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Cell phone as surveillance: Technology bytes into crime

By Andale Gross
The Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — That cell phone on your hip or in your purse isn’t just for talking anymore, and criminals looking to steal your information know it.

But the bad guys aren’t the only ones taking advantage of the ever-changing technology. Crime investigators are increasingly using cell phones, surveillance video cameras and other devices to nab suspects and solve cases.

Both cell phone and surveillance technology were keys in the investigation of an 18-year-old suburban Kansas City woman’s kidnapping and killing.

Police say surveillance footage from an Overland Park, Kan., Target store parking lot captured Kelsey Smith’s abduction June 2. Then, signals from Smith’s cell phone led police to the wooded area where her body was found four days later.

“The Kelsey Smith case may not have looked like a case that could be solved by technology, but in many ways it was,” said Eric Zahnd, the head prosecutor in Platte County in the Kansas City area. “It allowed police to locate her much more quickly than they would have. Sadly, it wasn’t in enough time to save her.”

Authorities have charged Edwin Hall, 26, of Olathe, Kan., with first-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping in Smith’s death.

Caught in a lie

Zahnd isn’t prosecuting the case, which occurred in nearby Johnson County on the Kansas side of the metropolitan area. But he said technology has been helpful in several cases he has handled.

Police in Platte County used cell phone technology in 2005 to catch a woman claiming to be the victim of a crime in a lie.

Authorities say the 18-year-old Kentucky woman made a false claim about being kidnapped, assaulted and dumped in a ditch in Kansas City. She was supposed to fly into Kansas City for her first date with a man she met on the Internet. But when she didn’t make the trip, authorities say, she made up the abduction story.

The Internet boyfriend’s mother alerted authorities, who became suspicious after talking with the woman on the phone.

Police say they tracked the woman, Laura Crews, to her home in Kentucky using cell phone technology. She pleaded guilty to filing a false police report and was ordered to reimburse authorities nearly $3,000 to cover the overtime spent on the case.

“What the technology did was allow us — within a very short period of time — to determine with certainty that the call was a hoax,” Zahnd said. “Just a few years ago, we would not have been able to do that.”

Matt Bregel, an Overland Park, Kan., police detective, said he could not comment about the Smith case because it still is being investigated.

But Bregel said he does not remember his department using cell phone technology in any other murder case.

“We have used cell phone information in smaller cases,” he said. “I think the technology has always been there, but we have just in the last five or six years learned more about how it can help us.”

Bregel said he mostly has used the technology to confirm — or disprove — a suspect’s alibi.

A helpful tool

Joseph Farren, spokesman for CTIA-The Wireless Association in Washington, D.C., said the industry trade group has no data that show how much the use of cell phone technology has increased in law enforcement.

But Farren said it is a growing trend.

“We’ve certainly seen more and more use of the phones’ location capability as a tool for law enforcement,” Farren said.

Of course, he said, phone companies don’t hand over records to police or allow them to tap into cell phone tracking systems without court permission.

Throughout the country, technology in general is emerging as a tool in more cases.

Surveillance video was used in the high-profile case of 11-year-old Carlie Brucia, who was abducted in 2004 from a car wash in Florida. The image of Joseph Smith — the man later sentenced to death in her kidnapping, rape and killing — grabbing the girl’s wrist and leading her away helped police make an arrest.

Last month, cell phone technology helped Pennsylvania police find a 10-year-old boy who needed a heart transplant. They couldn’t reach the boy’s mother on her cell phone to tell her a heart had become available, so they used a global positioning system to track down the family at a concert.

“We continue to try and advance ourselves with technology, because it is helpful in so many ways,” Pennsylvania Trooper Linette Quinn said.

Whether it’s for a medical emergency or criminal investigation, technology can be the difference between things ending well or tragically, authorities said.

“Without technology, a lot of cases would reach a dead end very fast,” said Jeff Lanza, a special agent with the FBI in Kansas City.

Lanza said it’s now become routine for investigators to collect “electronic information” — video images, cell phone exchanges, e-mails and messages on the social networking Web site MySpace.

Keeping up with all the technology can be a challenge, said John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

“In many cases, police are in a reaction mode,” said Firman, whose office is in Alexandria, Va. “Police often have to play catch up.”

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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