifting through cell phones looking for programs that allow domestic abusers to stalk their former significant others.
Hastings Chief of Police Bryan Schafer sits on the board involved in handling the grant. 360 Communities includes the Lewis House in Hastings, which is a sexual and domestic violence shelter.
360 Communities is no stranger to Hastings police officers. When a Hastings officer encounters a domestic or family violence case, they make a call to 360 Communities.
“Our goal is to connect the victims with services and with advocacy,” Schafer said. “They provide a ton of services.”
Schafer said that in the past, when someone like an ex-boyfriend would commit a restraining order violation by contacting a victim via text messages or Facebook, officers would simply take a photo of the victim’s phone. That photo would be entered into evidence. Eventually, officers began taking the phones as evidence, but many times those phones would have to be sent to the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and the victim would be without her phone for months.
Nowadays, officers can have someone at the electronic crimes unit download the offending messages and return the phone, in many cases, in about an hour.
“There’s going to be some good cases that are going to come out of this unit, because now we have the ability to get evidence quicker,” Schafer said. “We have the bodies, and we have the ability and the technology.”
Dakota County has had an electronic crimes unit in some form or another since 2003. At first, it was just one detective, and she was overwhelmed with work. There was so much work to be done that the wait time for low-priority cases stretched out to as many as two years. Staff began to get added around 2011, but there was still a backlog.
Local law enforcement units were scrambling to figure out how to process electronic evidence, as training was expensive and the gear was expensive. At about that time, the county aimed to solve the problem by having a task force model, where all the cities in the county could either commit staff members to help on the unit or they could just commit money. Earlier this year, all the agencies in the county except two (Lakeville and Eagan) have joined forces with the county through a joint powers agreement, and six people are employed on the unit.
“We don’t have the time, the money or the staff to do all of this on our own,” Schafer said. “It’s easier for us to do it jointly through a joint task force.”
Of the six investigators, two are from the Dakota County Sheriff’s Office, one is from Apple Valley, one is from Burnsville and two are civilian forensic analysts.
Wear and tear
The work being done by the six people in the unit is at times incredibly interesting and at times incredibly awful. At times, it’s their job to sort through tens of thousands of images of child pornography. The long-term psychological effect of seeing those images is being studied. For now, those investigators are dealing with it all the best they can.
“I kind of consider it as hazardous material, but, somebody has to be the voice for those victims,” said Ryan Olson. “You have to get those guys, or gals, convicted.”
So many criminal sexual conduct cases go unreported. That means that when one is reported, law enforcement turns over every stone possible, Olson said.
“You want to make sure you don’t miss another victim,” he said.