Hacking redux : FBI to now hack iPhone and iPod in Arkansas murder case

Somewhere down the line, Apple’s prediction that helping FBI unlock the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone could open a gateway for hundreds of such requests from US agencies seems to be ringing true. Many privacy advocates had warned of a situation where the US investigative agencies may demand all smartphone makers including Apple and Google to help it unlock a variety of smartphones.

Just days after the FBI announced that it had gained access to San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, the agency has now agreed to help prosecutors in Arkansas unlock an iPhone and iPod belonging to two teenagers accused of killing a couple.

Faulkner County Prosecuting Attorney Cody Hiland said the FBI agreed to the request from his office and the Conway Police Department Wednesday afternoon, while a judge agreed to postpone the trial so officials could ask the FBI for assistance.

Two teenagers, Hunter Drexler, 18, and Justin Staton, 15, are accused of killing Robert and Patricia Cogdell at their home in Conway, 30 miles north of Little Rock, in July. The Cogdells had raised Staton as their grandson. Drexler’s trial was moved from next week to June 27.

According to court records, a 17-year-old witness who was at the Codgell’s home at the time of the attack, said the murder plan had been conceived while all three were in juvenile jail together.

‘Justin’s plan was to shoot and kill his grandparents, split a large sum of money and credit cards between the three of them and then they would all run away,’ the boy told authorities. ‘Justin estimated their take at $50,000 to $90,000.’

An affidavit filed with the charges, revealed that Staton told officers that, after complaining to Drexler about his grandparents, Drexler suggested that he shoot them.

The FBI announced Monday that it had gained access to an iPhone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook, who died with his wife in a gun battle with police after they killed 14 people in San Bernardino in December. They said that they did not need the Cupertino-based company’s help to unlock an iPhone that belonged to Farook. Apple had refused to help authorities unlock the device, and was in a legal dispute with the FBI over the matter.

The FBI hasn’t disclosed how it cracked Farook’s iPhone. Authorities also haven’t said whether the iPhone and iPod in the Arkansas case are the same models. Also, it wasn’t immediately clear if the FBI would use the same method to unlock the devices as used in the San Bernardino case.

Prosecutors already had possession of an iPhone that is believed to be Drexler’s after he and two other teenagers were arrested in Texas and brought back to Arkansas after the homicides.

The officials said recorded phone conversations between Staton and other individuals suggest that he had used the iPod to communicate about the murder plans. They also claim there may be further evidence on the device.

Hiland said he could not discuss details of the murder case in Arkansas, but confirmed the FBI had agreed less than a day after the initial request.

“We always appreciate their cooperation and willingness to help their local law enforcement partners,” he said.

Drexler and Staton have both pleaded not guilty to capital murder, aggravated robbery and other charges in the deaths of the couple, who were both 66.

Patrick Benca, Drexler’s attorney, confirmed that he was notified that the FBI had agreed to help unlock his client’s phone.

“We’re not concerned about anything on that phone,” Benca said.

Meanwhile, prosecutor Hiland said he’s not concerned with setting a precedent with his case, and that he simply wants access to all the available evidence.

“Our focus is on the case,” he said. “Our job is to seek justice.”

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