Todd Faulkner stood in a small, windowless room at the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office. Not long ago, it had been a break room for deputies. Now, it houses computers, monitors, hard-drive imagers, case files, seized electronic devices in static-resistant evidence bags, an up-to-date copy of the N.H. Criminal Code and a mug with a DNA double helix and the phrase “The evidence never lies.”
“What you currently are looking at is over $30,000 in equipment,” said Faulkner. The police chief in Hinsdale, Faulkner is also a deputy Cheshire County sheriff working as a forensic analyst with the N.H. Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
The month-old Cheshire County facility, supported by a state grant allocated to the task force, allows an analyst like Faulkner to process digital evidence related to sexual abuse, child pornography and other crimes.
“The amount of work, it’s expanding so fast,” said John Peracchi, the Portsmouth police detective sergeant who serves as the task force’s commander. “Every ICAC task force around the nation is facing the same challenges,” including a proliferation of new apps and ways of communication online.”
The New Hampshire task force, also known as N.H. ICAC, consists of specially trained law-enforcement personnel from agencies around the state. It’s one of 61 such federally funded task forces nationwide, according to the ICAC program’s website.
N.H. ICAC also receives state grant money, which is paying for most of the equipment in the Cheshire County lab and for Faulkner’s time working there, Peracchi said.
Based in Manchester, N.H. ICAC supports labs at affiliated agencies around the state, Peracchi said.
Helping to establish “satellite labs,” like the one at the Cheshire County Sheriff’s Office, has two key goals, Peracchi said.
For one, they should speed up evidence processing. A Cheshire County-based analyst like Faulkner will be able to handle more work locally, rather than driving to and from Manchester.
In addition, Peracchi said, spreading equipment and expertise around the state will make it easier to train new investigators and forensic analysts.
“They’re gonna get that equipment at their fingertips,” Peracchi said of local departments in places like Cheshire County. “But they’re also going to learn how to investigate those cases.”
Faulkner has been with the New Hampshire task force since 2010 and was a member of its Vermont counterpart before that. An investigator and computer forensics expert, he often works on child exploitation and abuse cases outside of Hinsdale.
Many of those cases — not just ones that originate online — have some digital component, Faulkner said.
Some cases involve an adult trying to solicit a child over the Internet, or sharing explicit images of children. But digital forensics can also bolster other cases. For example, Faulkner said, forensic interviewers are trained to ask child victims whether they were photographed or shown explicit material. That can lead investigators to corroborating digital evidence, helping to secure a guilty plea or prove the state’s case at trial.
While the Hinsdale Police Department has a forensic lab, it’s “not at this extent,” he said.
Access to the lab is tightly controlled. When Faulkner has to do the “most heinous part” of his job, looking through child sex abuse images or videos, “the door gets shut, a sign gets put up, and nobody comes in unless they get access and permission.”
On one side of the room, metal shelves hold phones and other devices seized in ongoing cases. Faulkner said the lab has “Faraday technology” that blocks outside signals, a protection against remote evidence tampering.
Digital evidence must be handled as carefully as physical traces like blood drops, Faulkner said. One tool, a forensic-grade imager, allows him to copy the contents of a seized hard drive onto a new hard drive, without altering the original. “It’s probably one of my most critical pieces of equipment,” he said.
If he’s in a hurry — for example, if a child is missing — Faulkner turns to a tool like the Forensic UltraDock. That allows him to view files on a drive immediately, while protecting the drive’s integrity.
To sift through files, Faulkner turns to a specially built desktop computer in one corner of the room, capable of running both Mac and Windows systems.
The machine has various pieces of software, some costing about $3,000, with names like Blacklight and Autopsy. The programs index information to make searching it easier. Different programs are better for different devices, operating systems and applications, Faulkner said.
“I know that Paraben will parse out Instagram and Kik and Snapchat better than other tools,” he said. “But if I know that my case involves, you know, Facebook on an iOS system, I know that Blacklight is really, really good for that.”
The lab also has a portable kit, allowing Faulkner to process evidence at a crime scene, he said.
Faulkner said he works about eight to 16 hours per week at the lab, in addition to his 40 weekly hours as Hinsdale’s police chief. Through N.H. ICAC, he can process evidence and investigate cases for smaller departments that lack the resources or expertise.
Winchester Police Chief Mike T. Tollett, who is not a member of the task force but is aware of the new lab, said he hopes it’ll speed up evidence processing for local cases.
“It will be very nice to have that resource here in the county,” he said. “… Instead of being at the bottom of a list, hopefully we will be at the top of the list.”
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Faulkner is a deputy sheriff in addition to Hinsdale police chief.