FBI Techno-sleuths Find Evidence In Digital Codes

With FBI agents closing in on him, one suspect tried to burn down his own home in hopes the flames would destroy the computer hard drive holding the evidence to send him to prison. He failed. Another fired a shotgun into his computer at point blank range in hopes that blowing its two hard drives to smithereens would save him from the federal pen. He ruined one hard drive but the other survived and he went to prison.

MIKE ROBINSON, AP Legal Affairs Writer 

CHICAGO (AP) - With FBI agents closing in on him, one suspect tried to burn down his own home in hopes the flames would destroy the computer hard drive holding the evidence to send him to prison. He failed. 

Another fired a shotgun into his computer at point blank range in hopes that blowing its two hard drives to smithereens would save him from the federal pen. He ruined one hard drive but the other survived and he went to prison. 

"And the local police charged him with illegal discharge of a weapon, too," says FBI forensic examiner John Pascoe. "It's amazing how desperate some people get to destroy evidence." 

He is one of a new breed of electronic sleuths working at the Chicago Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory where the FBI and police have joined forces to wage the war on crime in the hidden recesses of digital technology. 

The laboratory, located just southwest of Chicago's downtown district, serves all of the northern part of the state and handles about 500 cases a year ranging from official corruption and terrorism to child pornography. 

On Thursday, the lab was accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board, boosting it into the elite level of computer forensics laboratories nationwide. 

Robert D. Grant, the special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago office, told a ceremony to mark the occasion that forensic evidence gathered by federal agents has changed dramatically he joined the bureau in 1983. 

In those days, forensic evidence meant fingerprints, tool marks and bloodstains. Today it can mean e-mails, captured cell phone messages and other digital information. 

"People are more and more aware of where it can be hidden," Grant said. 

About 40 percent of the lab's work involves child pornography. 

Computer hard drives containing telltale evidence are gathered by the FBI's cyber squad. The drives are then turned over to the lab, which captures the information. And even though child pornography dealers and collectors often try to erase evidence, the FBI has software that can restore it to the drive. 

"We're very good at it," said Keith A. Johnson, laboratory director. 

Johnson's staff hosted a tour for reporters Thursday and showed off an array of electronic wizardry designed to capture and preserve digital evidence. 

Forensic examiner Paul Rettig demonstrated the lab's capacity to enhance and preserve videos of actual crimes mainly stored on hard drives. 

One video seemed to show a brawl among customers in a restaurant and nothing more. But when the tape was slowed down and one portion made brighter, viewers saw a door open and a man in the doorway fire a pistol into the crowd. The door was open only a couple of seconds. 

Whether captured on a video, a cell phone or a hard drive, such moments can be the crucial evidence that contributes to convicting a criminal, Johnson told reporters. "We're always looking for that one golden nugget," he said.