Jewish World Review

JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Greg Crosby
Larry Elder
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

'Geek' sleuth unlocks protected computer files and reveals killers | (KRT) COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - He named the file "My Sins."

Everyone at the El Paso County Sheriff's Office wanted to read what Alan Yerkey said about his sins.

They had arrested him for the murder of 12-year-old Danielle Bonfield.

They wondered if he was responsible for killing 24-year-old Deidre Malachowski, whose body was dumped in the mountains nine months earlier.

Would "My Sins" contain a clue? Maybe, but Yerkey protected the small file with a password.

Detectives turned to their computer-geek-in-residence - John San Agustin. An engineer, he recently joined the Sheriff's Office to do a job thought to be the only one of its kind in U.S. law enforcement - developing computer software programs to present evidence to jurors in understandable ways.

San Agustin went to work on "My Sins," using computer software. He was alone in the lab when the software cracked the password after 16 hours and billions of combinations.


He typed it in, and the screen opened to a list of six chilling sentences:

"The Rape of (a Colorado Springs woman)," read the first.

"The Rape and Murder of Deidra," read the second.

The detectives had their evidence.

A chill shivered down San Agustin's spine. He was alone in the computer laboratory, face to face with the thoughts of a killer.

I've found my calling, he thought.

Then he ran for the commander's office with the news.

No one thought of San Agustin, 33, as a law enforcement type.

He was the kid who got good grades and helped other kids with their homework. He knew he would follow his uncles into engineering.

He did, graduating from Widefield High School in 1987, then studying electrical engineering at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

For several years as an engineer, his days developed a sameness: going to his desk at 8 a.m. every day, writing computer code until 5 p.m.

"There's no communication with the outside world," he said. "You're just dealing with fellow geeks."

In 1993, he met John Anderson. The soon-to-be sheriff was preparing to testify as a blood stain expert at a trial for three Denver police officers accused of using excessive force.

The two talked about San Agustin's job, developing programs that helped soldiers understand how satellites work.

Anderson asked whether he could take the same approach on a police case, organizing evidence in a way that helped jurors understand blood stain patterns.

San Agustin created a computer program that included a re-enactment of the scene, showing how the suspect fell and bloodied his nose as he ran from police.

"I took the blood evidence and was able to tell the story piece by piece," he said.

The officers were cleared.

In 1995, San Agustin created a program for the case of Steve Staskiewicz and Jennifer Carpenter, found shot to death in 1991 in their trailer near Old Colorado City.

The presentation laid out the sheriff's case against Timothy Kennedy for the 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office.

"It allowed them to see how the evidence linked to that suspect," San Agustin said.

Prosecutors charged Kennedy. At the trial, San Agustin again used the presentation. Kennedy was convicted.

By 1998, San Agustin was working full time for the Sheriff's Office, creating the presentations that walk jurors down the path that led detectives to their suspects.

"The jurors are seeing the crime scene," investigations Cmdr. Joe Breister said. "It brings the point home."

San Agustin's Dell computer is a chamber of horrors, housing dozens of stories of violent deaths.

It contains the Columbine file, painstakingly created last year after the Jefferson County sheriff asked the El Paso sheriff to investigate whether a police officer, not one of the two gunmen, shot student Daniel Rohrbough.

San Agustin clicks on Rohrbough's name, and the screen produces an autopsy photo showing the wound in the boy's pale chest. He can pull up close-ups of the fatal bullet or audiotape of frantic voices calling 911 on April 20, 1999.

"You can bring the entire environment to them," San Agustin said. "They're able to be there, understand why we did what we did. We can say, `Let's walk you through what happened on the day in question.'"

San Agustin took on the job of the computer forensic specialist, searching computers seized from suspected pedophiles for evidence of child pornography or retracing a victim's steps through the Internet.

Before San Agustin, the Sheriff's Office had no one to do that work.

His arrival coincided with the rise in use of computers in crimes.

"We were fortunate we had John on board when it became such a problem," Breister said.

That was especially true in the Yerkey case.

If not for San Agustin, investigators would have sent the file to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, whose one computer specialist had a nine-month case backlog.

San Agustin said his work on that case delivered a sense of purpose. "I thought, `There may be a fit for a guy like me back here.'"

San Agustin wondered about that at first, spending his first several years trying to find his place among people who carry guns, kick in doors and don't flinch at autopsies.

"It was a shock," he said. "Here I was, a geek, coming into a field that has no room for a geek. For the first couple of years, I wasn't accepted."

They had their fun, especially at San Agustin's first autopsy, Breister said.

Dealing with autopsies - the smells more than the sights - is hard for rookies. At San Agustin's first autopsy, the other detectives stood close behind him so he could not back up.

"As soon as the coroner was ready to make the incision, we told him to get closer," Breister said.

San Agustin's face paled when the smell hit him, but he managed to keep from vomiting and to take the photos he needed.

He said he's learned from veterans how to detach himself from the horrors.

He learned how the job could make life hard on families. "I get paged, and my wife says, `You have to go out again?'" he said.

Old computer friends also wondered about his new job.

"You were always a geek," they told him.

Where had this new interest come from?

Did it bother him?

Could he sleep at night?

"But I love getting called at 2 a.m.," he said. "It's like, `Let's go find another bad guy.'"

A bad guy who's consumed much of San Agustin's time in the past several years is the same bad guy many Americans have wondered about since 1996 - JonBenet Ramsey's killer.

San Agustin and Ollie Gray, partners in a private consulting business, have worked for the 6-year-old's parents since 1999.

San Agustin said he learned about the case from Lou Smit, a retired El Paso sheriff's detective who has worked for the Ramseys.

Hearing about the case from Smit, San Agustin began to believe in the couple's innocence.

The Ramseys asked him to work for them, and San Agustin agreed to work for free, on the condition that if he found anything that incriminated them, he'd take it to Boulder authorities. They agreed.

"We really believe in their innocence," he said, noting the presence of foreign DNA on the child's body and other evidence pointing to the theory that an intruder killed the child.

"The stun gun, the tape, the rope on the garrote - none of it has been tied to the family," San Agustin said.

As he has with other cases, he's organized data and created a software program that includes photos of the infamous basement, the stairs where the ransom note was found and the white rope cutting into the child's neck.

Put together, it suggests an intruder broke into the Ramsey home and killed JonBenet, he said.

The endorsements given by a federal judge and Boulder District Attorney Mary Keenan last month to that same theory may signal a new direction in the case, he said.

"Mary Keenan knows the evidence doesn't support the Ramseys doing it," he said. "Instead of having blinders on, she's allowing investigators to open up their eyes."

If prosecutors need anything from the Ramsey team, they'll provide it.

San Agustin is focusing less these days on outside work and more on his job in Colorado Springs.

He'll get help soon. The Sheriff's Office is assigning a deputy to work with him - someone with computer skills and the ability as a sworn officer to make arrests.

That remains the one thing San Agustin, as a civilian, can't do, and it's fine with him.

"I'll stick to being a geek."

Appreciate this type of reporting? Why not sign-up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.

Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services