Best Buy-FBI link explored in Newport doctor’s effort to toss out computer photos in child porn case
Best Buy employees Thursday denied allegations by a Newport Beach doctor’s legal team that the FBI directed them to look for illicit material on customers’ computers during repairs.
Attorneys for Dr. Mark Albert Rettenmaier, a gynecological oncologist who practiced at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach until he was indicted in 2014 on two felony counts of possession of child pornography, are asking a federal judge to throw out photographic evidence in the case, alleging that it was discovered by Best Buy’s Geek Squad technicians improperly acting as paid FBI informants.
Thursday’s hearing in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana was the second and final day of testimony in which Judge Cormac Carney allowed Rettenmaier’s attorneys to call witnesses to examine the relationship between the FBI and Geek Squad technicians.
Rettenmaier’s case began in November 2011 when he took a computer hard drive to a Best Buy store in Chino for repairs.
The drive was shipped to the Geek Squad maintenance center in Kentucky, and in January 2012, Justin Meade, a supervisor at the center, contacted a local FBI office to say a technician had found something suspicious.
Meade showed FBI agent Tracey Riley thumbnail photos on Rettenmaier’s hard drive that the agent said she recognized as child pornography. Authorities said the first photo the agent saw depicted a nude pre-pubescent girl on her hands and knees on a bed wearing a choker collar around her neck. Other photos were close-ups of pre-pubescent female genitals, according to testimony Thursday.
For a photo to be considered child pornography under federal guidelines, it must depict sexual intercourse, lascivious exhibition of genitals, bestiality, masturbation or sadomasochistic abuse.
Trey Westphall, who worked at the Geek Squad center in Kentucky, testified Thursday that he found photos he considered inappropriate while reviewing data in an “unallocated” section of the doctor’s computer, where deleted files are commonly stored.
At the data review stage, a technician reviews documents, videos, pictures and music files to determine whether they have been corrupted or are still viable, Westphall said.
He said he saw about 20 problematic images and summoned Meade.
During Meade’s testimony Thursday, he rejected the idea that he communicated with the FBI and turned over customer data out of motivation to get paid. He said he doesn’t recall ever being paid by the FBI for alerting the agency to suspicious data. He also said no one at the FBI ever directed him to look through customers’ data and that that type of review wouldn’t be performed unless it fell under the scope of work requested by a customer.
Meade said “some of our worst days at work” were when inappropriate images were found on customers’ computers.
“I don’t typically drink, but on those days I would go home and drink alcohol,” he said. “Having to view images like that as part of your job can make your job very difficult.”
Best Buy’s policy prohibits employees from accepting money from the FBI in exchange for customer information.
However, one FBI agent testified that he compensated Geek Squad technicians for the time they spent showing agents the photos at their facility.
Based on the discovery of the photos on Rettenmaier’s hard drive, the FBI obtained a search warrant for his Laguna Hills home, which it raided in February 2012, according to court documents.
During the search, Rettenmaier returned home and investigators seized the iPhone he had with him, according to prosecutors. The U.S. attorney’s office in Orange County indicted Rettenmaier on allegations of possessing child pornography on a laptop, multiple hard drives and the iPhone.
Prosecutors allege the phone alone held more than 800 pictures of naked or partially nude girls.
Prosecutors and Rettenmaier’s defense team will file briefs within 45 days, and after that, Carney will decide whether to exclude any evidence.