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Capobianco Trial: FBI Agent Begins Cell Phone Analysis

September 13, 2016, 7:35 AM HST · Updated September 13, 10:30 AM
Wendy Osher · 0 Comments
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By Wendy Osher

Judge Joseph Cardoza. Photo (5.20.16) by Wendy Osher.

Judge Joseph Cardoza. Photo (5.20.16) by Wendy Osher.

A special agent with the FBI began testimony on Monday in the ongoing murder trial of Steven Capobianco.

FBI Special Agent Michael Easter offered expert testimony as a national asset with the Federal Bureau of Investigations based on qualifications as a certified trainer in historical Cellular Site Analysis.

His testimony followed Maui Police Sergeant Matthew Biggos, who described the process for obtaining a search warrant in the case.

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Maui Police Obtain Search Warrant for Phone Records:

Sgt. Matthew Bigoss, an 11-year police veteran with the Maui Police Department, who served in both the Crime Reduction Unit and member of the Special Response Team, said he obtained search warrants on March 10, 2014.

In obtaining the search warrants, Bigoss said he was seeking cellular telephone account records for Steven Capobianco.  “I bring the application to the deputy prosecutor for review.  After that, I take it to one of the district court judges and in the district court, the judge reviews it, and then if they find probable cause, they issue a search warrant,” said Sgt. Bigoss.

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Sgt. Bigoss said he was seeking subscriber information, which he described as the name of the person who is either paying the bills or using the phone. In addition, Sgt. Bigoss said he also sought, “cell detail records, which are basically the records of incoming and outgoing telephone calls, text messages, and data connections; any sort of unused voice mail messages.  Also, cell tower usage and data location, which is basically every time a call or text is sent, it records the cell tower that was used to complete that call,” said Sgt. Bigoss.

Bigoss said he also requested any GPS and other historic location information as well as a key and explanation of how to interpret the records.

FBI Special Agent Details Phone Records

Michael Easter, Special Agent with the FBI offered expert testimony as a national asset with the Federal Bureau of Investigations based on qualifications as a certified trainer in historical Cellular Site Analysis

SA Easter said he has testified in approximately 57 trial cases throughout the country, but noted this was his first time offering testimony in Hawaiʻi.

SA Easter is currently assigned to the FBI’s Cellular Analysis Survey Team (cellular division) and explained his qualification to render an opinion in state and federal courts of law.  The team is a unit within the FBI that provides to local, state and federal law enforcement partners, the investigation or analysis of cell site records.

“The analysis of those cell site records enable us as investigators to determine calls that were either made or received from a phone, what tower they used, and is that consistent with it being in the area of a crime or other type of event.  Our unit also provides training throughout the country,” said SA Easter, who is one of the FBI’s instructors for the program.

FBI Contacted to Conduct Cell Site Analysis for Scott and Capobianco:

SA Easter said he conducted cell site analysis for both Carly “Charli” Scott and Steven Capobianco after being contacted by the Maui Police Department in 2014.

“I was contacted by the Maui Police Department to first analyze records belonging to a female victim that had been missing, and they asked if I would review the records to help them understand the victim’s cell phone activity on that date and time, the early part of February.”

“Several days later,” SA Easter said, “I was also asked to analyze cell phone records associated with the defendant to also analyze the cell site activity, to relate it not just to the victim’s, but to determine where the defendant’s cell phone was also making calls or receiving calls from.”

SA Easter said he asked for all of the records the Maui Police Department had obtained saying, “There had already been conversations with them, I knew that they were requesting the AT&T phone records for Carly Scott as well as the defendant, and so I asked them to provide everything that they received so that I could then review that for analysis.”

According to his testimony, SA Easter said he requested phone records from AT&T, noting that as one of the more popular service providers, about a third of the records that he looks at each day are from AT&T.

Fundamentals of Why a Phone Selects a Tower:

“The FBI uses a methodology that we teach, which is the fundamentals of understanding why a phone selects a tower.” Holding his phone as a prop, SA Easter said, “It’s obvious I’m not making or receiving a phone call at this moment, but my phone is still actively doing something.  What my phone is actively doing is… it’s scanning its environment to identify the best cell phone tower and cell sector for it to receive service, so the key part of that is your cell phone is in charge of picking a tower and sector based on the best signal,” he said.

He said that when you want to make a call, the phone would use the tower with the best signal to make or receive a signal.  “So when we understand that important principal, we then can look at the records themselves.  Once your phone has made an outgoing call, and was assigned a cell site sector channel, it is then recorded in the records that the event took place,” said SA Easter.

“So for AT&T records, we would see not only who the AT&T phone was calling, you would see the date and time, and the duration; but we see that key aspect, which I need, and that key aspect is that cell phone tower and cell site that the cell phone used to make or receive that call,” he said.

According to SA Easter, AT&T keeps track of the tower location and the direction that each secor on the tower is facing.  “So those towers have antennas that are designed to project coverage into specific areas.  So what I see, based on the fundamentals of the phone picking the best signal, the best tower sector, I’m able to plot that tower and sector, and relate where that phone would have likely been to make or receive that call. Then I’m able to relate that to known events, or occurrences such as crimes,” he said.

“Each tower is typically broken up into individual sectors or wedges or pies that allow that one tower … to provide coverage in 360 degrees via three separate sectors,” said SA Easter, noting that his conclusions and opinions in this case were based on his analysis of those records and his training and experience in this area.

