view full story- Sue Bernie, East Baton Rouge sex crimes prosecutor, retires after 30 years of representing victims of sexual abuse
Retiring East Baton Rouge Parish sex crimes prosecutor Sue Bernie tears up when she reflects on her more than three-decade career of seeking justice for victims of sexual and physical assault and on the plaque that hangs just inside her office. It reads: “A hundred years from now … it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove … but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.”
The plaque was given to Bernie years ago by one of her investigators, Steve Danielson, now a fellow prosecutor in the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office. “It’s always been very special,” she said. Bernie believes strongly in the words on the plaque, words the 64-year-old prosecutor has lived by since joining the District Attorney’s Office in 1986.
She has been the section chief of the office’s sex crimes division since 1988 and has come in contact with thousands of children and adults victimized by sexual and physical abuse.
Bernie, who worked for three years at the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office under then-District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. before joining the staff of the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office, said she has viewed her work as a sex crimes prosecutor as “a way of giving a stronger voice to women and children” who have been victimized.
“I tried,” the prosecutor said in a soft, humble voice. “You always want to make a positive difference.”
“It’s been rewarding,” she added, “but it’s time to hand on the baton.”
That baton is going to fellow Assistant District Attorney Sonya Cardia-Porter, who will take over as chief of the sex crimes division when Bernie leaves in June. “She’ll do a great job,” Bernie said of her successor.
East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore III, who has been Bernie’s boss since 2009, called Bernie a “tireless champion for sexual assault victims” in Louisiana and said she will be sorely missed. “She has handled thousands of sex crimes cases in her career and tried more such jury trials than any other sex crimes prosecutor,” he said. “East Baton Rouge has particularly been fortunate to have had her serve our community for the majority of her service.”
Moore said Bernie’s expertise and skill in the realm of sex crime prosecution is one that people from all over the state look to for advice and guidance in sexual assault-related matters. “She has blazed a path that no one before her has traveled,” he said. “She is leaving our community and particularly the East Baton Rouge District Attorney’s Office in a much better position than when she arrived.”
Some of her more high-profile prosecutions have included former local NAACP President George Washington Eames, south Louisiana rapper Mystikal, former Baton Rouge police officer James Dietrich Jr., former LSU running backs Jeremy Hill and Cecil “The Diesel” Collins and several former teachers at the Louisiana School for the Deaf.
Eames was sentenced in 1995 to more than five years in prison for molesting and contributing to the delinquency of a teenage girl. Mystikal, whose real name is Michael Tyler, spent six years in prison in the 2000s for sexual battery and extortion. Dietrich was sentenced in 1996 to six months in a halfway house and five years probation for fondling a teen girl.
Hill was put on probation in 2012 after pleading guilty as a Redemptorist High School senior to a misdemeanor charge of carnal knowledge of a juvenile. Collins was put on probation in the late 1990s after he pleaded guilty to charges that accused him of forcing his way into the Baton Rouge apartments of two women and fondling them. He later served more than 13 years in a Florida prison for a burglary conviction in that state while on probation in Louisiana. He remains on probation in Louisiana.
Bernie said she has dealt with victims younger than 3 years old and as old as 99.
Her prosecutorial efforts also have sent “lots” — Bernie says she doesn’t keep statistics — of rapists to prison for the rest of their lives, including Hollis Maten, of Baton Rouge, who was 50 in 2011 when he was convicted in two cold cases of raping two women at knifepoint in the 1980s. DNA eventually linked him to the crimes. “The development of DNA has just been incredible,” she said.
Bernie said the real heroes are the victims of sexual and physical abuse who help prosecutors bring their abusers to justice.
Bernie, whose law degree from the University of Florida never stopped her from being a fervent supporter of the LSU Lady Tiger basketball and softball programs, played a large role in the creation of the Baton Rouge Children’s Advocacy Center in 2002. She described the center as a “child-friendly” environment where young victims can be interviewed by law enforcement and child protection workers. In recent years, more therapy services have been added for children and their families, she said.
Bernie has been a district attorney representative on the Children’s Advocacy Center board and will continue as an ad hoc member in her retirement.
She has testified numerous times before the Legislature and was instrumental in having the spousal exception removed from the state’s rape statute in 1990.
The Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault annually presents the Sue Bernie Justice Award to deserving recipients.
Although she will be retired by then, Bernie will return in August to the 19th Judicial District Courthouse for jury duty.
Published 5/25/15 - The AdvocateLouisiana police increasingly using cellphone data — ‘the mother lode for law enforcement’ — in crime investigations; finding Taherah Ghassemi’s body latest example
Police increasingly using cellphone data in crime investigations
Taherah Ghassemi’s body might still be buried in the woods — and the men accused of abducting and killing her might still be free — if it weren’t for cellphones. The increasingly computerized devices played a pivotal role in ending the five-week search for Ghassemi and her alleged killers, reflecting the increasing usefulness of smartphones to law enforcement as the devices become near necessities for Americans across the socioeconomic spectrum.
