Forensics lab receives national accreditation

As digital media play an increasingly prevalent role in everyday life, gathering evidence for criminal cases has become even more challenging for investigators. That's where the individuals at the Heart of America Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory come in. Investigators at the lab, located in an office building near Briarcliff Village, are trained to analyze computers, cell phones and other media for clues that might produce leads in criminal cases. The investigators represent 18 law enforcement agencies from the local, state and federal levels, including the Platte County Sheriff's Office and the Kansas City Police Department.

By Jared Hoffmann
KC Community News

Thursday, January 24, 2008 4:12 AM CST


Matt Frye/Sun Gazette
[Johnson County Sheriff's Department deputy Michael Allenbrand, above, works Jan. 14 in the Heart of America Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory at Briarcliff Village. Members of 18 area law enforcement agencies make up the lab's personnel.]

As digital media play an increasingly prevalent role in everyday life, gathering evidence for criminal cases has become even more challenging for investigators. That's where the individuals at the Heart of America Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory come in. Investigators at the lab, located in an office building near Briarcliff Village, are trained to analyze computers, cell phones and other media for clues that might produce leads in criminal cases. The investigators represent 18 law enforcement agencies from the local, state and federal levels, including the Platte County Sheriff's Office and the Kansas City Police Department.

The lab opened at its current location in 2003 and was recently accredited by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors/Laboratory Accreditation Board.

Director Kevin Steck said pieces of evidence could range from a series of e-mails sent by a suspect to records of online searches for information related to criminal acts. These days, Steck said, the majority of crimes can be linked to electronic media in some way.

"We're moving into an era where every type of crime can potentially involve digital media," Steck said.

The efforts of the lab's staff members have paid off in several high-profile cases, including work that led to the convictions of murderers such as Lisa Montgomery and the BTK serial killer. Steck said once Dennis Rader – who identified himself with the words bind, torture, kill – began communicating with authorities again after years of silence, it was a computer floppy disk he sent to police that led to the discovery of his identity.

Steck said the lab also reviewed evidence for the 2005 murder trial of former Kansas State University professor Thomas Murray. Steck said the key pieces of evidence were not fingerprints or traces of DNA found at the crime scene, but rather Internet search records found on Murray's computer.

"There was little to no physical evidence at the scene," Steck said. "We found that he had researched how to kill someone. Without that evidence, there wouldn't have been much of a case."

Cindy Smith, quality assurance manager, said with various staff members working together on investigations, evidence could often be extracted within a short time span.

"If you had a homicide and it happens now, we can get some evidence that day," Smith said. "If we get a really big case in, we will generally team up. You're never stuck alone."

The lab is divided into sections for specifically analyzing video footage, cell phones and computers. Several kiosks were also set up for authorized personnel from area law enforcement agencies to use at a moment's notice, Smith said.

Staff writer Jared Hoffmann can be reached at 389-6636 or jaredhoffmann@npgco.com.

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