How does a lead investigator not know…

…the basics of cellular data?

Cellular phone data is rocket science, but the basics of it are not. The basic scientific principles are remarkably simple. Anyone who applies themselves can master them. Caveat-No I’m not an expert. But I’ve learned a lot from research and from an expert. Check it out for yourself. But here’s what I know.

Cell phones and towers connect by way of radio waves. So, of course to understand precisely what is occurring when a cellphone handset connects to a cellular tower, you would need to be an RF engineer or have an aptitude for this kind of thing. But the basics of all this are not that hard to understand–so how is it, exactly, that Investigator Ryan Smith is so clueless? Didn’t he listen to testimony given by FBI Agent, Kevin Boles?

During the documentary “Two Shallow Graves”, lead investigator Ryan Smith made a big hoopla about Chase connecting to or “pinging” off of two towers on the Quartzite Mountain range. The clear inference to be had from his statements is that the only location Chase Merritt could have been when he connected to those two towers (for just seconds, by the way) was directly beneath the towers, in clear view of them and at the gravesites.

WRONG. Unbelievably wrong.

So wrong that it is scary that Smith is investigating anything more complex than a traffic violation. This aspect of cellular data is so rudimentary, that if these DAs and investigators don’t know how this stuff works, give them another job. Please. They should not be investigating criminal cases. Especially not ones were so much is at stake.

That’s not how radio waves work. Depending on all kinds of factors, radio waves can travel short or long distances. At certain frequencies, radio waves can even travel through concrete walls. It is all dependent on how they are engineered.

From what I’ve learned: You don’t have to be in view of a tower, at all, for your phone to connect with it, all you have to be is within range of that tower.

In other words, you have to be in an area that, that tower offers coverage. An area to which the radio waves being emitted can reach you.

It is very common in rural areas, especially in 2010 (12 years ago) for towers to offer coverage for long distances-because there were fewer towers built at that time. They had to cover a lot more terrain than they do today. And cellular handsets offered stronger signal in those years, as well.

At trial it was determined that the range of the towers on the Quartzite Mountain offered coverage to many locations, other than the graves-for example: Oro Grande (where Chases’s sister lived); Apple Valley (where Chase’s brother lived); north and south of the towers on I-!5 (where Chase might have driven) and Victorville (where Chase may have run errands for his older siblings or had lunch with them at Coco’s) .

There was coverage for at least 20 miles from that Quartzite Mountains, probably more. So, it is misleading, if not outright false, to suggest that the only place that a person could be making a call and connect to those towers is directly below and within view of them.

Elevation, can also play a part. If the cell tower is at a higher elevation than the caller or subscriber, the reach or coverage from that tower can be surprisingly far. Cell phone expert, Kevin Boles testified at another trial that there had been a documented occasion when he had made a call in San Bernardino, the city, and had connected to a tower in the San Gorgonio Mountain, 30 miles away from where he was.

Also, worth mentioning is that the calls Chase made, connecting to the towers on the Quartzite Mountains, took a crazy long time to connect. On average those calls took 20 seconds each just to connect handset to tower, and only stayed connected for a few seconds, as well. One would expect a person at the graves to have perfect reception. There are no obstructions between a caller and the towers in that location. I’ll agree with Smith on this, a person at the graves would be very close, indeed.

In fact, John Bluth, the off-road motorcyclist who discovered the graves in 2013, actually made a call from the gravesites. He was on his phone for probably 15, 20 minutes, no interruptions in service, which is the opposite of what occurred for Chase.

The only call on February 6, that Chase was able to make, that lasted long enough for him to speak with someone (3 minutes) was around noon, and he connected to a tower right in the middle of Victorville.

A tower very close to Coco’s, a restaurant he had been to before for lunch, with his sister when he visited that area on another occasion.

Check out John Bluth’s testimony at the 42:23 minute mark.

Analysis of Mobile Phone Geolocation Methods Used in US Courts