It takes a full-time Loudoun County deputy sheriff to handle all the search warrants served on America Online in Ashburn. The warrants are used to solve local, state and national crimes, with pedophile queries making up about 25 percent of the cases.
“We have everything from harassment cases to pedophiles, sexual assaults, homicides, stalking to credit card theft and identity theft,” said Eddie Fant, the deputy sheriff who serves as the criminal investigator serving warrants to the leading interactive service.
“I also get a lot of threat cases, but probably more pedophiles than anything else.”
Another investigator works full time examining computers and other electronic devices for evidence in criminal cases. Robert Spitler found data in eight computer hard drives, and used it as evidence in the Loudoun County murder case of biophysicist Robert M. Schwartz.
FANT AND SPITLER deal with the same kind of crimes, but from two different vantage points.
Fant said he receives requests from law enforcement agencies that can afford to commission officers to go on the Internet to catch criminals. Many agencies cannot afford to do that, he added. “I’ve only done two search warrants for Nevada so far, because they don’t have the manpower. There are six officers in New York State on the computer two or three times a week. They will pose as 11-or 12-year-old girls and get some of those guys.”
He said authorities would contact him if there is a homicide, and the victim had been using an AOL e-mail account. Fant would then take the agency’s affidavit or sworn statement, prepare a search warrant, ask a magistrate to sign the document, fax it to AOL, pick up the potential evidence, and Fed Ex it to the agency.
He provided a scenario. “Let’s say you just called me and say, ‘I have a homicide here and we’ve got this person’s body we found and we don’t know who did it. We know last night she was on the computer and she has an AOL account. Her friends have said she has met men on the Internet and goes out with them.’ Hopefully, there will be something on there to identify who she talked to and what was said.”
LAW ENFORCEMENT authorities would have to seek more search warrants from AOL, Yahoo, Hotmail or e-mail accounts if any of the correspondents appeared to be connected to the case.
Fant, a 25-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office who has been the criminal investigator for the AOL accounts for about a year, handles inquiries from every state in the nation. AOL retains the messages and pictures in its database for about 28 days. “They go through me if they want information that AOL has on file,” he said.
He handled about 600 cases last year. If the number continues to rise, the Sheriff’s Office will need another deputy to work on them, he added.
“I usually get several faxes a day from agencies across the county,” he said. “Today, after I get warrants, I’ll start packing up evidence and get it to the agencies that need it. For just one warrant, there are 25 things that have to be done.”
When Fant is ill or out on annual leave, there is one trained deputy who can fill in. “I can’t have my fax machine or computer down for a day,” he said.
Other Loudoun Sheriff’s Office investigators handle local crimes involving the Internet, he said. “I can’t be tied up in court,” he said. “When I took this job, I stepped away from being called out to death scenes, major crimes, financial crimes.”
Spitler, the computer forensics investigator, looks for electronic evidence on the actual hardware involved in the local crimes. “My job is seizure and examination of computer and electronic evidence,” he said. “I take computers, and look inside for evidence.”
He also examines cell phones and PDAs or handheld personal digital assistants.
In the Dec. 8, 2001 Schwartz homicide, Spitler recovered instant messages. “It was conversations between suspects and witnesses that related directly to the homicide that provided us with some pretty good evidence.”
Four defendants were convicted in the stabbing murder of the biophysicist who lived in Leesburg.
Spitler, who joined the Sheriff’s Office in 2000, said he knows how to recover information even when criminals try to cover their tracks. “They use window washers, programs that are supposed to keep files deleted. Evidence eliminators,” he said. “I have yet to find one of those that do a great job.”
The fact that the perpetrator is trying to hide his tracks actually makes a better case against him. “The more they try to hide things, the more they look guilty of what they are doing,” he said. “Typically, there is enough left behind to know what they were trying to hide.”
Spitler said computer forensics investigators are essential to law enforcement agencies these days. “Any agency without forensics’ capability is going to fall behind the ball.”
He said AOL is cooperative, when he serves the search warrants. It has its own full-time investigator providing the data. AOL provided no comment on the process. Nicholas Graham, spokesman for AOL, did not respond to inquiries.