LAPD hacked into iPhone of slain wife of 'Shield' actor, documents show

Los Angeles police investigators obtained a method to open the locked iPhone belonging to the slain wife of "The Shield" actor Michael Jace, according to court papers reviewed by The Times.

LAPD detectives found an alternative way to bypass the security features on the white iPhone 5S belonging to April Jace, whom the actor is accused of killing at their South L.A. home in 2014, according to a search warrant filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The bypass occurred earlier this year, during the same period that the FBI was demanding that Apple unlock the iPhone 5C of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook. The FBI eventually said it found another method, without using Apple, for unlocking the phone, which was equipped with a newer and more advanced operating system than April Jace's phone.

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LAPD Det. Connie Zych wrote that on March 18, the department found a "forensic cellphone expert" who could "override the locked iPhone function," according to the search warrant. The search warrant did not detail the method used by the LAPD to open the phone, nor did police reveal the identity of the cellphone expert.

It's unclear what operating system April Jace's phone had, although her killing occurred months before Apple rolled out the operating system iOS8, which has more enhanced encryption.

An Apple technician had previously helped the LAPD access information from April Jace’s phone, but investigators later sought an alternative way to bypass the phone’s lock, according to the warrant.

Jace's attorney, Jason Sias, said in an email that police have not shared how they unlocked her phone. The prosecutor assigned to his case could not be reached for comment.

The LAPD's move comes as law enforcement across the U.S. struggle to crack the encryption and other security features on digital devices that may hide potential evidence in criminal investigations.

April Jace's iPhone has been at the center of the criminal case against her husband, who is charged with carrying out the May 19, 2014, killing, according to court papers.

Investigators have contended that the actor and his wife argued "about their relationship" via text message shortly before he opened fire, according to the search warrant.

His attorneys have countered that April Jace, a well-liked financial aid counselor at Biola University in La Mirada, was having an extramarital affair, the Associated Press reported. Earlier this year, a judge delayed the actor's murder trial, after his defense attorneys argued that the dead woman's phone should undergo a more exhaustive search than one initially conducted by police.

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Shortly after her killing, April Jace's cellphone was locked by a passcode, which "hindered" the investigation, Zych wrote. An Apple technician was ordered by an L.A. judge in June 2014 to help police extract data from the phone's hard drive, according to the search warrant. The technician successfully extracted the data and met with detectives in February 2015, when the LAPD received the hard drive, the warrant stated.

In late January, an investigator with the L.A. County district attorney's office again tried to extract data from the phone but could not, and only obtained the contents of its SIM card. Zych wrote that the phone "was disabled," according to the warrant. The following month, authorities tried to inspect April Jace's iPhone but it didn't even turn on, the warrant stated.

But in March, investigators learned that a forensic cellphone expert could "override" the security features and let authorities view the phone's contents, according to the warrant. A senior investigator with the district attorney's office was able to examine the phone in April, as was Jace's private cellphone expert, the warrant states.

Jace, 53, is currently awaiting trial. Authorities allege about 8:30 p.m. on the day of the killing, a man called police from the actor’s cellphone, saying that he had just shot his wife to death. Police allege that Michael Jace placed that call.

Two children, both reportedly younger than 10, were inside the pink stucco home in the 5400 block of Brynhurst Avenue when April Jace was killed.

“At very least they heard the shots,” then-LAPD Det. Sal LaBarbera said at the time. “It is a terrible tragedy, made all the more worse by their children being there.”

Within hours, Jace had been booked on suspicion of murdering his 40-year-old wife.

A handgun was later recovered in the home.

Michael Jace had no arrest history, according to public records, but divorce papers from a previous marriage include allegations of threats and domestic violence.

Ex-wife Jennifer Bitterman alleged in a November 1997 divorce filing that Jace threatened to kill her if they went to “war over his visitation rights to their son.”

From 2002 to 2008, Jace played Los Angeles Police Officer Julien Lowe on "The Shield." He also had roles in "Planet of the Apes," "Forrest Gump" and "Boogie Nights."

The actor filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy protection in March 2011, when he listed his liabilities at more than $500,000 against assets of $325,000, according to federal court records.

At the time he was more than $22,000 in debt to the government, more than $16,000 in debt to credit card companies and still owed on two mortgages.

After the killing neighbors expressed shock, saying Jace's family appeared to be happy.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATED

4:43 p.m.: This story has been updated to clarify the sequence of the timeline when Apple extracted data from April Jace's iPhone.

2:47 p.m.: This story has been updated with comments from Jace's attorney and clarification on the operating system likely found on April Jace's phone.

9:05 a.m.: This story has been updated with new details about slaying.

6:10 a.m.: This story was updated with biographic information about Jace.

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