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Cell towers near University of Idaho murder site could help cops nab killer, expert says

November 23 marked the 10th day of the search for a suspect in the brutal stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students
Ethan Chapin, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, were stabbed to death on November 13 (Instagram/@kayleegoncalves, Facebook/City of Moscow Police Department)
Ethan Chapin, 20, Madison Mogen, 21, Xana Kernodle, 20, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, were stabbed to death on November 13 (Instagram/@kayleegoncalves, Facebook/City of Moscow Police Department)

MEXICO, IDAHO: As the Idaho murders still remain a mystery, cops are leaving no stone unturned in their efforts to zero in on a suspect. As of Wednesday, November 23, the investigation into the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students has entered its 10th day. Although investigators have been seen poring over the King Road crime scene, what could potentially help them dig up some clues is cell tower data from the area, according to mobile forensics expert Tom Slovenski.

"When you do a digital investigation, the towers are the power," Slovenski told Fox News. "The towers can tell you so much that the phone cannot." Founder and president of Cellular Forensics, LLC, Slovenski said investigators would probably seek warrants for the digital devices seized at the scene as well as the cell tower call detail records. The CDRs contain data on "transactions," which are activities performed on digital devices, for all cell phones in a given area, each with its own unique identification number. 


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"It will show on these call detail records the time of the transaction, the date of the transaction, the tower that was utilized in the transaction," Slovenski said. "The side of the tower that was utilized in the transaction. The longitude and latitude of that tower, that specific tower that was used, along sometimes with the actual street address."

Even if someone isn't using their cell phone, the device still registers a location. However, Slovenski explained that such detailed data can only be collected from towers, not from the device itself. In order to obtain such data, warrants or subpoenas are required, and a judge must weigh the importance of "finding the killer" against public privacy. "You’re going to have to convince the judge that it’s worth it," he went on. It is even possible for investigators to determine which cellphones were present at any given moment through a cell tower analysis, he said. "You can do what’s called a tower dump," Slovenski added, "but you really gotta know what you’re looking for." A tower dump is more effective in rural areas than urban areas, where three towers could cover a smaller area. "The thing is, you’ve gotta be very specific with tower dumps, and they take a lot of time to go through," Slovenski warned. "And again, all of this stuff now, all of this information, you’ve gotta have a warrant or a subpoena — the cell tower companies will not give you this."

In his view, analyzing a tower dump is a lengthy process, and investigators must be as specific as possible when requesting data. They must still weigh the information gathered from tower dumps to determine if it's relevant. "Just because you’ve got a tower near you does not mean that that tower was utilized by you," Slovenski noted. "A cellphone responds to the best signal, not the closest tower. You could be looking down the street and see a tower — that doesn’t mean you’re on it." "It depends on a lot of factors in the area as to what towers your calls are going through," He added.

Investigators must also consider the relevance of a person's presence in an area when using tower dumps or other data, such as that which can be obtained from Google, Slovenski said. "You could have been passing by on the street and your number got caught up in it," he continued. "You know, while someone's inside getting killed, here comes the trash truck and the trash truck driver's got a phone… You have to go through and use common sense, and you’ve got to say: ‘Okay, how many times was this device in this quadrant? And did it stay for any length of time?’"

Moscow police received a call shortly before noon on November 13 for a report of an "unconscious person" at the King Road home. Several other people had gathered at the address by the time police arrived, officials said. The victims were identified as Ethan Chapin, 20, of Conway, Washington; Madison Mogen, 21, of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho; Xana Kernodle, 20, of Avondale, Arizona; and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, of Rathdrum, Idaho.