“It all started with a broken laptop,” according to an FBI forensics expert who helped expose an online kidnapping and people-eating conspiracy that involved a New York City police officer.
The investigator was Stephen Flatley, senior forensic examiner with the Computer Analysis Response Team in the FBI’s New York City office. He spoke on the second day of the 2013 International Conference on Cyber Security (ICCS), hosted by Fordham and the Federal Bureau of Investigation from Aug. 5 to Aug. 8.
He discussed the technical challenges in building the case against Gilberto Valle, the so-called “cannibal cop” convicted in March of taking part in the plot to kidnap, torture, kill, and cannibalize several women, including his wife. The intended victims included friends he had known since high school or college, Flatley said.
The broken laptop that prompted the investigation belonged to Valle. His wife lent him hers, but when she happened to glimpse what she thought were online dating sites on the screen, she installed spyware that took screen shots and e-mailed them to her.
When she realized what her husband was really up to, she fled the family’s home with their one-year-old daughter and took the computer to the FBI, Flatley said. With her help, investigators copied data from his laptop while he was at work, discovering dozens of folders labeled with women’s names.
“Jaws hit the floor” when agents saw the number of folders, since they had thought that approximately 20 women were targeted, Flatley said. They set about making sure that none of the women had been reported missing.
His team gathered e-mail addresses from the laptop, sent subpoenas to internet service providers to obtain the messages, and saw their investigation spread to multiple computers, cameras, SD cards, floppy discs, game consoles, and CDs and DVDs. Six alleged conspirators were arrested: four in the United States, three of whom are awaiting trial, and two others in Canada and the United Kingdom.
“We found this really ugly thread and started pulling it and all kinds of weird stuff started coming out,” said Flatley, who also teaches in Fordham’s Department of Computer and Information Science.
The trial brought out various Internet-related questions, such as whether images in Valle’s web cache could be used to show his state of mind (not if there’s no way to prove he saw the pages, the judge ruled). At one point, the defense showed parts of a deposition conducted via Skype, because a subject—the proprietor of a website Valle visited, a hobbyist living in his mother’s basement—was in Russia. As Flatley described it, the video showed a man sipping a drink and answering questions with a terse, Russian-inflected “yes.”
“It was quite the deposition,” he said.
Flatley referred to online communities of people interested in cannibalism. “It was one of these things that we never knew existed until we bumped into this case,” he said.
During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked how corporations should respond if an employee is found to be frequenting a disturbing site. While visiting the site may be against corporate policy, Flatley said, a lawyer should be consulted about whether to call the police.
“There’s no easy answer to that,” he said. “It’s going to have to be a judgment call every time.”