Expert: Cell records cannot pinpoint someone’s exact location

Authorities in Idaho have claimed that Brian Kochberger’s cell phone records show he was in the Moscow area after four University of Idaho students were stabbed to death at an off-campus home and that he visited the “coverage area” of the 12-room home. brought times before the murder.

But telecommunications expert and former electrical engineer Ben Levitan, who analyzed cell phone data for the high-profile Adnan Sayeed case featured on the “Sierraly” podcast, told the Statesman that while cell phone records can provide someone’s approximate location they cannot accurately determine. the exact location of the person.

Kochberger, a 28-year-old former student, is charged with four counts of first-degree murder of seniors Madison Mogen, 21, of Coeur d’Alene, and Kylee Goncalves, 21, of Rathdrum; junior Xana Kernodle, 20, of Post Falls; and freshman Ethan Chapin, 20, of Mount Vernon, Washington.

In an 18-page probable cause statement — which should be only detailed enough to give law enforcement authorities the authority to make an arrest but not support a conviction — police said they used DNA evidence, surveillance footage and car records to learn about the former Washington. graduate student of the State University.

The Statesman spoke with Levitan about law enforcement’s use of cell phone records in criminal investigations.

Was Kochberger home near King Road before the stabbing?

In a statement, the Moscow Police Department alleged that Kohbeger used his cell phone in the “area of ​​coverage” of the King Road home at least 12 times before the stabbing in November.

However, Levitan said, a typical cell phone tower covers an area of ​​12 square kilometers. Someone can be miles away from the nearest cell tower, and Moscow is a city about 3-5 miles away.

“You can’t identify a person,” Levitan said of cellphone records. “No expert in the world can tell you where this person is.”

Levitan added that the tower closest to the King Road home covers an area of ​​27.3 square kilometers – the same size as about 14,000 football pitches.

Moscow police said Kochberger’s historical phone records were used to determine whether Kochberger “stalked any of the victims” before the stabbing. Levitan said that if authorities try to show during the trial that Kochberger visited the home 12 times, “they will make a mistake and it could hurt their case.”

Mobile phone towers in Moscow
In November, four University of Idaho students were stabbed to death in an off-campus home, and 28-year-old student Brian Kochberger has been charged with several crimes in connection with their deaths. This graphic shows the towers closest to the crime scene and Kohberger’s residence in Pullman. Ben Levitan

Was Kohberger in the Moscow area at the time of the stabbing?

Levitan said authorities can certainly use cell phone records to tell whether a person is traveling or not, that person is using their phone, because when someone moves across an area, a cell phone is used when moving to the next cell range. one mobile tower moves to another.

Kohberger traveled from Blaine, Idaho, which is south of Moscow, to Pullman between 4:50 and 5:30 a.m. — about 35 to 50 minutes after the stabbing, the affidavit said.

“They can’t make that mistake,” Levitan said.

According to police, the dashcam footage is consistent with Washington State University surveillance footage showing a white Hyundai Elantra — the same model as Kochberger — driving through the Pullman campus.

Kochberger’s cell records never show he traveled to Moscow on the night of the murders, and the affidavit says he tried to “conceal his location during the quadruple murders” because his cell phone had been ringing since 2:47 a.m. the network did not appear. to 4:48 am

Police said in a statement that a phone not reporting to the network could mean it’s in airplane mode, turned off or in an area without service. Levitan said it’s impossible to know for sure that Kochberger turned off her phone unless someone called Kochberger within two hours and the call logs show that her phone went straight to voicemail.

He added that if someone’s phone doesn’t show up on the network, it means they haven’t received any calls or messages and haven’t used any apps.

A cell phone tower near Colton, Washington. Kevin Fixler Idaho state official

How many cell towers are there in Moscow?

Levitan’s list, which he compiled over his years testifying on various occasions, showed a total of four camera towers in Moscow, including the one closest to King Road, along Paradise Creek.

Three other cell towers are located within the city of Moscow, according to Levitan’s list, near Residence Street, East F Street and Paradise Ridge. A cell tower is also located off Foothill Road, west of Moscow Mountain and about 10 miles outside of town.

A spokeswoman said the Federal Communications Commission does not maintain a complete national database of phone towers. The database the FCC maintains includes cell towers that are used primarily for broadcasting and telephones, are taller than 200 feet, or are located on the slopes of an airport.

But the FCC’s database shows only two cell phone towers within city limits, and Levitan said most cell towers are not in the database. The closest towers to the King Road home are along Old Pullman Road near the Idaho-Washington border and one is next to the towers. Church of the Nazarene in Moscowaccording to the FCC database.

Both of these structures are approximately 2 miles from the off-campus housing. The nearest cell tower from Levitan’s list is just over half a mile from the King Road home.

AT&T, Kochberger’s phone provider, declined to comment and referred the Statesman to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association. The association also refused to comment on this news.

How reliable are cell phone records in court?

Cell phone records are perfectly reliable, Levitan said, but authorities tend to overplay them. He added that cell phone records can help identify suspects by showing they are not in the tower’s coverage area.

But, Levitan said, just when someone is found in a cell phone tower coverage area, that doesn’t mean they were at a crime scene.

“Cellphone records are very reliable and useful as evidence, but DNA is not,” Levitan said in a follow-up message. “It is not accurate enough to allow you to identify a person’s phone. The best the state can say is that the phone was in an area of ​​27 square miles, 12 times the size of the crime scene.”

This story was originally published February 2, 2023 at 4:00 AM.

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