The Hinesville Police Department and Liberty County Sheriff’s Office have been getting some high-tech assistance from the Armstrong State University police department.
Maj. Thomas Cribbs, commander of Hinesville Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division, said his department has been helped “quite a bit” by ASU’s department, but couldn’t talk about one of the biggest cases as it hasn’t come to trial yet. He said ASU’s cyber-forensic equipment is more sophisticated than Liberty County’s.
“What we do here is entirely unique in Georgia and the U.S.,” said Lt. John Taylor, commander of ASU’s Cyber Forensic Division. “There’s no other university police department that does this ... One of the most interesting cases that came out of Liberty County involved a car chase down I-95 that ended in a wreck in front of Armstrong. Our own Lt. (John) Bennett helped make the arrest when they tried to make a run for it across campus.”
He said the four men involved were driving a stolen car that was depicted in a video they had produced days earlier on a smartphone. After their arrest, information linking them to the car theft and other crimes was found on their smartphones.
Bennett, a shift supervisor in another department who helps Taylor’s division, said they can retrieve information from any digital device, including desktops, laptops, iPads, PS3s and smartphones.
“If there’s digital evidence to be found, we’ll find it,” Bennett said, noting they’ve helped HPD and LCSO by finding digital evidence linking criminals to obscene material involving a minor, trafficking stolen firearms, burglaries, drug sales and manslaughter. “We’ve worked cases that most people don’t associate with digital devices. Smartphones provide a great deal of evidence. Some of these guys will take pictures of themselves as they commit the crime. They don’t think about getting caught.”
“They don’t understand that just deleting something from a digital device doesn’t get rid of it,” Taylor interjected. “We can recover the digital evidence they think is no longer there.”
Taylor discussed a case in Garden City in which they were asked to solve an attempted robbery. He said a man and a woman held up another man, demanding money. Because the man didn’t have any money, he was afraid they were going to shoot him and ran. They shot at him, nicking his arm.
The woman later was arrested after an eyewitness identified her. Taylor said the witness’ testimony was sketchy, however, because conditions were dark. Any defense lawyer could beat that, he said.
The woman also claimed she couldn’t have been involved in the robbery because she was texting her sister at the time. Police asked to see the phones and were told the messages had been deleted.
They gave up their phones, but the messages were recovered. A message sent 30 minutes before the crime showed the woman telling her sister she had to go because they were about to rob somebody. Her sister responded that she was going to wash her hair, as if the woman’s text was nothing unusual.
Taylor said the defense lawyer came to court believing he was going after the eyewitness’ ability to identify his client in the dark, only to find the digital evidence was overwhelming. The lawyer then wanted a plea deal.
“When we’re in court, we realize we may be talking to a group of folks with limited computer knowledge,” Bennett said. “We try to explain digital evidence in common terms they’ll understand ... We don’t alter the evidence. We use a write blocker that allows us to read off the hard drive but not add to it. It involves algorithms with unique characters. Changing just one character would change the entire outcome.”
Taylor, a retired Army judge advocate general lawyer and adjunct criminal-justice professor at ASU, said his cyber division not only assists local law enforcement, but also is deeply involved in a digital-forensic internship program for students working toward a master’s in criminal justice. He said the 20-week, hands-on program also is open to students who just want the cyber-forensic training.
He said ASU currently has a military police officer and noncommissioned officer from Fort Stewart in the program.