Cyber-investigators protecting North Mississippi online

By JB Clark/NEMS Daily Journal

In an increasingly digital world, cyber forensics is becoming a more important part of criminal investigations and Lee County is leading the way in cyber investigations for North Mississippi.
The Lee County Sheriff’s Office began investigating cyber crime in 2006 and began building their cyber crime lab in 2007 with the help of Mississippi State University’s Center for Computer Security Research.
Sheriff Jim Johnson said the division started with an idea to lure predators by posing as a 14-year-old female in an online chat-room.
Bean said the department has investigated and charged over 20 predators who traveled to meet the online decoy.
The departments don’t focus on as many traveler cases as they did in the beginning but are expanding into examining hard drives and other digital media to secure convictions in crimes ranging from burglary to embezzlement.
The Tupelo Police Department joined forces with the sheriff’s office in 2008. Each department is staffed by investigators who do computer forensics in addition to their normal investigative duties.
“It’s become very time consuming, more than I thought it would be at first , but we’ve come so far with this and we’ve got so much invested,” said James Cunningham, reserve deputy with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s such a good fight so we can’t back out of it.”
Cunningham joined the cyber crime investigation team in 2006 when he joined the Sheriff’s Office as a reserve deputy. He is a full time firefighter with the Tupelo Fire Department.
Investigator Bobby Bean also investigates cyber crime for the Sheriff’s office in addition to his regular duties. The Tupelo Police Department has three investigators who work in their cyber crimes division.
“It has to be something you really want to do,” said Investigator Brandon Garrett of the Tupelo Police Department. “We’ve caught several people in their early 20s transferring child pornography and we got them before they were acting this out. I can’t they’re not going to do it when they get out but maybe they’ll be rehabilitated and it makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something.”
Cunningham said he and Bean look at well over 100 pieces of digital media each year.
“Just about any crime you can think of can have digital evidence attached to it,” Cunningham said. “The problem is a lot of people don’t utilize it.”
Lee County’s cyber crimes divisions reach beyond the county lines to assist most of North Mississippi, having worked cases for Panola, Prentiss, Tishomingo, Chickasaw sheriff’s offices, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, and Oxford and Ripley police departments this year.
Bean said their department has helped secure two federal indictments and one local indictment so far this year.
The cases can take upwards of two weeks to complete because each image or video frame has to be viewed and logged and each file categorized.
“It sounds like a long time but the options in the state are few and far between,” Cunningham said. “Before us, the only game in town was the Attorney General’s Office and they were, at one point, two years behind.”
Bean agreed the job is not only time consuming but difficult at times because of the sensitive content.
“You just have to sit down and talk to a (psychologist) because you see everything from infants to preteens and it’s very disturbing,” Bean said.
The Tupelo Police Department’s division is funded through the department’s budget, the sheriff’s division is funded through grants.
“This is a passion that we know we have to exhaust every means we have to get this done,” Johnson said. “That’s how much we care about it.”
jb.clark@jounralinc.com