Newport joins up with new crime lab

ORANGE — In November 2004, a retired Newport Beach couple vanished days before Thanksgiving.

Tom and Jackie Hawks were selling their boat to a Long Beach couple, Skylar and Jennifer Deleon, and the Hawkses were never heard from again.

Newport Beach police cracked the case using mounds of evidence, including power of attorney documents that the Deleons believed had been deleted from their computer hard drive. The Deleons were convicted of murder and handed life sentences.

Without computer forensic investigators, much of how that plot transpired would never have been uncovered.

On Wednesday, FBI Director Robert Mueller joined several local police chiefs in opening the Orange County Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory in Orange — the 15th center of its kind in the country. Federal and local investigators will use the facility to sift through thousands of pieces of electronic evidence that authorities deal with every day.

"There's not a case now where you don't have some mechanism for communicating or storing data," Mueller said.

The boom in technology from smart phones, to computer tablets and mobile storage devices, has overwhelmed law enforcement, Mueller said.

Setups like the Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory are helping police and federal officials catch up with criminals' electronic activities.

"It provides additional puzzle pieces to put the investigation together," said Newport Beach Police Det. Dave White.

White has been one of the department's forensic detectives for years. When he joined the regional forensics laboratory, the FBI gave him another seven weeks of training.

The lab houses 10 to 12 investigators, and Newport Beach is one of a few Orange County cities to contract with the lab.

Outside agencies, such as the Costa Mesa Police Department, can still turn their forensic evidence over to the lab for examination.

The center is expected to serve as a hub for Southern California computer forensics investigations, ensuring consistency throughout the region, Mueller said.

There, investigators will examine hardware in all kinds of cases, from identity theft and fraud, to child pornography and terrorism.

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