Kansas Sheriff Office Uncovers New Leads in Cold Cases With Digital Intelligence
Wichita, the most populous city in Kansas, sits within the 1,009 square miles of Sedgwick County. The Wichita Police Department (WPD) serves the city of Wichita, while the Sheriff’s Office covers the rest of the county, which includes a fair amount of rural areas. But don’t think the latter agency has an easier job or doesn’t see its share of heinous crimes. Today, drug and gang activity, including related homicides, and crimes ranging from burglaries to property damage, keep the 180 sworn personnel of the Sheriff’s Office — including Forensic Investigator Jeremy Noel — more than busy.
Forensic Investigator Noel, a 20-year law enforcement veteran, has been the sole digital forensics investigator for the Sheriff’s Office Investigations Division since 2015. Even with help from Cellebrite’s Digital Intelligence solutions, he says keeping pace with requests to examine mobile phones and other digital devices is a constant challenge. In fact, he can’t think of a recent case he’s worked on that hasn’t involved Digital Intelligence (DI) — the data collected and preserved from digital sources and data types (smartphones, computers, and the Cloud) and the process by which agencies collect, review, analyze, manage, and obtain insights from this data to run their investigations more efficiently.
“Aside from all the drug-related cases we get, generally, about half of the homicides we investigate are tied to drug activity,” says Forensic Investigator Noel. “How many devices we may need to examine depends on how big the case is. Also, what we have time to look at — and what we don’t — is a factor. That’s just an unfortunate truth of the matter.”
“Having Cellebrite Premium is my absolute dream….Quite honestly, without Cellebrite, I would be dead in the water.”
The number of devices isn’t the only impediment to investigation efficiency for the Sheriff’s Office, however — it’s also the growing volume of data, according to Forensic Investigator Noel. “A phone can yield 148 GB of data that I then need to sift through,” he explains. “And I know I’m just barely scraping the surface much of the time. I do my best to grab the low-hanging fruit — like a Snapchat or an Instagram message — anything that could help investigators move a case forward. But after that, I need to move on quickly to the next case.”
How Updated Solutions Are Bringing New Evidence in Cold Cases to Light
The challenges of time constraints and device and data overload don’t deter Forensic Investigator Noel from meeting every new request from investigators with enthusiasm. That’s true even if he’s not fully confident he’ll be successful in his efforts. He explains, “Whether it’s a phone, computer or a DVR, I love it when someone asks, ‘Do you think you can get into it?’ I never say, ‘No.’ Instead, I tell them, ‘I will try,” because there’s always the chance I can do it!”
“Cellebrite helped us find new investigative leads for this cold case. I could kick myself for not thinking about doing this before!”
That was Forensic Investigator Noel’s exact attitude when another detective with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office approached him in early 2020, asking if he could use Cellebrite’s DI solutions to re-examine mobile devices seized as evidence in a 2018 homicide investigation. Forensic Investigator Noel recalls the situation: “The detective said to me, ‘Hey, you’re always talking about all these updates that Cellebrite is pushing out. Do you think you could use Cellebrite to get more data from the phones we still have in evidence for this cold case?’ I said, “I don’t know — but that’s a great question. Let’s find out!”
After securing a new search warrant, Forensic Investigator Noel obtained the phone from evidence storage and was able to access the device. “In our original investigation, we were only able to get part of a text message between two suspects,” he explains. “But in the second examination of the device using an updated solution, we were able to get the other part of that conversation.”
The full context of the conversation revealed information about a potential fourth suspect in the homicide case. That suspect is already in prison, serving time for another crime. When investigators tried to interview him about the homicide, Forensic Investigator Noel says the suspect immediately stopped talking.
“Cellebrite helped us find new investigative leads for this cold case,” says Forensic Investigator Noel. “I could kick myself for not thinking about doing this before!”
Based on the success of that effort, Forensic Investigator Noel says he’s been encouraging investigators with the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office to revisit their cold cases: “I tell them, ‘If you can think of a recent cold case where we examined a phone but didn’t get the evidence we were trying to find, let’s go get that device back out of evidence and take another look at it.”
Thinking About the Future — and Expanding Analytics Capabilities
The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office, like many law enforcement agencies of its size — and especially in the current environment — has limited resources to devote to digital transformation. But Forensic Investigator Noel says that leadership is always considering how the Sheriff’s Office might expand its use of technology for collecting and preserving data, given the critical role that DI plays in almost every case now. “In the five years that I’ve been examining electronics, I’d say the amount of data has tripled,” says Forensic Investigator Noel. “I was eating up storage so fast, the office had to buy me a 70 TB server.”
He adds that one investment under consideration is a license for Cellebrite Pathfinder, which automates the analysis of digital data and helps investigators visualize case narratives to resolve investigations faster. But Forensic Investigator Noel says he really his eye on Cellebrite Premium, a solution that would help the Sheriff’s Office to access and collect digital evidence from all iOS and high-end Android devices in their investigations faster and more easily.
“Having Cellebrite Premium is my absolute dream,” says Forensic Investigator Noel. “I especially hate working with Android phones. When somebody says they have an Android device they’d like me to examine, I just groan. It can be difficult to access and review data from an Android device, even an unlocked one. It’s often hit or miss. Of course, I always say, ‘I’ll give it a shot.’”
“I don’t know how any digital forensics unit can operate without using Cellebrite. When people tell me, ‘Well, I’m using this other solution or tool.’ I tell them, “If you’re buying anything other than a Cellebrite license, you’re wasting your money.”
Until the Sheriff’s Office can expand its array of DI solutions further and accelerate its digital transformation, Forensic Investigator Noel says he is thankful for the Cellebrite technology he has right now to use in his everyday work. “Quite honestly, without Cellebrite, I would be dead in the water,” he says.
Using Tech to Catch a Crimes Against Children Suspect
After more than a half-decade of devotion to digital forensics, Forensic Investigator Noel has earned a reputation for being the go-to person in Sedgwick County for examining cell phones and other devices. “When I get into work, I’m hitting the ground running, trying to feed intel to our detectives as quickly as I can,” he says. “I’m also getting phones from other agencies across the state.”
Forensic Investigator Noel says he also receives requests regularly from the Kansas Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, which has an office in Sedgwick County. “We try to keep the crimes against children cases with the ICAC unit, but sometimes, their team needs help accessing and reviewing data from devices.”
No matter the case, no matter the device, Forensic Investigator Noel says he approaches every request he receives like a prizefighter going into a match: “I’m going to come out swinging. And I won’t give up until I can’t move my arms.” He wants to fight hard, he says, because he knows that even one small piece of digital evidence can break a case wide open. A recent crimes against children investigation in Sedgwick County is a testament to his determination.
The ICAC team couldn’t access the suspect’s Samsung device, which was password-protected. So, they turned to Forensic Investigator Noel for help. “We took a new approach and were able to recover one image of child pornography from that phone — and it was enough to get the guy into jail that night.”
Forensic Investigator Noel says Cellebrite technology made all the difference in that investigation — helping him to work fast and uncover the critical evidence that ICAC needed to make an arrest. “I don’t know how any digital forensics unit can operate without using Cellebrite,” he says. “When people tell me, ‘Well, I’m using this other solution or tool.’ I tell them, “If you’re buying anything other than a Cellebrite license, you’re wasting your money.”