By Steve Henshaw
In an underground laboratory in Bern Township, two Berks County detectives spend much of their time scrolling through deleted messages retrieved from cellphones that have been confiscated or surrendered.
Checking thousands of files on a computer screen is tedious work, but the potential payoff is huge, especially when those files contradict denials made by those under investigation for child pornography, homicides and other crimes, said Detective Sgt. Robert F. Johnson, supervisor of the Berks County district attorney's Forensic Services Unit.
Consumer technology devices, especially cellphones, have become gold mines for criminal investigators, and nowhere is this more evident than in the forensic laboratory in the basement of the Berks County Agriculture Center.
"It's a treasure-trove," Johnson said. "Today, no one does anything without their phone or computer. The word 'delete' no longer means delete."
The Berks law enforcement community is fortunate to have a forensic unit of its own, Johnson and local police chiefs said.
Seven full-time detectives with expertise in various disciplines work in the unit, which was formed in 2006.
As far as Johnson knows, no other Pennsylvania county has such a setup. He credits the strong backing of the county commissioners and District Attorney John T. Adams.
The forensic unit provides specialized services that would be too costly and inefficient for most departments to provide in-house.
The lab includes cutting-edge equipment acquired at no cost to county taxpayers, mainly through grants totaling nearly $250,000 since 2005.
Johnson said the unit has been successful in getting grants because it serves multiple jurisdictions, and state and federal agencies look favorably upon regionalization in law enforcement and other aspects of government.
"We have experts with amazing skill sets - court-qualified experts - that one department couldn't justify employing for the number of times a year they might use it," he said.
The unit handles requests for evidence processing in cases including homicides, drug trafficking, burglaries and child abuse.
Need a blood spatter analysis?
They've got an expert.
Fingerprint identification and comparison?
They're consistently among the busiest non-state police automated fingerprint identification sites.
A team is available day and night to take photographs and precise measurements at crash scenes to help determine the cause and fault in fatal crashes.
The unit also provides photographic presentations for court exhibits, as well as 3-D animation to help prosecutors working to prove their cases.
Having all these services under one roof is a bonus, Johnson said, but the main advantage is being able to prioritize local cases.
With burglaries or car break-ins, for instance, Johnson can move a fingerprint search request to first in line if a police department deems it important to have same-day identification. This would be all but impossible if Berks law enforcement agencies had to submit their requests to a state police lab, he said.
"An officer might say, 'We just got a bunch of cars whacked. Can we get this looked at right away?' " Johnson said. "They've brought the fingerprints in at 10 in the morning and by 1 o'clock we have a name for them and a report and they have a warrant by 3, unlike waiting 30, 60, 90 days, whatever the current backlog is going into the big (state police) system."
The quicker the suspects are identified, the better the chance they will be off the street and not committing more crimes, he said.
The quick turnaround is what Spring Township Police Chief Bryan D. Ross likes about the unit.
"I think it's definitely a resource we're lucky to have," said Ross, explaining that the township has used the unit's services for all of its high-profile cases.
Besides assisting local police departments with solving crimes, the unit also supports the DA's detective division, which includes units for narcotics, consumer fraud and child abuse.
Cellphones are a potential source of evidence in many types of investigations, even those one might least expect, such as fatal accidents, drug trafficking, and missing and runaway people.
The forensic unit recently opened a self-serve cellphone kiosk for police in the county to examine messages on cellphones. It includes a camera mounted like a microscope for close-up photography of messages or lists of phone calls.
That allows officers to submit the photographs of the relevant content as evidence, rather than the phone itself.
The kiosk, available by appointment for officers who have search warrants or signed waivers from the owners, doesn't include the capability of retrieving deleted messages. For recovery of those messages, the phone must be submitted to the forensic cellphone unit.
A cellphone can tell investigators whether a person was texting or talking when a crash occurred.
Or, in cases of unwitnessed crashes or homicides, the listing of cellphone calls can provide a timeline for when victims were last known to be alive and provide clues about whom the people talked to in their last hours.
Several years ago, a teenage girl ran away to another state, where she was staying with an older man with whom she had traded emails.
Police got her computer from her parents, and Johnson's detectives did a forensic search of the hard drive.
By looking at the girl's emails, investigators learned that she ran away voluntarily.
"All I know is a case like that comes across and it's 2 in the morning, I have people come in here and we start processing that computer, and that becomes the priority for the unit," Johnson said. "We can react to local issues immediately."