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Meet the team of five investigators involved in almost every Johnson County criminal case
Computer forensics is a relatively new field in law enforcement, but it’s quickly become one of the most necessary, according to investigators on the Joint Forensic Analysis Cyber Team, or J-FACT, of Johnson County. The team has been busy since it formed in 2021, with its hands in almost every criminal case the county has investigated.
“Everything from burglary and theft cases, to domestic violence and sexual assault, to homicide and gun crimes, everything has a technological component,” Johnson County Sheriff Brad Kunkel said.
The collaborative team was originally formed by the sheriff’s office, Iowa City Police Department and University of Iowa Department of Public Safety in July 2021. It was comprised of one investigator from each department — Tiffany Lorid from the University of Iowa, Benjamin Lorid from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office and Todd Cheney from the Iowa City Police Department.
The Coralville and North Liberty police departments discussed joining J-FACT when it was formed but, being smaller departments, it took them longer to get the staff and budget necessary.
The agreement for the team was amended to include the two smaller departments last September, and a North Liberty investigator, Bruce Sexton, joined the team in January. A Coralville investigator, Hanna Dvorak, will join the team in April.
When Sheriff Kunkel presented the proposed contract changes to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, he shared data from the team’s first year. The information includes the number of each kind of device analyzed by the team, and the kinds of cases those device analyses were related to. The most prominent case type was internet crimes against children, with 562 devices analyzed for those cases. Other high volume case types were weapons and drug cases.
Dvorak said that as an investigator in Coralville, she regularly goes to J-FACT for help with cases, even cases that aren’t directly computer related, like domestic abuse.
“Almost every case involves something. Back in the day we didn’t take a cellphone for a domestic, but if you want to have the best chance to get an unbiased view of what’s going on in someone’s relationship, the cellphone is going to give you those facts without people filtering it through their own perceptions and ideas,” Dvorak said.
The need for the team was evident, according to the investigators, as collaboration was already happening regularly between departments. Different departments had invested in different equipment and certifications for cyber investigators, so sharing those resources and reviewing each others’ work made sense.
“This is a very large field when you’re talking about digital devices, and there’s so much to it. It’s hard for just a person by themselves to keep on top of everything without asking questions. It just seemed to make sense to work out of the same room, so it’s much easier to communicate that type of information to each other,” Cheney said.
The location of the room is a secret, since the digital forensics lab contains evidence for a large number of cases at any given time.
Sometimes those cases are quick turns for the cyber investigators. They’ll receive a cellphone or a laptop and be asked to process the device and pull data from it for investigators in one of the departments. Those sorts of cases can take just a couple of hours, according to Benjamin Lorid.
He said the cases that take the most time and expertise are the crimes committed entirely online. Internet crimes against children often require investigators to pull data from multiple devices. Those investigations became more common during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We need to be able to understand what the intention of the user of the device, say it’s a computer, what their intention was. Did they intentionally get this child pornography? It’s certainly conceivable that you could accidentally come across something on the internet, because you can come across anything on the internet,” Benjamin Lorid said. “So, we want to make sure that we can retrace their steps, see what exactly they did to acquire it, and if there’s a child victim in real life that we need to assist.”
Dvorak said the internet crimes against children portion of the job is what drew her to apply for the J-FACT position with Coralville. While most of the other team members were either designated cyber investigators at their department, or the unofficial go-to tech guru, Dvorak doesn’t have much experience in technology. But she had investigated online human trafficking cases, and believes it’s an important need in law enforcement.
“I'm just excited to be able to work some crimes where I feel like I actually might be able to make a difference, and put somebody, hopefully, away and in prison that really deserves to be there,” she said. “Not that speeders and people running a stop sign aren’t exciting, but this is a different level of investigation and being able to do something.”
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