Fla. Police Follow Cyber Trail To Crack Cases
Technology has become a vital tool for detectives.
The Gainesville Sun
Gainesville Police Detective Jorge Campos is a cyber sleuth.
While most criminal investigators rely on the old stand-bys of fingerprints and paper trails for clues to solve murders, thefts and other crimes, Campos is among an elite group using technology - computers, palm pilots and cell phones - to crack cases.
Within the police department's computer crimes unit, it's not just Campos' job to bust those using computers to scam unsuspecting Internet users out of money but also to assist on cases of all kinds in which a cyber trail exists - and that's happening more and more often.
Two weeks ago, GPD arrested a University of Florida graduate student on theft and cyber-stalking charges after he was traced to his home through the invisible network of the computer world.
"We have to be able to recover that kind of evidence for our cases, otherwise it's going to turn out to be a case based on 'he said,' 'she said,' " Campos said.
The University of Florida Police Department and Alachua County Sheriff's Office have similar computer units.
UPD police helped track down Praveen Vedam, who's a suspect in the stabbing death of UF graduate student Sudheer Reddy Satti. Vedam remains behind bars at the Alachua County jail on a theft charge. Vedam has not been charged with murder in the case, although his attorney has said it is obvious given the high bond amount that he is considered a suspect.
Without the use of computer tracking, it's likely these and other cases would become part of the Cold Case Files in every law enforcement agency, GPD Sgt. Keith Kameg said.
"Many times, these are people with no criminal records," Kameg said. "The cases do get solved because of the usage of the computers."
GPD started its computer crimes unit about three years ago. Three officers work full time in the unit.
"The biggest thing that has driven the electronic recovery is pornography," Campos said.
Before GPD's program launched, Campos said GPD got a referral from an agency outside of Florida to investigate some computers for child pornography.
Lack of the equipment needed to retrieve information from the computers and the knowledge required to use it, Campos said GPD outsourced the task to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
"But the turnaround time was outrageous," Campos said.
GPD now has a full-time Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force covering Florida north of the Interstate 4 corridor, from Orlando to Jacksonville to Pensacola.
It stems from an 18-month, $278,000 federal grant Gainesville police received from the Department of Justice's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
No figures seem to exist showing how many more crimes are solved with the use of technology, but there's a plethora of anecdotal evidence locally to support the claim.
UPD broke up a gambling ring in November 2000 when the agency tracked e-mails implicating All-American basketball star Teddy Dupay and his roommate in a scheme, UPD Lt. Joe Sharkey said.
Dupay received money in exchange for insider information on whether the Florida basketball team could cover the point-spread. His roommate, Kresten Lagerman, was charged with tampering with a witness, victim or informant and unlawful betting on a trial or contest. Dupay was ousted from the basketball program.
"The investigation started with allegations against a student athlete," Sharkey said. "But it's rare that information garnered from a computer will be your sole piece of evidence that gains conviction."
Sharkey and university information technicians declined to discuss just how they are able to follow e-trails because of the continuing investigation into the Satti murder.
But Frank Latini, technical services manager for Gainesville Regional Utilities, which operates its own Internet provider, GRUCOM, said the process is as simple as the tip of a finger.
Like a person's fingerprints, every computer, when it's made, possesses an identity code. Wherever a computer-user goes, a mark is left behind like a map.
"It's really easy," Latini said.
With the right software, computer crime detectives can recreate what a computer user has done - in other words what Web sites they've visited - on the computer. In the Satti case, UPD officers linked Vedam to the Satti case when someone living at Vedam's home address accessed Satti's private e-mail account - after he was discovered dead. The private e-mail was accessed again by someone working at Nanoptics, the place where Vedam was employed, according to UPD police reports. A laptop computer case owned by Satti was later discovered in an air duct at Nanoptics. The laptop is still missing.
Yet, there are times when extremely clever, cyber-savvy criminals elude the authorities.
Several years ago, prosecutors in the State's Attorney Office learned that the videotape of several members of UF's Delta Chi fraternity having sex with a stripper was for sale on the Internet, said Spencer Mann with the State's Attorney Office.
But when Mann tried to determine the original location of the message to shut down the offer, he was stumped.
"It was routed through five different states, across Canada and around the world," Mann said.
As computers become as common as televisions in homes, officials tracking computer crimes expect their technical units to grow.
The Internet Fraud Complaint Center reports that complaints, such as auction fraud, credit/debit card fraud, computer intrusions, unsolicited e-mail and child pornography, rose three-fold between 2001 and 2002 indicating a broader use of computers and computer crime.
"People feel when they are in a room by themselves and in a house
or apartment that they aren't committing any crimes," Kameg said.
"Since there are no witness, how could they ever get caught?"