7NEWS is granted first access to Boulder computer crime lab where digital evidence is uncovered

How Boulder team is uncovering digital evidence

BOULDER, Colo. - For the first time, a news camera is allowed inside the Boulder County Computer Forensics Lab where 7NEWS is granted exclusive access. 

"Pretty much every case that happens any more involves some level of digital evidence," said  Longmont Police Detective Bryan Franke.

Franke is one of three computer forensic analysts working as a team at the Boulder County lab.

"We’re looking at computers, cellphones, portable devices, GPS, storage devices, external hard drives, flash drives, disks, DVDs (and) CDs," said Franke. 

More than 300 devices are in line to be analyzed at the lab. All of the devices need to be documented, preserved, examined and have their data extracted.  

"It's not like TV where it's done in an hour. It's typically days and days and days. It could go months," Franke said of their sophisticated cyber investigations. 

The computer crimes lab works cases for Boulder County law enforcement agencies and police departments nationwide.  

"We’re constantly taking in devices that need examination for different cases," said Franke. 

The growing case load is divided between Franke, Longmont Police Detective Sara Pierce and Boulder County Sheriff's Detective Jeremy Shavin.

"We need additional people in here," said Franke.

Until there is more assistance, the team works on a case-by-case basis. The queue of cases to be handled first is determined in part by what cases will be going to trial first.

"More like 75 percent of my cases are helped as a direct result of the computer crimes lab," said Boulder County prosecutor Tim Johnson.

Johnson mostly prosecutes sex assault and domestic violence cases.

"It’s those kinds of cases that we’re using technology very effectively on," explained Johnson. "If we can have a device that’s there, that’s neutrally saying, 'This is what happened.' That’s better than a lot of witnesses' testimony and a lot of their memories as to what happened. That often times makes or breaks a case." 

Johnson provided three examples of criminal cases resulting in convictions that were boosted by digital evidence discovered at the Boulder County lab.  

The first case included graphic video and a voicemail recording.  

Video of an altercation between Emily Cole and a male victim was captured on a neighbor's cell phone. The video showed Cole struggling with a man at the doorway and picked up audio of what was said during the fight.

The man can be heard shouting, "This is my ex."  Cole screamed, "I'm covered in blood!"  The man shouted back, "It's my blood."

"At this point, no one knew what was going on," Johnson said. "Even the neighbors don't know what's going on. In fact, when police arrived, they find her (Cole) with blood on her face, and they thought initially she was the actual victim in this case."

Johnson said Cole was arrested and convicted, but during the trial she claimed that she was the victim.

"But this (video), recorded off the victim's cellphone 45 minutes before the event, really demonstrates what she had intended to do," said Johnson.

Johnson played an audio recording from a voicemail Cole left for the victim that included, "I know where you live." 

Johnson cited another example of digital evidence used in court during a different case.     

Boulder County computer forensics analysts extracted and mapped GPS coordinates that revealed Luis Gutierrez's route as he stalked an underage girl. Photographs of the child victim discovered on Gutierrez's computer helped to seal his conviction. 

"All of that would have gone undetected, because no one was there to see it," said Johnson.

In a third case, Johnson said Marciene Sullivan was convicted and put in prison for the creation of child pornography.  Johnson said during Sullivan's trial, the child victim could not speak about what happened.

"Our victim, who is nine, she really was not available to testify. But because of the digital evidence, we could proceed with the prosecution without her," said Johnson.

 The Boulder County computer forensics team discovered video and pictures Sullivan captured of his attacks   hidden on the man's computer hard drive.

"And because of that, he's serving a 40-year sentence, which is the largest prison sentence that we've had in Boulder County on the creation of child pornography," said Johnson.

Johnson said digital evidence has turned technology against criminals and provided closure for victims.

"It's bringing justice to the victims. Because otherwise, a lot of these (cases) go unsolved," said Johnson.


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