Just as cellphones have become essential in everyday life, so too are they crucial tools in solving crimes.
The Sydney Loofe slaying case is a prime example.
Investigators have testified about how they used data from cellphones to locate the “Audrey” who set up an Internet date with Sydney Loofe, and to later reconstruct the travels of Aubrey Trail and “Audrey” — Trail’s girlfriend, Bailey Boswell — who are accused in the slaying and dismemberment of Loofe.
Last week, Lincoln Police Detective Robert Hurley detailed how he used data generated by two cellphones carried by Boswell to plot out a three-hour, 150-mile path the two phones took in the hours after Trail has said that Loofe was slain.
Hurley, a former police accident reconstructionist, used the data — as he had when he was investigating an automobile crash — to reconstruct where the pair had driven, and where they had slowed down and stopped, presumably to dispose of body parts and other evidence.
The data eventually led Hurley to direct searchers to an anonymous crossroads of gravel roads in Clay County — an hour’s drive away from Trail and Boswell’s apartment in Wilber — where Loofe’s body was soon discovered.
The detective, who is the president of Nebraska’s criminal investigators association, said he was unaware of anyone else in the country who had used this method to reconstruct the path traveled by a cellphone.
His work led him, later, to meet with a Lincoln-based company, run by former police investigators, to explain how he took their software that tracks cellphone usage one step further to actually plot out a route taken by Trail and Boswell.
Omaha Police Detective Nick Herfordt of the digital forensic unit said that because people interact with their phones every day, it’s a no-brainer to use them to track or identify criminals.
“Fortunately for us, there’s no real good way for people to hide their tracks,” he said. “There’s gonna be a record of it somewhere.”
Herfordt said the unit, which has seven sworn officers, uses about 10 software applications that analyze data — call detail records, IP addresses, messages or Internet searches — they get from phones or other electronic devices.
The difficulty is figuring out what app someone used to communicate with someone else, Herfordt said. Several years ago, people just used their native text messaging application. Now, people can send messages through a variety of third-party apps, like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and other, lesser-known apps. The software investigators use may not know to search for data in those obscure third-party apps, he said.
“Third-party applications are one of the most difficult things we have to deal with as forensic examiners,” he said. “We have applications that read the data. All of our stuff is only as good as the programmer who initially created (the software).”
Investigators will look at cellphones manually also, for any apps that could store some valuable and hidden information, because Herfordt said criminals will usually use one app for mundane messages and another for more nefarious communications.
People may not realize that much of the data or messages sent through the apps are stored on the company’s computers and servers miles away, not just the phone itself, Herfordt said. Law enforcement agencies can then send search warrants to the companies for information on a particular username or data request.
That includes from companies that offer apps allowing users to mask their true identity and phone number by adding a second, anonymous phone number to their phone.
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Hurley explained, in testimony at Trail’s trial, that cellphone companies gather a variety of data from phones, including which cell towers a user is accessing, generally which direction the access is coming from, the time and duration of calls, and the distance the cellphone is from the cell tower when it accesses the tower.
Hurley testified that Boswell’s phones were making very few actual phone calls, but were regularly accessing two cellphone towers near Wilber, Nebraska, for Internet apps and other data.
Boswell’s two phones logged nearly 400 “returns” from cellphone towers on Nov. 16, 2017, the day investigators suspect that Boswell and Trail disposed of Loofe’s body, Hurley said. By contrast, a flip phone carried by Trail indicated only two “pings” from cell towers on that day, a reflection of the older technology.
The precise direction of the access is not documented, he said, but each cellphone tower indicates from which of three “sectors” or directions (of 120 degrees each) the cellphone is accessing the tower. So, Hurley said, that narrows down where a cellphone is located.
To plot the movement of the phones, Hurley said he used that information; a statewide map of all Verizon cellphone towers; a program developed in Lincoln by a company called PenLink; and another bit of information collected by the towers — the distance the cellphone is from a tower — to create “arcs” of where a cellphone was at a particular time it was accessing the tower.
Hurley said that PenLink, which was formed by some former police investigators, helps investigators sort through thousands of cellphone contacts made with each cellphone tower, and plots out the sector from which the cellphones are accessing the tower.
PenLink and its products are just some of several software tools used by Omaha police. Their products help law enforcement look up cell tower information, phone numbers and other data. A spokeswoman for the business, which is based in Lincoln, declined to comment and referred all questions to the company website. She declined to say how many Nebraska law enforcement agencies use their products.
Because he knew, from the data, the distance from the apartment shared by Boswell and Trail to the two Wilber cellphone towers, Hurley said, he could tell from the regular “returns” from the cellphone towers when the phones were stationary in the apartment, when the phones left the apartment and which direction they went.
And from cell tower data going back to August 2017, Hurley said Boswell’s phones had never traveled west of Wilber until Nov. 16, 2017.
Hurley said he used his experience as an accident reconstructionist with the Lincoln police — a investigator who uses skid marks, black-box information from vehicles and other data to reconstruct what happened during an auto crash — to calculate how fast the cellphones were traveling and in which direction. The duration of a call helped establish the general speed they were driving, or if the cellphones remained in one spot.
He cross-referenced the information against the two cellphones, and, after doing the analysis, he and later other investigators drove the projected path that Boswell and Trail took to not only double check his reconstruction, but also to search for more evidence in ditches along the highways and country roads west of Wilber.
More than 20 miles of country road ditches in Clay County, in the area north of Edgar, Nebraska, were walked by law enforcement, finding 17 “scenes” where evidence was found. In addition, sheriff’s deputies drove and re-drove dozens of miles of highways west of Wilber, and walked those ditches, to find more material, including Sydney Loofe’s cellphone, driver’s license, a blouse, her bra and pieces of an electrical extension cord. Trail has said, in phone calls with reporters and in a video of an interview with FBI agents shown to jurors Friday, that he used an electrical cord to accidentally choke Loofe to death.
In court, Hurley showed maps that he generated to jurors, showing the cellphone towers, the direction and time of cellphone access “returns” and then the projected path the pair traveled.
He said the data told him that the pair had slowed down, and stopped occasionally, in an area just east of Clay Center, Nebraska. By Dec. 4, he was able to tell the State Patrol to look along County Road S, just north of Nebraska Highway 74.
Ultimately, the initial search team settled on a dry slough filled with 3-foot-tall cattails to explore because, a State Patrol investigator said, it would be possible to conceal a body. A handful of officers, side by side, formed a “skirmish” line and walked through a portion of the slough but found nothing.
Then, when walking back to their vehicles, they found in a roadside ditch what appeared to be a shower curtain and a clear, plastic sheet in one ditch that had stains on them.
Moments later, Clay County Sheriff Jeff Franklin, one of the searchers, found a tattered, black plastic trash bag. Flesh and bone could be seen, and a State Patrol investigator said he immediately recognized it as human flesh.
Hurley was able to discern that the two cellphones traveled northward up County Road S, then made a U-turn, crossing Highway 74 and then turning east on another gravel road. That led to searches along that road and the discovery of more of Sydney Loofe’s body.
Trail’s defense attorney Ben Murray asked Hurley if his data could prove who exactly was carrying the phone.
Hurley admitted that it could not. But his calculations worked, leading to the discovery of Sydney Loofe’s body, which was a huge break in a case in which, at that point, both Trail and Boswell had denied involvement.
The pair were ultimately charged with first-degree murder in June 2018 after Trail acknowledged his involvement. They face the possibility of the death penalty if convicted.