Justin Combs

Detective Justin Combs, a member of the Computer Forensics Unit at the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department, peers into a magnifying eyepiece to get a close look at the configuration of a cellphone from which he is extracting data. The owner of the cell phone died from a presumed drug overdose, he said, and information retrieved from the phone may help police officers determine the circumstances of the death.

NORTH HAVERHILL — Of Grafton County’s 39 communities, 29 have police departments and only a dozen are staffed 24-7, which makes the work of the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department’s Computer Forensics Unit all the more vital, Sheriff Jeff Stiegler says.

The unit includes two investigators — Detective Justin Combs and Lt. Frederic James — and a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of snazzy equipment that can unlock information on just about anything that communicates electronically and/or stores data digitally.

Combs, who has studied with both the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service, recently came back from a training session in Alabama that Stiegler said lasted a month.

James said that the present and future of crime and crime-solving is electronic.

“There’s always a secondary crime scene,” said James, and invariably it’s an electronic one.

“These things (electronic devices) are an extension of everyone,” said Stiegler, and when legally and correctly accessed, can yield troves of unimpeachable data.

Grafton County computer forensics unit

A deconstructed cell phone motherboard sits in the cradle of a VR-table in the Computer Forensics Unit at the at the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department.

Formed several years ago under then County Attorney Lara Saffo and Sheriff Doug Dutile, the unit is believed to be the only one of its kind north of Concord.

A police officer, detective and prosecutor with the Laconia Police Department for nearly a quarter-century before serving as chief of police in Bradford Vt. for six years, Stiegler considers himself an old-school cop. Like James, he said he began his career in law enforcement at a time when the physical crime scene was the entire crime scene.

Gradually, however, as electronic devices were introduced and then became ubiquitous, Stiegler’s thinking evolved and he realized that “if you can’t pick up the electronic trace evidence, you’re behind the eight ball.”

The unit operates in two rooms, a secure, “dirty” lab where the team members dissect electronic equipment, and a “clean” room. The unit’s primary mission is identifying and building cases against persons who exploit children.

Grafton County forensics tools

Two of the tools used in the Computer Forensics Unit at the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department: on the left, a VR table, set up for JTAG (Joint Test Action Group) forensics acquisition and a laptop computer on the right ready to receive and store the recovered data.

James recalled that when he started with the forensics unit some eight years ago, it operated reactively, following up on tips involving child sexual-abuse images. Now it can do that as well as initiate investigations.

The unit has assisted law-enforcement agencies in New Hampshire, including the State Police and Fire Marshal, and has “opened a window,” said Stiegler, to work with agencies in Vermont.

Most significantly, said James, the unit has identified victims of child-sexual abuse and in several instances saved them from abuse. The unit’s work has also led to numerous prosecutions, with more than a dozen photos of convicted perpetrators pasted onto the lab’s “wall of shame.”

Stiegler said the forensics unit, whose operation is almost entirely funded by federal and state grants, represents $20,000 in the current budget for Grafton County.

Asked about some of the techniques used by the computer forensics unit, Combs gave a nuanced answer.

“We can’t give away our little trade secrets, but we have ways to access iPhones, Androids, anything,” said Combs.

He added that the computer forensics unit has done investigations involving those and other manufacturer’s cellphones, as well as computers, tablets, gaming consoles, exercise monitors, and automobiles.