Turns out it wasn’t a shitty idea.
Just a looooooong, tedious one.
We’d spent hours tearing the suspect’s house apart, looking at all his media, all his hard drives, all his computers. And while we’d seen pathways that pointed to files that might have been kiddie porn, we had no kiddie porn. Command had just told us to close up shop, that we were done, that we lost this round.
The computer forensics guy, didn’t like losing a round. He seethed that a bad guy had beaten him and so he popped up one last idea.
The unallocated area.
“Huh?” Yeah, that was my contribution.
Basically, the computer guy was going to check, bit by bit, byte by byte, the entire memory where files had been stored but were now gone. Files never really leave a computer, but are overwritten when the user wants to use that memory space for something else.
Our forensics guy was going to troll in that vast area where files are broken and battered, where they’re taken apart and stored where ever the computer has space. In other words, he said, look at the memory as a giant map of the United States. One piece of a file might be in Alaska while another piece is in Florida. Still another piece might be in Georgia while others are scattered across the Dakotas.
“Won’t that take – ”
“Yeah, pretty much forever,” he said.
And so he got started. And it took forever.
And he came up with…nothing.
Then more nothing. Then more nothing after that.
The investigator was popping outta his skin at this point. He’d put lots of resources into this case. He wanted to get this guy out of the cyber stream and yet, because he’d used a hard drive cleaning program, was probably going to walk away free.
There was nothing I could do and it was driving me batty so I went downstairs and outside for some air. It had been a long, frustrating day. This was my second search warrant with the task force and I’d heard stories of coming up empty, but there were so many more stories of sliding the bad guy right into a long prison sentence that it was almost inconceivable they wouldn’t get it done.
And I wondered…how would everyone sleep tonight? How would the investigator, already angry, sleep? Would he dream about not having quite enough information? And the forensics guy? Would he stay up late drinking away the feeling that he’d failed? What about the suspect? Would today scare him into stopping? Or would the fact that he’d won convince him he knew how to get away with it and make him trade more?
The suspect’s house was an oddball mix of the weird. It was an old house and seemed as though the suspect and his sons hadn’t lived there long. There were unopened boxes everywhere, labelled for different rooms, with different family members’ names on them. But the place wasn’t as clean as a newly-moved into house would be. Everything except the large screen TVs (one in every room) was covered in a heavy layer of dust that reminded me of the aftermath of dust storms in west Texas where I grew up.
The room in which we worked was just as dusty as everywhere else. The carpet was stained, dirtied with muddy footprints, with chocolate and potato chips ground into it. The color might once have been something brilliant and bold, but now was completely colorless. It might have been a lifeless gray. It might just as easily have been a dead tan.
To the right of the desk, there were some small bins – like you’d find filled with sugar or flour sitting on a kitchen counter – crammed to overflowing with Hershey’s Kisses, Kit Kats, and those puffed air cheese balls. Surrounding those bins, like a guarding army, was hundreds of empty Mountain Dew bottles. We had to move the bottles just to have room to do our jobs.
On the wall, just above the desk, was a line of baseball team caps. Strung out in a straight line from there was a pile of those sports memorabilia things that have baseball cards and a picture and some impressive stat all laquered nice and shiny and sold for $50 or $60 as one-of-a-kind items. There were eight or ten of those, all with a dark line of dust across the top, as though they hadn’t been dusted in years.
“Look at the dates,” the commander had said before I went outside.
All from the mid ’90’s. Last one was from 1997.
As though everything in that room, cleaning included, had suddenly stopped in 1997. Later, I would find out the suspect’s wife, mother to the son whose room we were using to check the computers, had died in 1997.
So the room, indeed the house, was in a sort of grief-induced stasis, as though the moment the lady of the house died, everything froze.
Except not quite everything because the suspect was sporting high-dollar, high-powered computers.
And with each moment that passed, the suspect looked more smug, more victorious. All this guy had to do was wait us out, not lose his cool and blurt out something incriminating, and he’d be back to trading before the day was over.
I headed back inside and the forensics guy was vaguely excited.
“Found some pictures.”
“Yeah?” I said.
“Five or six frames of a movie that had been on the hard drive.”
“That’s great,” I said. “That’s possession. That’s enough to make the charges.”
True, as far as it went. But it wasn’t the sheer amount of porn the investigator had expected. Then again, given that the suspect had so thoroughly cleaned his hard drive, we were lucky to find anything.
So the mood lightened considerably, as odd as that sounds to say given that we were searching for kiddie porn. But now we had something and the suspect wasn’t going to walk free. Granted, his jail term, assuming he was convicted, would be short, but it was the best we could do. He hadn’t won, but it felt like we hadn’t either.
I went downstairs to get something to drink and as I passed through the dining area, I glanced at the unpacked boxes on the table. One of the men who’d been first through the door saw it the same moment I did.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” he said.
It had been there the entire time. An older computer, sitting quietly amongst the unpacked boxes and trash and detritus of this strange place with old sports memories and a decade’s worth of dust and not a single femine touch. All of us had scoured that house and yet had somehow not seen this machine.
We rushed it upstairs, gave it to the forensics guy, and waited.
The entire team waited, hardly breathing, sweating bullets.
Because that computer was dusty.
The suspect had cleaned his computer the night before but the one we just found hadn’t been touched in a while. He’d forgotten about it, just as easily as we had missed it during the search.
I have to give the team credit. When the forensics guy popped open that computer and very easily found thousands of images of sexually exploited young children, when he found hundreds of self-produced movies, when he found enough material to put the suspect away for the better part of forever, no one on that team cheered.
They high-fived each other, gave the forensics man a giant clap on the back, then went outside and to figure out why that computer hadn’t been seen until that moment. Standing in the suspect’s front yard, the search team completely refined their search procedures. They were not going to let a missed computer happen again.
That was it for me on that warrant. I helped the team back to the station, helped catalog some of the items we seized, but was mostly done. Now it was up to the State’s Attorney, the forensics man, and the investigator’s interview skills.
I wish I could say I came away from those two days with some greater understanding of the human condition. I didn’t. I knew evil existed before I went and what I saw confirmed that. One man traded in the massive sexual exploitation of children for cash, the other because he was attracted to young girls who looked exactly like his granddaughter.
It was as simple as banal as that. There was no larger story, no over-arcing comment of any kind. It was nothing more than two pathetic men, both still legally innocent as they’ve not been brought to trial yet.
And so when I begin executing my own search warrants (after completing more training), will it be the same? Will the reasons why my bad guys trade be that empty? Will my own bad guys cause that much carnage among children just…you know…’cause?