Chesterton Tribune


Detective plots best estimated locations of McCowan's cell phone

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By 3:02 a.m. Friday, Sept. 16, 2011, the cluster of “best estimated locations” for Dustin McCowan’s cell phone—provided by Verizon—had moved north from the general vicinity of his home on C.R. 625W to the general vicinity of Wheeler.

Then, around 3:30 a.m., that cluster of “best estimated locations” began moving south again.

That was the testimony on Tuesday of PCSP Gene Hopkins.

Those “best estimated locations” are not, Hopkins stated, GPS positions, as was intimated at McCowan’s bond hearing in November 2011, and have nothing like the consistent accuracy of GPS positions.

Instead, Verizon determined those “best estimated locations” through algorithmic calculations of the time it took—in any given call or text—for a radio frequency from a tower to reach McCowan’s handset and then return.

Thus, when McCowan was known, at 5:40 a.m. that Friday, to be using his cell at the Speedway on Ind. 30—while in the company of Allison Boldie—the closest plot of McCowan’s “best estimated location” at that time was 120 yards away. As Hopkins put it, “best estimated locations” are “accurate to a point.”

Hopkins’ offered his testimony over the defense’s objections, on two grounds: first, that Hopkins is a layman and not qualified to discuss telecommunications; and second, that Verizon’s locating technology is unreliable. Porter Superior Court Judge Bill Alexa overruled the defense objection.

Hopkins began his testimony by showing the jury the maps of his plots of McCowan’s “best estimated locations” for time periods during which he was verified to have been in a certain place.

•Between 12:09 and 1:21 a.m. Friday, Sept. 16, when McCowan told investigators that he and Amanda Bach were playing a video game and watching a movie at his home. The “best estimated location” at 12:09 a.m. is around half a mile from his home; another, for a 1:21 a.m. text to Bach’s phone, is 600 yards from his phone.

•At 5:40 a.m., when McCowan and Boldie were known to have been at the Speedway on U.S. 30, the plots of “best estimated locations” are clustered in the general vicinity of the gas station.

•Between 5:51 and 6:53 a.m., when McCowan and Boldie were visiting the Hutchins home in Salt Creek Commons, the plots of “best known locations” are clustered in the general vicinity of the Hutchins home.

•At 1:50 p.m. that Friday, when McCowan was known to have been at a Speedway on U.S. 30 in Merrillville, as he and his friends were headed out of town for Bloomington, the plots of “best estimated locations” are clustered in the general vicinity of that gas station.

•Finally, while McCowan and his friends were en route to Bloomington, the plots of “best estimated locations” generally track south down I-65.

However, between 1:36 and 3:30 a.m. the plots of “best estimated locations” which had been generally clustered around McCowan’s home begin to move north, Hopkins testified, although there are two gaps during this period in McCowan’s cell-phone activity: between 2:12 and 2:30 a.m., then another between 2:30 and 3:02 a.m.

At the same time, Hopkins said, McCowan’s texts to Jordan Walbright tend to “contradict” the movements suggested by the “best estimated locations.” Thus, at 1:36 a.m. he invited himself to Walbright’s house, at 1:45 told her he’d be over in “a second,” at 2:12 a.m. told her he needed to use the restroom.

There is then a gap until 2:30 a.m., at which time Hopkins testified his plot of the “best estimated location” was north of McCowan’s home.

Another gap ends at 3:04 a.m., when McCowan texts Walbright that he has to let the dog out. At that point, all cell activity for McCowan has switched to the Wheeler tower to the north of his home, Hopkins testified, and all plots until 3:30 a.m. are clustered to the north.

Then, at 3:30 a.m., the plots of “best estimated locations” begin to move south again, as McCowan texts his father at 3:37 a.m. to say that he’s going to IU later that day and then again at 3:41 a.m. to tell his father that he’s at Jordan’s house.

Under defense attorney Nick Barnes’ cross examination, Hopkins stated that Verizon will not guarantee the accuracy of its locating system. “I was told they have been spot on and they have been off by a mile.”

“So you can’t verify the accuracy?” Barnes pressed.

“No,” Hopkins replied.

Was Hopkins aware that, when investigators sent officers to search plots taken of McCowan’s “best estimated locations,” they subsequently found that the plots were of “densely wood property” or of “not easily accessible property?”

Hopkins was aware.

Barnes then led Hopkins through the maps of plots. One “best estimated location” between 12:09 and 1:21 a.m. was on C.R. 725, maybe a mile and a half from McCowan’s home. The furthest “best estimated location” while McCowan was at the Speedway at 5:40 a.m. was at least half a mile away. The furthest while he was at the Hutchins home was one-half to three-quarters of a mile away.

Was Hopkins aware that, at 1:21 a.m.—around the time Linda Phillips said she heard voices—a “best estimated location” is in the middle of a cornfield? Barnes asked.

Hopkins was aware.

Was Hopkins also aware that, at 2:30 a.m.—when Michael Steege said he saw McCowan walking southbound along C.R. 650W—a “best estimated location” is near County Line Road, a little over a mile away? Barnes asked.

Hopkins was aware.





Posted 2.20.2013