Local News Story

Cops and computers

Filed: 06/28/2000

Californian staff writer
e-mail: sswenson@bakersfield.com

Crime evidence is taking on a new look — one with a cursor. With that in mind, the Kern County Sheriff's Department obtained a $468,000 grant to buy a mobile computer forensics lab to enable it to snoop around hard drives and software.

As a bonus, the state grant was used to buy a state-of-the-art camera system that will enable detectives to document an entire crime scene — digitally — on a computer. The computer image from the camera can be manipulated to give a 360-degree view of the crime scene and a closeup view of anything in the crime scene. For example, if a prescription bottle is lying in a room, the computer can focus on the bottle and read the prescription. Technical investigations Sgt. Betty Finch and technical investigator Ed Farris-Nagatome are excited about the potential of both the computer forensics lab and the camera, which is called a PanoScan.

Currently, the department is the only law enforcement agency in the world with a PanoScan whose capabilities surpass a related system used by the FBI, Farris-Nagatome said. "We're ahead of the rest of the world," Finch said. Farris-Nagatome, who enthusiastically shows off what the $32,000 PanoScan can do, said he has received telephone calls about the system from other law enforcement agencies and technical journals across the United States and England.

As an example of what the system can do, Farris-Nagatome recently created a homicide crime scene in a courtyard outside the Technical Investigations building at the Sheriff's Department on Norris Road.

A mannequin representing a victim was lying on the ground, surrounded by yellow and black evidence markers. The camera's first view is a 360-degree scan of the entire courtyard area, which shows the body's position relative to buildings, a picnic table and a tree. By putting the cursor on an evidence marker and clicking, a closeup view is shown of a spent shell casing. Moving the cursor to another evidence marker and clicking brings up the image of a knife. Clicking on the blade of the knife shows fingerprints. Clicking on the fingerprints, shows a comparison match between the print on the knife and the print of "Joe De Badguy." (It's actually a print of Farris-Nagatome, but this is just an illustration). Clicking onto the head of the victim brings up a Styrofoam head with rods showing the angles of two entrance wounds.

Farris-Nagatome said the computer/camera combination essentially brings the crime scene into the courtroom. In this fake homicide scenario, a witness hid behind a tree and saw what happened, he said. The camera is able to show the view the witness had, displaying how the picnic table shielded part of the view. "We saw the value of this immediately," Finch said.

Other uses include scanning rooms in buildings, such as a school, which could help officers in a Columbine-type incident. Such a scan was done as a test at Panama School and it is set up so that clicking on a door would take the viewer to the next room or hallway. The tests show the same view of the school that someone would have if walking through it. Real estate firms use similar systems to show off houses, but they don't have ability to focus on small bits of evidence, Finch said.

Another ability of PanoScan is the ability to do an entire inside view of a car or a yacht, including the nooks and crannies, she said...

The PanoScan can be used in conjunction with the new mobile computer forensics crime lab. The lab, with computers and other equipment in a special van, is expected to be completed by the fall, Finch said. It will enable authorities to retrieve evidence from computers without having to move them, she said. Thus, if a business has a computer that is suspected to have evidence of a crime, it can be gathered without taking the computer from the business. Assistant Sheriff Paul Montgomery explained the need for the lab. "We're in a computer age," he said. "Digital record-keeping is where we are going. When we need evidence, we need a way to get at it without destroying it." The lab will have the ability to extract information from hard drives, e-mails and attachments, documents, conversations and photographs, Finch said.

Farris-Nagotome was the first sheriff's investigator to receive specialized training on how to recover such information. "Even Microsoft goes outside for forensic work," he said. The diploma for one class was hidden deep within a computer so he had to prove his skills to get it, he said. The other investigators who will receive the training are Tom Fugitt and Eric Schwarm. The types of crimes in which information on computers may be important include murder, stalking, terrorists threats, embezzlement, counterfeiting, soliciting sex acts with children and child pornography, Finch said. The idea is to make computers a bad place to hide evidence, she said.

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