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Cell phone key evidence in Surprise double homicide, sparks conversation over terrorist cell phone case

Posted 3/2/16

By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newspapers

In the past weeks a national debate over personal privacy versus security has been brewing in the wake of the terrorist rampage that left 14 dead in a …

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Cell phone key evidence in Surprise double homicide, sparks conversation over terrorist cell phone case

By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newspapers

In the past weeks a national debate over personal privacy versus security has been brewing in the wake of the terrorist rampage that left 14 dead in a San Bernardino workplace.

Investigators have obtained the killer’s i-Phone as evidence, which they say could have important information about the attack, but they were unable to gain access to the locked, encrypted phone. The FBI asked Apple for assistance to help hack into the phone, but Apple CEO Tim Cook refused saying unlocking the device would set a “dangerous precedent” in privacy.

Unless the parties come to an agreement, a federal judge is expected to resolve the issue. Closer to home, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office last week discontinued providing iPhones as options for replacements or upgrades for existing employees.

County Attorney Bill Montgomery announced the decision citing Apple’s refusal to cooperate in the San Bernardino terrorist investigation, putting the company “on the side of terrorists instead of on the side of public safety.”

In Surprise, a situation has played out indicating that this issue could eventually have impending implications.A double homicide shocked the retirement community of Sun City Grand in Surprise, Feb. 8, when resident Barbara Leslie and friend Ruth Schwed were found shot to death, Feb.9, near the 15500 block of west Agua Linda Lane.

The incident left some residents changing their locks and considering the purchase of guns.

Surprise police noted the retirement community of about 17,000 people has never seen a murder, at least not since 2003, which is how far the city’s records for that area go back.

Surprise saw three murders last year.

But solace did return in the form of two apprehensions.

The key evidence in the investigation was a cell phone found at the crime scene, which lead to the arrest of Andrew Thomas Lauro, 24, of Goodyear, and Montez Lavell Wright III, 23, of Southfield, Michigan, who have been charged with a number of crimes, including murder.

Sgt. Norman Owens said the case against Mr. Lauro and Mr. Wright continues, so he could not comment on case specifics, or could not take a stance on the legal battle between the Department of Justice and Apple.

However, he did say that cell phones have long been tools for investigators to utilize to locate suspects and build stronger cases.

“Photos and text messages or information that could be subpoenaed, all those things would be good for a detective investigating a crime, no matter what the crime,” Mr. Owens said.

Surprise police has personnel to analyze data obtained from cell phones, but, Mr. Owens said as far as he knows, Surprise investigators have not been locked out of evidence akin to the San Bernardino terrorist investigation.

“None of our detectives have had that issue,” he said.

Surprise investigators indicate the double homicide was a crime of opportunity, with police reporting the suspects entered Ms. Leslie’s home through its open garage door after driving around Sun City Grand and finally stopping at the residence.

On Feb. 9, Surprise Police received a call from a reported relative of Ms. Schwed, who was visiting from Albuquerque, N.M., saying they had not been able to get ahold of Ms. Schwed or Ms. Leslie since Feb. 7.

Officers performed a welfare check at Ms. Leslie’s home, and found her and Ms. Schwed lying on the floor, dead from gunshot wounds.

After obtaining a search warrant, police located a cell phone on the floor inside the home. Police said several warrants were executed on this cellular phone to extract data. It was discovered that the phone did not belong to either victims, but provided investigators with several persons of interest.

Phone records indicated the cell phone had been in the area at the time when investigators believe the homicide occurred.

After obtaining phone records, investigators contacted an individual who stated that Mr. Lauro contacted him on Feb. 8, around noon, and told him he had just been involved in a robbery where another person had shot two women.

Officer Brandon Sheffert, a spokesman for the Peoria Police Department, stated in an email that all evidence is critical in solving a crime, and a subject’s cell phone is often the most obvious piece to help solve a case.

To date the department has not had any issues with properly accessing needed information from cell phones for evidence.

“Our policies and procedures are current and consistent with all laws, and we only extract information under a proper court order,” he said. “We value the constitutionally protected rights of all citizens, and balance those rights with our responsibilities to protect the public.”

Jamie Winterton, director of strategic research initiatives at ASU’s Global Security Initiative, said the San Bernardino case issues are not constrained to geographical boundaries and could happen in Arizona.

She said in the Surprise case, maybe the suspect did not set a pass code — there are a number of steps one can take to bust in the front door.

“They could happen anywhere. That is why it is so important to come to a consensus. We need to figure out how to deal with this now because it is going to come up again,” she said. “Security features will continue to improve and that is also part of consumer demand. Devises will become more secure, and we need to decide on the right thing to do overall. And, on the other hand, when forensics are not done properly, who is responsible?”

Adriana Sanford, associate professor of management at ASU’s W. P. Carey School of Business, said citizens of the U.S. do not have a fundamental right to privacy like other countries do.

“The Apple legal case has placed this issue on the forefront as an emerging human rights issue that should be analyzed with a broader lens than domestic U.S. law. Privacy and security rights should be carefully weighed, and balanced, as they have major repercussions on a global scale, on trade agreements, and on fundamental rights,” Ms. Sanford said. “Cases involving privacy and data protection can have a significant impact on a global scale, (the San Bernardino case) could have strong repercussions on human rights in countries with repressive governments or where there is a lack of democracy.”

Sun City West resident Chuck Flagge said the electronic age has presented many fantastic new communication devices and opportunities, but it has also created many new problems.

“I fully am in favor of preserving the rights of the individual. However, there are certain circumstances that need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. The massacre in California was, hopefully, unique," he said. "In this case, I believe that Apple working in coordination with the FBI, should obtain the information and then destroy the device. Apple should not develop a program available to anyone. There may — may being the operative word — be information the FBI could obtain that could protect the U.S. from this kind of terror.”