Crime

Meet Tarrant County DA’s digital crime-fighting unit

Star-Telegram

Digital evidence collected from cellphones, laptops and cameras is proving to be increasingly helpful in finding, arresting and prosecuting criminals.

Likewise, the evidence can also help clear a person accused in crimes, said Kyle Gibson, an investigator with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.

“If you give me a phone and I don’t know who the phone belongs to, I can find out who owns the phone, his banking information, where he lives, his contacts, his Wi-Fi locations, where he’s been, just about everything about him,” said Kendall Novak, who conducts cell phone analysis for the Tarrant County district attorney’s office.

Novak and other investigators with the DA’s office held an open house Thursday to show off the new offices of the digital forensics and technical services unit in the Tarrant County Plaza Building.

Investigators moved into the new digital digs about a month ago.

“We needed room to break down the computers and the other machines that we have to work with,” Gibson said.

Tarrant County has more than 40 law enforcement agencies but only two have full-time computer and video forensic examiners, according to the DA’s office.

Sharen Wilson, who took over as the Tarrant County district attorney in January, said her office has an obligation to help fill that gap.

The special unit is the only “one stop shop” for digital media evidence in Texas, Wilson said in a news release. During the past three years the unit has assisted investigations by more than 60 outside agencies across Texas, Wilson said.

The unit’s investigators process trial evidence from data storage devices, make hard-to-hear audio files audible, enhance police video for clarity and recover deleted material from computers and other devices.

“I’ve had search warrants written from pictures I’ve found on the phones of drug dealers,” Novak said. “They have the latitude and longitude turned on when they take the picture and it will lead right to where the drugs are stored.”

The unit was started in 2000 as computers and cell phones became a part of everyday life, Gibson said. Investigators once concentrated on economic crimes and then child exploitation cases, but now nearly every case has a video or digital component that yields important clues, Gibson said.

This week, for example, forensics experts pored over computers and a cellphone that belonged to Jessie Williams, 24, an Arlington man killed by an FBI agent in Louisiana after he was accused of kidnapping his niece, Caitlyn Williams, Gibson said.

“We can be ready to go at a moments notice,” Gibson said. “That’s what we pride ourselves on. A lot of times we can’t solve a case on our own, but often we can provide that last little piece of evidence that allows an investigator to be able to put everything together.”

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752

Twitter: @mitchmitchel3

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