Gone are the days of strictly old-school detective work.
Omaha police can now collect more DNA from cold-case evidence and analyze data from smart watches, homes and vehicles.
The department also may acquire software allowing detectives to walk through a crime scene in virtual reality so they can examine angles, search for clues and see a witness’s viewpoint.
While detectives have been able to search cellphones and swab for DNA for years, technology for both electronic and physical forensics has advanced even further — securing solid evidence that can aid law enforcement in solving crimes.
“It helps us identify potential suspects, and then once they’re identified, it helps us build a concrete case against them,” said Omaha Police Officer Nick Herfordt, who analyzes electronics.
Herfordt went through the cellphones that investigators found in a 2015 double homicide. A witness had told police that a “nerdy white guy” fatally shot two men.
Herfordt noticed that one victim recently had taken multiple pictures of himself in a hotel bathroom.
Who was in the corner of one of the photos? A nerdy-looking white guy.
Herfordt looked up the GPS information embedded in the photo. Investigators then called the hotel in Indiana and got the name of the man who rented the room — Michael Nolt. Herfordt then tracked Nolt’s cellphone, which led investigators to Arizona, where Nolt was arrested. Last year, Nolt was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of Arelius Hassell and Malquan King.
Last spring, the department paid about $28,000 for a special sterile wet vacuum that can grab five to 200 times more DNA than normal cotton-swab collection.
The device, known as the M-Vac, works especially well on such porous surfaces as stone, brick and rock, or years-old clothing that contains a scant amount of DNA. Extracting DNA from such items used to be nearly impossible.
So far, the M-Vac has been used on evidence in three unsolved homicides, said Detective Dave Schneider. Results from those items are pending.
The Nebraska State Patrol purchased an M-Vac in the fall using money from a grant, but the agency has yet to use the device. More than 30 agencies nationwide have the device, a company spokesperson said.
Because it’s so powerful, the M-Vac can collect a mixture of different DNA profiles, and lab technicians must determine which person is the primary contributor. That’s why investigators limit the machine’s use.
“We’re trying to narrow it to those scenarios where it’s difficult DNA extraction or when prior methods of normal DNA collection have not been successful,” said William Henningsen, the acting forensic manager of the department’s forensic investigations section. “This is not a tool that solves every case for us, but it’s another tool in our kit that gives us more options.”
Forensic technicians already can scan crime scenes using a three-dimensional laser scanner that can map a room in 90 seconds, Henningsen said. The forensics investigations unit soon may get a drone to map larger areas.
Officers and crime lab technicians will attend a virtual reality demonstration in February in the hopes of dedicating a room for the virtual technology by the end of this year.
Investigators wearing a virtual reality headset could step into a recreated crime scene and walk around, making notes and seeing what other detectives may or may not have noticed years earlier.
“That type of information is going to be amazing to have, where I’m not looking at a Polaroid or something,” said Schneider, who works in the cold case squad in the homicide unit. “It’s incredible where it walks you through the scene and you can get an eyewitness perspective of what the area looked like.”
As the Michael Nolt case showed, detectives already can get insight into victims’ and suspects’ lives by looking at their photos and scrolling through their digital devices. That will only continue as technology advances and the number of devices that can be mined increases.
Downloading cellphone data became the new normal in 2013, when smartphones became cheaper and more accessible.
“It’s rare that there’s any major case which doesn’t come through our office in some capacity,” Herfordt said. “Everybody has a cellphone, and they always have it with them. And even though you’re not using it, it still likely is probably doing something in the background.”
Herfordt is one of two digital forensic officers who work cases for homicide, assault, robbery and traffic units at Omaha Police Headquarters. Another officer works at Project Harmony, focusing on child victims and sex-assault cases. Information from apps, text messages, phone calls and Internet searches are up for grabs.
Increasingly, the unit is analyzing records collected from newer vehicles equipped with GPS technology that can track where a car has been. Vehicle data can show which doors were opened during a trip, something that could tell investigators how many people were in the car.
Herfordt said officers analyze vehicle data about once a month, but he wants detectives to collect more of that data for cases and to see record collection as a viable investigative resource.
“We’re trying to push our investigators to use that more,” he said. “Something like that could be beneficial.”
Fitness watches, personal assistants such as the Amazon Echo, home security systems and smart refrigerators all can be analyzed, Herfordt said. The unit hasn’t analyzed any smartwatches or Echos for a case yet, he said. But the advantage of data, Herfordt said, is that it can open doors to new leads. Most importantly, it’s concrete.
“That evidence helps you get additional evidence,” Herfordt said. “These are facts right here. It’s harder to refute them.”