FBI Agent Travels to Maui:

SA Easter traveled to Maui in July of 2014 to meet with detectives and to get a better understanding of the environment, terrain and topography, “and to understand the relationship of where your crime scenes or events took place in relation to cell towers that are available.”

“AT&T does have a tower list that identifies every tower in their network based on latitude and longitude, and because of that, I’m able to plot that and determine where all of their network is even specifically for Maui,” said SA Easter.

“My goal was to meet with the investigators to better understand the investigation.  Sometimes things are lost in emails and phone calls alone.  Also having looked and done the draft analysis of the towers, it was apparent to me that you have a very large mountain or volcano which has a tower on it, which creates uniqueness in the sense of its coverage area,” said SA Easter.

“It’s hard to look at a map on a computer and get perspective of its relationship to the key events.  So my goal is to come out here and see if I can make a better conclusion or form my conclusions better by understanding your environment,” he said.

“Having looked at the way your tower is atop that mountain of roughly 6,600 feet, and then being able to drive the road out to Hāna and seeing how the terrain features are, and using the phone that I had with me, identify that the signal strength in that area is either weak to non-existent, helps me understand there’s just not a whole lot of cell site activity once you reach out along the Hāna road,” SA Easter Testified.

Late Discovery or Thorough Reporting:

Azimuth: *an arc of the horizon measured between a fixed point (as true north) and the vertical circle passing through the center of an object usually in astronomy and navigation clockwise from the north point through 360 degrees. (definition Merriam-Webster)

“As I learned that this case was going to trial, I reviewed that analysis again.  In that review with the peer review, it was determined, that there was a discrepancy in the azimuth, in fact in the CERS, the phone records themselves, you would typically see the azimuth.  There was no azimuth for that sector,” said SA Easter.

After realizing that the item was missing, SA Easter said he made contact with AT&T obtain the information.

“I sent an email to the custodian of records, their lead analyst in Florida and I emailed him that tower’s latitude and longitude and the CID (cell identification) which was 2054, and said can you please determine the azimuth for this cell site on or around Feb. 9, 2014.  He responded with an email that it is 40 degrees,” SA Easter testified.

Judge Allows Discovery, Focus on 3 Messages:

Maui Chief Judge Joseph Cardoza allowed the amended report to be submitted into evidence saying it did not change any opinions or data reflected in the FBI report.

He noted that the discovery of the missing piece of information was made following a peer review by the FBI that occurred on Aug. 25, 2016, “As opposed to the prosecution being in receipt of the discovery and failing to disclose it to the defense for a period of days, months or years.”

“The witness, who obviously has a working relationship with the major providers in the United States, called a person… to ask him for the azimuth information relative to the cell tower in question and was provided with that information, and made the correction, and revised his report to reflect that,” said Judge Cardoza.

” From what I’ve heard,” Judge Cardoza said, “It doesn’t change any opinions and it doesn’t change any data (the particular electronic communications).  It provides additional information relative to the azimuth information concerning one cell tower,” he said.

The report focuses on three pieces of communication: one that occurred on Sunday Feb. 9, 2014, and two that occurred on Monday, Feb. 10, 2014.

“The court is going to decline to exclude this evidence,” said Judge Cardoza, saying that he is doing so with an “abundance of caution.”

“I will just indicate that the court had authorized an expenditure of funds for an expert in this field for the defense,” Judge Cardoza noted.  “If for some reason it’s determined that this requires the defense to need more time to review this information, I’ll allow considerable leeway in that regard.  It doesn’t appear that that would be the case,” he said.

“Again, there doesn’t appear to be anything in substance that is changing, but out of an abundance of caution, and in the interest of fairness, I think that would be the appropriate way to proceed,” said Judge Cardoza.

The court noted that “realistically, the prosecution still has quite a bit to present.”  The trail still includes a hearing relative to the drive that police took with the defendant to Hāna, and approximately three weeks of additional testimony from the prosecution before the defense begins calling witnesses.

Testimony Begins on Capobianco’s Cell Activity: 

After a hearing establishing SA Easter as an expert witness, and groundwork detailing the basics of cellular technology, the witness began testimony relating to the actual report at the end of the day on Monday.

The first slide presented was for Capobianco’s cell activity between Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 at 3:32 p.m. and 6:25 p.m.

Case History/Background:

Steven Capobianco is standing trial for the murder of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Carly “Charli” Scott. He is also accused of setting her vehicle on fire.

Scott was 27-years-old and five months pregnant at the time with an unborn child fathered by the defendant.  Capobianco has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In the days following Charli Scott’s disappearance, Capobianco had done an interview with police in which he said Scott had picked him up on the night of Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014, and dropped him off at his truck that got stuck in Keʻanae on Feb. 8, 2014.

According to the account, both headed back to Haʻikū, with Scott following Capobianco in case his vehicle broke down again.  Scott was reported missing the next night on Feb. 10, 2014, after she failed to show up for work and did not return phone calls and messages from her family members.

In testimony last week, a Maui orthodontist confirmed that a jawbone found at Nuaʻailua in East Maui was a “match” to the missing woman.

The trial is set to resume on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016 before Maui Chief Judge Joseph Cardoza.

Wendy Osher
Wendy Osher leads the Maui Now news team. She is also the news voice of parent company, Pacific Media Group, having served more than 15 years as News Director for the company’s six Maui radio stations.

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