Dog trained to sniff out electronics helps with child porn cases

Mirror photo by Shen Wu Tan / James Walstrom, Keystone K9 and Security owner, trains Kimo, an electronic storage detection dog, to sniff out and locate electronic devices at a facility in Hollidaysburg. Since the dog’s adoption in early 2018, he has assisted with 10 child pornography cases in the area.

HOLLIDAYSBURG — A child porn suspect stacked piles and piles of tightly packed clothes at his Altoona residence, allegedly attempting to hide the fact the space was a walk-in closet filled with electronic proof of his crimes.

But Kimo, an electronic storage detection dog trained to sniff out electronics such as USB drives, computers, cellphones and other devices, sat passively in front of the closet, his nose pointed directly at the stacked clothes.

It was then his handler and owner, James Walstrom, and accompanying law enforcement discovered what was hidden behind the clothes, after moving the piles and reaching into open air.

Since the dog’s adoption in early 2018, Kimo has assisted with 10 child pornography cases in Blair and Huntingdon counties, including the case of Stephen Apostolu, who is accused of operating a child pornography and prostitution network with his girlfriend, Karen S. Tornatore.

For the Apostolu case, police searched two Logan Hills apartments and an Altoona residence, but felt they had missed evidence in the initial search, according to Walstrom, who owns Keystone K9 and Security. Walstrom said he was then asked to bring in Kimo for another search, where they uncovered thumb drives, a camera and a “go bag” with electronics.

“In circumstances such as these investigations, there’s no piece of hardware or data collection tool that is insignificant because it can be stored on anything,” said Julie Cruse, a canine handler who assists Walstrom. She said suspects might erase content and keep the items under the impression the evidence is gone, but forensic teams have the ability to recover deleted content.

“So it’s exciting when we even find an old thumb drive tossed in junk drawers,” she said.

The Altoona Police Department used Kimo for two child pornography cases in 2018, both still ongoing cases, and one that involved several search warrants, according to Lt. Michael Sapienza. While 2018 statistics are not completely compiled yet, APD had more than a dozen arrests involving child pornography last year, said Sgt. Matthew Plummer.

Sapienza described Kimo as an obvious asset to the police department and the community, commenting on how dogs have senses humans don’t and can be used as tools in investigations if trained.

It takes six weeks to fully train electronic storage detection dogs. During his training at Shallow Creek Kennels in Sharpsville, Kimo learned how to detect two distinct scents of electronics — one given off by circuit boards of storage devices and another given off by DVDs, CDs and floppy disks.

Kimo, who is an imported stock Lab from the Netherlands, takes his orders in Dutch and sits and stares when he detects an electronic device.

To train him, Walstrom uses a variety of electronic devices that wouldn’t be easily detected by human eyes.

While police and other investigators could find larger items such as computers and cellphones, Kimo is instrumental in finding the smaller concealed items, whether it’s an SD card masked as a dog chain or a thumb drive disguised as a wristband. He can detect electronics even when they are not turned on.

Walstrom referred to a Huntingdon County case where a child porn suspect hid a laptop wrapped in plastic outside in an old furniture pile. Due to numerous piles of furniture in the yard, Cruse said the laptop blended in and that it was Kimo who helped find the electronics at the crime scene.

Although the dog has been helpful in local cases, Cruse said Kimo is underutilized.

Due to Kimo’s sporadic use to solely find electronics, Walstrom said it’s not practical for many law enforcement agencies to invest in having their own ESD dog unless it’s a dual function dog that can be used on a more regular basis.

As an example, Walstrom said dogs such as German shepherds could be both patrol dogs and ESD dogs.

However, he noted Kimo can only be an ESD dog due to his breed. Walstrom said he also now has a bomb and patrol dog from the U.S. military available for community use. The dog, Dick, worked in places like Afghanistan and Somalia. The canine handler said he is also looking to get one more drug detection dog.

Kimo is the first ESD dog the Blair County District Attorney’s Office has used for investigations, said First Assistant District Attorney Peter Weeks. He said having Kimo in the Altoona area is a “fantastic opportunity” for the community and that the dog is a resource to find things not typically found.

Weeks said he tried to secure funding to use Kimo by requesting an increase in the police department budget.

Aside from the criminal side, Cruse said Kimo can also help the average person find lost electronics, sharing a story of a police friend who dropped his phone with a camouflage-patterned cover in the woods while hunting. With the help of Kimo, she said they found his phone within an hour.

She added the dog can also help with political and corporate espionage counteracts, which she described as real concerns in today’s workplace. The Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General reportedly had Kimo search for bugs, hidden cameras and surveillance equipment.

The office now has an agreement to use Kimo on an on-call basis, Walstrom said.

The dog has also assisted at jails and rehabilitation centers.

Training dogs to pick up scents from electronic devices is relatively new and revolutionary, starting in only the last few years, according to Cruse.

Using a thermal desorption extraction method, Jack Hubball, a forensic science examiner at the Connecticut Forensic Lab, successfully isolated the two chemical compounds given off by electronics. The success of this extraction and isolation enables canine trainers to use the compounds to train dogs to find electronics.

“Every piece of evidence, especially on child pornography cases, is valuable,” Cruse said. “If you can add more charges and more counts, it might make the sentence more aggravated and put someone really bad away for a long time.”

When Kimo alerts law enforcement at a scene, the investigative teams thoroughly hand search the area the dog pinpoints, which has led to the collection of more evidence every time, Walstrom said.

He commended the work Kimo has done for the area.

“I think he’s been exceptional,” Walstrom said of Kimo. “The impact on the community I don’t really know because a lot of these devices haven’t been analyzed yet. We have to see what’s on there. But what I do know is there’s at least some of those devices that wouldn’t have been found without Kimo’s assistance.”

To recognize and reward him for his work after a training session, Walstrom grabbed a red ball and tossed it to Kimo. With the ball clutched in his mouth, Kimo returned it, his tail wagging as Walstrom pet the dog’s golden fur over and over again.

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