A Las Cruces youth basketball coach allegedly downloads hundreds of computer images of child pornography.
A mayoral candidate in Sunland Park is charged with trying to blackmail a political rival with a video of him with a topless dancer that is stored on a laptop computer.
Those are just two recent high-profile cases that have called upon the specialized training and expertise of the Las Cruces Police Department's two computer forensic examiners; Police Officers Max Weir and Mike Brookreson.
"Our cases cover the gamut of just about anything and everything. It can be anything from finding photos to recovering deleted files off a computer to retrieving text messages from cellphones," said Weir, who studied electrical engineering and reconstructed motor vehicle accidents before learning computer forensics.
Brookreson, a longtime member of the LCPD's Targeting Neighborhood Threats unit, got into computers while investigating graffiti cases. Oftentimes, vandals stored graffiti pictures on their computers, which gave Brookreson a working knowledge of retrieving files, though he would later discover that becoming a forensic examiner requires a deep well of knowledge beyond that of the average Internet surfer.
"I thought because I could build a computer, I knew a lot about it. I found out pretty quickly it's a never-ending thing. It's changing all the time. Every time a new program comes out, or a new operating system comes out, we have to deal with it, and we have to learn it," Brookreson said.
Weir and Brookreson have worked together since 2008 after they completed an intense yearlong training program that included constant testing. They still attend classes, undergo training and obtain new equipment to keep pace with the ever-evolving world of computer technology.
"Computers are always getting bigger. Hard drives get more complicated. When new operating systems come out, we have to get trained on the complexities," Weir said.
Weir and Brookreson are members of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force in New Mexico, a federally funded coalition of 64 local, state, federal and tribal law enforcement agencies that seek to catch distributors and consumers of child pornography on the Internet.
The New Mexico Attorney General's Office, a key agency with the state's ICAC Task Force, has used federal grant money to cover the expenses of the LCPD officers' training, which cost around $7,000 per class, not to mention additional thousands of dollars in expenses for equipment, software licenses and other computer programs.
"Without the help from the attorney general's office, we probably wouldn't be able to do what we're doing right now," Weir said.
Anthony Maez, a special agent and the ICAC coordinator for the New Mexico Attorney General, said the growing presence of electronic media in society requires law enforcement officers who are proficient in computer forensics.
Maez also said a pervasive problem with child pornography in New Mexico further underscores the need for well-trained forensic examiners.
"We have a lot of child exploitation here in New Mexico. Last year, we had close to 8,000 IP addresses that downloaded child porn, and out of those, we found that one in three cases had actual physical abuse," Maez said.
Weir and Brookreson look for peer-to-peer sharing networks where child pornography is often found. Last September, they began investigating a Las Cruces IP address they suspected had downloaded child porn. The IP address led them to the home of Eric Khan, 32, a former Picacho Middle School basketball coach, who, according to court documents, admitted to downloading about 500 images of child pornography on two external hard drives.
The child pornography cases often extend beyond Las Cruces' city limits. Weir and Brookreson have investigated cases with other police departments in New Mexico, as well as several agencies in other states.
"The offender may be here, but the victim may be in New York or Seattle, or wherever. We've had cases where a child's mom in Las Cruces found text messages on their child's phone from someone in Denver," Weir said.
The Doña Ana County District Attorney's Office also called upon LCPD's computer forensic examiners when it began investigating the alleged corruption in Sunland Park, where the former mayor-elect, Daniel Salinas, is facing several criminal charges, including an alleged extortion plot to blackmail a rival candidate with a lap dance video.
"A lot of the cases that we work on are not in the neighborhood. They're all over the country, and all over this part of the state," said Weir, who along with Brookreson is also a member of the U.S. Marshals Task Force.
Being connected to a nationwide law enforcement network enables the LCPD forensic examiners to play critical roles in cases such as a recent child pornography investigation that began in Florida and had ties to Las Cruces and Albuquerque.
"It was such a wide range of area to cover," said Brookreson, who noted that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security executed a search warrant in Albuquerque and then transported evidence back to Las Cruces.
"The networking, the agencies working together is the key to our success," Brookreson said.
Weir and his partner chuckle at the way their job is presented on television shows like "CSI," where a forensic analyst turns on a computer, and after a few key strokes, finds the incriminating evidence needed to arrest a suspect.
In real life, the analysts said they never turn on the computer. They copy its hard drive and all the contents that they will later comb through, which can be a painstaking task. Some computers contain up to 3 million files, and can take up to a month to fully examine.
"There are a lot of files to deal with, to sort through and find out what's pertinent and what's not. It's a time-consuming process," Brookreson said.
"To actually sit down, take all the pieces together and say, "This is what was going on with this device at this time,' that's the biggest challenge any investigator has," Weir added.
Sometimes, suspects have been cleared after a thorough review of their computer files.
"As far as forensics goes, our main position is to give (detectives) the facts as they are, the good and the bad. We go right down the middle to explain exactly what happened on a particular device and what didn't happen," Brookreson said.
Weir's technical background also complements Brookreson's investigative experience when they investigate a case.
"We kind of look at things differently, which is required sometimes, because you hit a wall sometimes, and you're like, "I don't know why this is or how this occurred," Brookreson said.
"I might step in and say, "Let's look at this way," Weird added. "That's what makes a team."
Source: The Associated Press