Starr Co. Acquires New Tech to Extract Evidence from Electric Devices

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RIO GRANDE CITY – Starr County is started a new year with new technology. It could be key in solving cold cases.

Tools such as cellphones help people stay in touch, find out way around and document life. When they’re used in crimes, investigators need other tools to examine those electronic devices.

“We can even extract deleted pictures, deleted videos. There's a lot of web history that we can track down. There's timelines, because throughout the phone it creates records if you stand up, if you move, the steps you take. All of that creates a timeline. So, we can maybe create a timeline if there's a crime committed, or place a suspect in a location,” explained Jesus Morales, a forensic digital analyst.

Morales is one of the investigators opening up phones to pull data off them. They’re using tools acquired by the Starr County District Attorney’s Office through internal revenue and grants.

District Attorney Omar Escobar, Jr. says getting the equipment was imperative for investigative agencies in the county.

“They would seize the phones as evidence, get search warrants, and then they'd have to send them off to a location to be able to get that information extraction. That's what would happen, but that took a long time. It would take six months, a year, and in some cases years,” Escobar said.

Escobar says the equipment is also helping the Department of Public Safety and schools investigating their own cases which go beyond crime. Last month, the body of an immigrant man was found without identification, but with a water-logged phone in the river.

“The sheriff's office came for our help because he had a cellphone. We were able to get a contact list and we were able to call their family members in Mexico and they were able to recover the body,” said Morales.

When bodies are found and evidence is gathered, they’re hoping to use this tool. It’s called a M-VAC designed to extract biological evidence from evidence that proved resilient to current methods.

“One of the things that this equipment can do is extract DNA from pieces of evidence that are right now sitting in an evidence bin somewhere,” said Commander Robert Caples with the special crimes unit.

Caples is waiting to use it on cold cases. However, there’s a hold up.

Escobar explained, “The technology is so advanced right now, that only private labs can test it. DPS is not necessarily in the position yet to test this stuff, but I'm very confident that they will.”

CHANNEL 5 NEWS reached out to DPS this week to explain whether they’ll be able to process evidence from this tool. They’re working on a response.

We asked the DA why they’re acquiring these tools now as he’s approaching reelection. He said they were trying to get one of their investigators into the program that allowed for their digital forensics unit since last year. This year, someone dropped out of that limited class, allowing Starr County an opportunity to climb aboard. That came with the equipment donation.

As for the M-VAC, it was a result of a summer conference attended by a different investigator who became interested in its cold case assistance capabilities.


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