Ghassemi disappeared in early April, and detectives over the weekend arrested her ex-husband, Hamid Ghassemi, and three other men accused of accepting $10,000 from him to abduct, kill and bury his ex-wife. The killing occurred several weeks after the Ghassemis settled a decadelong divorce battle, which resulted in Taherah Ghassemi receiving more than $1 million and two homes from her estranged husband.
Specifically, cellphone records aided detectives several ways in the investigation into Taherah Ghassemi’s disappearance. A phone call made to her ex-husband several hours after she was last heard from led investigators to the caller, 20-year-old Tyler Lee Ashpaugh, according to a Sheriff’s Office report. And more than a month after the Baton Rouge woman disappeared, on Saturday, it was location data collected from Ashpaugh’s phone that finally led investigators to the remote woods where Taherah Ghassemi’s body was found wrapped in a comforter stolen from her home, the report says.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office declined to comment Tuesday on the importance of cellphone records in the investigation into Ghassemi’s disappearance. But statements made Monday by the Sheriff’s Office homicide commander, Capt. Todd Morris, coupled with an arrest report, indicated key developments came largely from information obtained from cellphones. “That played a part in going to that location,” Morris said Monday when asked how detectives found Ghassemi’s body buried in the woods north of Pine Grove in a rural area of St. Helena Parish.
Peter L. Scharf, a policing expert and professor at the LSU Health Sciences Center’s Institute for Public Health and Justice, said the potential value of cellphones to law enforcement during many types of investigations cannot be overstated. “Cellphones can be the mother lode for law enforcement,” Scharf said, noting how the proliferation of such information has alarmed privacy advocates. “The evidence can be used both to point to possible criminal activity and also to exclude subjects from an investigation, which happens most of the time.”
Experts in mobile computing forensics — as the field is called — said cellphones provide a wealth of information on a user’s whereabouts, varying greatly depending on the type of phone, how it’s being used and whether it’s turned on. “If you get a cellphone, it’s a gold mine,” said Avinash Srinivasan, an associate professor of computer and information sciences at Temple University who has trained law enforcement officers in computing forensics. “It, in fact, has more information than you can imagine.”
Although there are ways to reduce the geo-footprint left either on a user’s device or elsewhere, such as on a phone company server, experts in mobile forensics said most people willingly submit to the information being collected. Without doing so, the devices often become much less useful.
Applications, such as Facebook or Google Maps, usually require users to fork over their location information. In exchange, users can, when it comes to navigation apps, figure out exactly where they are any time of day or night, or how to find the nearest restaurants, theaters or gas stations. “All of that data is stored somewhere,” said Jonathan Rajewski, an assistant professor of digital forensics at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. “Either it’s on your phone, or on the cloud, or on a server somewhere.”
And when law enforcement officers believe such location information is crucial to an investigation, such as in the Ghassemi case, they draft search warrants to collect the information from wherever it’s being stored. “This information could be pivotal in a case,” Rajewski said. “It could be the smoking gun.”
Still, he said, location data is limited in its effectiveness on its own. The data will only show the position of the phone, not necessarily the person who was carrying it, Rajewski noted. “It’s just another piece of the puzzle,” he said. “If they were blindly relying on the phone, that wouldn’t be a good investigation.”
Depending on the device, a phone could be logging location notes in several ways at the same time. An app could be sending location data to a server while the device itself takes notes about its positioning for every text message it receives. And if a phone call is underway, cell towers could be “pinging” the device, telling phone companies where the device is located. “They don’t give a location specific, but they give a location general,” Richard P. Mislan, a professor of computing security at Rochester Institute of Technology, said regarding the cell tower records. Depending on how many towers are being used — generally up to three in urban areas and as few as one in rural areas — those records alone could show the location of a device within about 300 feet, Mislan said.
Even more recently, the proliferation of Wi-Fi networks has allowed more location data to be recorded by smartphones. In some cases, the device doesn’t even have to connect to the wireless network — maybe it just attempts to — for the information to be stored somewhere, experts said. Some positioning data may be stored forever on the device. Other data may only be available for a matter of days or months, the experts said. “Even if you turn it off, turn it on, it will create different types of pings,” said Srinivasan, the Temple University professor.
For example, the device might note where it was when the phone was turned off, then make another note once it is turned back on. Even without recording location data while off, such information could prove useful to law enforcement, mobile forensics experts said, because most of the data is incredibly reliable. “You have to be a super smart, sophisticated criminal to tamper it,” Srinivasan said.
