Some law enforcement officials are actively exploring new ways to use technology — ranging from advanced surveillance methods to tracking social media to monitor criminal suspects — but in other cases it turns out to be the criminals’ own use of technology that winds up blowing the whistle on them. Here are two recent instances where that’s exactly what happened.
Take the case of Cathy Bernstein, a 57-year-old Port St. Lucie, Florida woman, who ran her black Ford Escort into a silver-covered van loaded with Christmas presents. She sped away from the accident site, as the injured van owner reported the hit-and-run, and was taken to a nearby hospital.
Unfortunately for Bernstein, her car was equipped with SYNC, a 911 assist system, that automatically dials the police whenever one of the vehicle’s airbags is deployed, gives the police the vehicle’s location and connects them online. When a police phone operator called her, Bernstein denied she had been in an accident, saying she had just braked strongly to avoid colliding with a car that had suddenly pulled out in front of her.
Skeptical of the claim, the police operator sent a squad car to Bernstein’s home, where the cops discovered the Ford’s airbag deployed, and its front end smashed and marked with silver paint from the van she had hit.
After first changing her story (to claim the damage to her car came from running into a tree), Bernstein eventually admitted not only the hit-and-run episode with the silver van, but also confessed when she hit the van, she had been escaping from an earlier hit-and-run incident, in which she had plowed into a truck. After being treated for her injuries, Bernstein was taken to the Port St. Lucie jail.
An even more striking example of technology coming back to bite a criminal suspect using it came in a 30-year-old murder investigation in Wilmington, Delaware. In July 1985, 54-year-old Joseph Braun, was found bludgeoned to death in his home there.
The murder investigation went nowhere, until 1999, when relatives of the dead man implicated Sandra Hartzag, the former girlfriend of another, now-deceased family member. Evidence linked her to having been present at the murder site, and police suspected she had escaped in a car belonging to the victim, which was found abandoned in Philadelphia.
But Hartzag could not be found, and the trial went quiet — until this October, when the Delaware County’s relatively new two-man cold-case unit reopened the case. To their delight, they found Hartzag had an active Facebook profile. They used it to track her to Dalton, Georgia, nearly 700 miles away, where. She was found living far off the grid in a homeless encampment, and had apparently been living in the area for about three years.
She was brought in for questioning, and eventually extradited to Delaware and charged with murder, robbery, conspiracy and use of a lethal weapon during a felony. A spokesman for the local Georgia police force observed that, but for Facebook, Hartzag probably “wouldn’t be sitting in jail today.”