Thursday, January 25, 2018

The spy within

Michael - Thursday

Everything is connected. Credit MIT.
If we are murderers, we are our own worst enemies. Everything we own is set on giving us away. If we touch something with our hands, our fingers leave prints that can lead unerring back to us. If we wear gloves, the material gives off particles that may be traced. Our shoes leave characteristic imprints. And, of course, our DNA is the ultimate traitor—it points the finger directly at us.

The saving grace about all this is that in order for any of this to be useful to the police, they must have a suspect in their hands. Then they can match fingerprints, test glove fibers, investigate shoes, and even, given plenty of time, match DNA.  In fact these spies actually can be on the side of the innocent—when they don’t give the hoped-for match. Several convicted murderers and rapists have been freed after lengthy periods in prison after DNA tests exonerated them.

But all this was before the computer technology age. Now we have collected a lot more spies to carry with us. Some of these tools that we now enjoy and regard as indispensable have made the criminal's life almost impossible. Any email sent, any website searched, any cell phone use, all of it leaves electronic fingerprints that are difficult to erase. And the use of the internet provides a road map that can be traced to the person—much more helpful that the classic passive tools.

Last week the Washington Post reported on the case of Brittney Gargol. As she and her girlfriend, Cheyenne Rose Antoine, readied for a night out on the town, Cheyenne took a selfie and Brittney posted it on Facebook. Then they were off, set for a good time. Apparently during the night they quarreled, it got out of hand and they fought. The next day Brittney was found strangled. A belt was found nearby, and the police believe that was the weapon used to kill her.

Meanwhile, Cheyenne, set up an alibi.  She posted messages asking Brittney if she was okay, did she get home all right? Her uncle told the police that the two of them had gone for an early walk together when she got home around dawn.

Two years past while various bits of evidence came to light. A person approached the Gargol family and told them that, while drunk, Cheyenne had admitted to a fight with Brittney and to choking her. The police became suspicious of the uncle’s story. When they checked the surveillance cameras that covered the area along the river where he was supposed to have walked with his niece, there was no sign of them.  Later he retracted his statement.  The police also investigated the traces that Brittney’s phone had left as it pinged wifi signals that night. The positions and times were consistent with the murder location and estimated time of death.

The incriminating selfie.
But the most damning piece of circumstantial evidence was the belt. It appears in the selfie that they posted the night of Brittney’s death (at the bottom left). Faced with the overwhelming evidence, Brittney confessed and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Last week she was sentenced to seven years in prison.

The business research company Gartner estimates that 8.4 billion devices were connected to the Internet worldwide in 2017, and the number is growing rapidly. Andrew Ferguson, a University of the District of Columbia law professor, called this the era of ‘sensorveillance.’ While privacy groups are understandably concerned about the implications, it’s a boon for detectives and forensics. Jonathan Rajewski, a digital forensics instructor, claims that: ‘Ninety-nine percent of crime will now have a digital component. We have these little sensors all over. We're wearing them and they're in our homes.'

The fire at Compton's house
Sometimes they are even inside us. An Ohio man, Ross Compton, has been charged with arson and insurance fraud after claiming he woke in the middle of the night to discover his house ablaze. He threw some valuables into a case, threw it from the bedroom window, and escaped leaving his pet cat to perish in the blaze. Police were suspicious and obtained a court order to get the data from his pacemaker. It showed that he was awake when he claimed he was asleep, and that his stress levels were not consistent with his story. Some rather more conventional forensics established that the fire had started in a number of places, and that there were gasoline traces on his clothes!

Richard Dabate with his lawyers
In Connecticut, police have charged Richard Dabate with the murder of his wife. He claimed that a masked intruder attacked him, took his gun, and threatened to torture him with a blowtorch. When his wife returned from the YWCA, she tried to escape from the intruder who chased her and shot her in the head with Dabate’s gun. Dabate managed to escape, turning the blowtorch on the attacker who then fled.

There was a variety of problems with the story. Dabate’s wife wore a ‘fitbit’, which recorded her physical activity.  It seems she was walking around fine some time after she was supposed to have been murdered, and she posted pictures on Facebook while the supposed attacker was fighting with her husband. Then it turned out Dabate’s girlfriend was about to have a child. His wife carried nearly half a million dollars in life insurance that Dabate claimed within a week of her death. Various other computer searches and sensors connected with the house alarm contradict Dabate’s story. Still, the prosecution don’t have it all their own way. In addition to Dabate's DNA, there are traces of DNA on his recently purchased gun that the police have been unable to match to anyone who might have handled it.

Given all this digital information added to more conventional forensics, how come many murders are never solved? Well, I guess the police have to spend a lot of time looking into it all—hundreds of times as long as the killer thought about the crime. And there is one thing that is common to the three cases outlined above. In each case, the obvious suspect was eventually charged, and the forensics was required to build the case against that person. What if that had not been the case? It never happens in any of the Murder Is Everywhere authors’ books for a start!


  1. So does all that lend to the theory that you really are better to shove 'em down the stairs, phone the police and then apologise for being clumsy. Or drunk.... All that forensic stuff is only evidence if it has no right to be where it was found....

    There was a murder i Glasgow and in the chain of evidence was the fact the victim had a Burger King gherkin in their stomach, not a MacDonald's gherkin ( as a 'friend' had claimed ). Analysis of the 'friend's ' phone location and activity told the real story of the events of that night...

    1. The fact that the gherkins were different was pretty disturbing in itself!

  2. Hmm, now the gherkins are a tattling on us. Up to now I thought only the chips had turned.

  3. Michael, thank you on two fronts. One is that fact that I don’t have to worry about disappearing without a trace during my solitary travels. I am carrying two iPhones (one American, one Italian) one of which is always connected here in Italy and both of which will work on WiFi while I am in Africa. I am findable. Whew!

    The more important thanksgiving is for this resounding reassurance about my literary decision that my nerdy decision to write historical novels. I do not have to keep up with these trends. Any gherkins my characters eat will never be presented in court, and I won’t ever get into a pickle over a digital trail of evidence. Quadruple WHEW!!

  4. My husband and i got Married last year and we have been living happily for a while. We used to be free with everything and never kept any secret from each other until recently everything changed when he got a new Job in NewYork 2 months ago.He has been avoiding my calls and told me he is working,i got suspicious when i saw a comment of a woman on his Facebook Picture and the way he replied her. I asked my husband about it and he told me that she is co-worker in his organization,We had a big argument and he has not been picking my calls,this went on for long until one day i decided to notify my friend about this and that was how she introduced me to Mr James( a Private Investigator  who helped her when she was having issues with her Husband. I never believed he could do it but until i gave him my husbands Mobile phone number. He proved to me by hacking into my husbands phone. where i found so many evidence and  proof in his Text messages, Emails and pictures that my husband has an affairs with another woman.i have sent all the evidence to our lawyer.I just want to thank Mr James for helping me because i have all the evidence and proof to my lawyer,I Feel so sad about infidelity.