Published 5/20/15 - The Advocate Flakka, Synthetic Drug Behind Increasingly Bizarre Crimes
One man ran naked through a Florida neighborhood, tried to have sex with a tree and told police he was the mythical god Thor. Another ran nude down a busy city street in broad daylight, convinced a pack of German shepherds was pursuing him. Two others tried separately to break into the Fort Lauderdale Police Department. They said they thought people were chasing them; one wound up impaled on a fence.
The common element to these and other bizarre incidents in Florida in the last few months is flakka, an increasingly popular synthetic designer drug. Also known as gravel and readily available for $5 or less a vial, it's a growing problem for police after bursting on the scene in 2013.
It is the latest in a series of synthetic drugs that include Ecstasy and bath salts, but officials say flakka is even easier to obtain in small quantities through the mail. Flakka's active ingredient is a chemical compound called alpha-PVP, which is on the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's list of the controlled substances most likely to be abused. It is usually made overseas in countries such as China and Pakistan.
Flakka, a derivative of the Spanish word for a thin, pretty woman, is usually sold in a crystal form and is often smoked using electronic cigarettes, which are popular with young people and give off no odor. It can also be snorted, injected or swallowed.
"I've had one addict describe it as $5 insanity," said Don Maines, a drug treatment counselor with the Broward Sheriff's Office in Fort Lauderdale. "They still want to try it because it's so cheap. It gives them heightened awareness. They feel stronger and more sensitive to touch. But then the paranoia sets in."
Judging from the evidence being seized by police around Florida, flakka use is up sharply. Submissions for testing to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's crime labs have grown from 38 in 2013 to 228 in 2014. At the Broward Sheriff's Office laboratory, flakka submissions grew from fewer than 200 in 2014 to 275 already, in just the first three months of this year, according to spokeswoman Keyla Concepcion. "It's definitely something we are watching. It's an emerging drug," said Chad Brown, an FDLE supervisory special agent.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Florida appears to be the nation's hot spot for reports of flakka, also known as gravel. News reports have also cited flakka or gravel appearing in Ohio, Texas and Tennessee.
In one recent case, 22-year-old Jaime Nicole Lewis was charged in a DEA complaint with conspiracy to distribute flakka after DEA agents based in London intercepted U.S.-bound packages of the drug that were made in Hong Kong. An undercover DEA agent posing as a delivery company employee then brought the packages to Lewis' home in Palm Beach County, according to a court affidavit. "Synthetic drugs are illegal and present a grave danger to our community, particularly our children," said Miami U.S. Attorney Wifredo Ferrer.
Lewis is being held without bail and is due to enter a plea next week. Her attorney, Paul Lazarus, said prosecutors will have to prove she knew the packages contained illegal drugs. A man believed to be the flakka ringleader in this case also is charged, but has not been arrested.
New cases keep coming: On Thursday, police in Boynton Beach arrested 20-year-old Qushanna Doby on child neglect charges after officers found her 1-year-old daughter, crying and shivering in a soiled diaper, outside an office building along a busy road. Doby told officers she had had smoked flakka, and suffered hallucinations from the drug in the past. It wasn't clear if she had an attorney.
James West, a 50-year-old homeless man, was caught on surveillance video in February trying to kick in the heavy glass front door of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, finally cracking it with large rocks. Bleeding above one eye, West told officers that he was desperate for help from police because "he was being chased by 20-25 individuals and he didn't know why." He later told police he had smoked flakka.
In March, Shanard Neely got impaled through the buttocks on the department's 10-foot-high security fence while trying to climb over, convinced he was being pursued and that "he needed to go to jail or they would kill him," police said. Neely, 37, also told officers he had smoked flakka. It took hours for rescuers to cut him down.
And in Palm Beach County, a SWAT team had to talk Leroy Strothers, 33, off a rooftop in January. He had fired a shot from up there, claiming he was being followed by a Haitian gang that had threatened his family. Strothers, who was charged with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, told officers he had smoked flakka and could not remember how he got on the roof. "I'm feeling delusional and hallucinating," Strothers said, according to a sheriff's report.
The FDLE's Brown said his agency is training police to better recognize flakka and the symptoms it can cause. One challenge is that flakka manufacturers make subtle changes to its chemical makeup, foiling efforts to test for the drug, and it is frequently mixed with other substances, such as crack cocaine or heroin, with unknown effects, said Maines, of the Broward Sheriff's Office.
With prolonged use over as little as three days, behavioral changes can be severe. "It actually starts to rewire the brain chemistry. They have no control over their thoughts. They can't control their actions," Maines said. "It seems to be universal that they think someone is chasing them. It's just a dangerous, dangerous drug."