In the Mackenzie Cowell murder case, Homeland Security displays its ever-growing cache of personal info
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
WENATCHEE — In the last year, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has cooperated with NCW police in unexpected ways, including the prosecution of an East Wenatchee child pornographer and a jail officer who turned a blind eye to contraband smuggling.
Vast reams of personal data are one advantage that ICE can bring to a local police probe. As the enforcement branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ICE has access to passport records, citizenship documents and other troves of personal information. And by enlisting county and municipal authorities and jail systems, it’s accumulating more intel on citizens and foreign visitors all the time.
The Wenatchee World agreed not to publicly name local ICE agents after a department spokeswoman said the agents were concerned for their families’ safety. But while you don’t know them, ICE knows you.
“The databases that DHS has accumulated now are tremendous,” said Alaska immigration attorney Margaret Stock. “There are just huge amounts of information. ... Credit card numbers, what airlines people are flying on, frequent flier numbers, home addresses. And they can share that with other law enforcement agencies.”
At times, ICE brings such personal info to bear in investigations — even in local criminal probes, where no federal crime has been broken, as Don Zornes learned last year.
An open book
Over the course of a 10-minute meeting, Zornes, 43, was confronted with details of his life only his family and friends knew.
According to Zornes, the two men visiting his office flipped open a three-ring binder containing photos of Zornes, his wife and his stepson, taken from hidden surveillance. They knew he’d recently sold a car. They knew about flights he’d taken to Washington, D.C., and which hotels he’d stayed in.
“They knew all my traveling,” Zornes said. “All of it. They had everything there.”
The Oct. 6, 2010 visit from Homeland Security was part of a coordinated, multi-agency operation, aimed at solving the February 2010 murder of Wenatchee High School student Mackenzie Cowell. At that moment, Wenatchee police on the other side of town were searching the hair salon then owned by Zornes’s wife Kathleen — and taking into custody her 29-year-old son, Christopher Scott Wilson, who’s now awaiting trial charged with first-degree murder.
Head spinning, Zornes terminated the visit, refusing the agents’ request to step into their car and be questioned further elsewhere.
“I said, ‘Well, it sounds like you guys know pretty much everything about me, so why are you talking to me?’” he recalled.
Zornes has not been accused of any wrongdoing in the Cowell case. He said he later threw out the business cards the agents gave him, but one had the same last name as an ICE special agent — identified in court records as a member of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations division, working from the Yakima Street federal building.
The surveillance photos Zornes was shown may have come from Wenatchee Police Detective Edgar Reinfeld, who spent several days photographing Wilson’s comings and goings from the salon building before his arrest. But travel and commerce data are easily accessible for ICE, Stock said.
The visit to a suspect’s stepfather wasn’t Homeland Security’s only involvement in the Mackenzie Cowell investigation. ICE is enrolled in the task force probing the murder, alongside the Douglas and Chelan county sheriff’s offices, Wenatchee and East Wenatchee police departments, the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and the state Attorney General’s office. The only other federal agency on the roster is the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which is frequently involved in kidnapping and murder cases.
But the FBI’s jurisdiction in violations of state law, such as murder, is limited. The agency can investigate cop killings, violent crimes against interstate travelers, child abductions, interstate kidnappings and serial murders — defined as three or more killings with common characteristics. The case against Wilson, now 31 and jailed since his arrest, doesn’t include any of those factors.
ICE has greater freedom to act. According to affidavits filed in Douglas County District Court, after Wenatchee police seized a MacBook and a Mac Mini from Wilson’s basement apartment in the Chelan Avenue salon, they turned the computers over to Homeland Security Investigations. Agents with HSI sent the equipment to their Seattle offices, where they made disk images of the seized computers — essentially cloning the contents of their hard drives into a new file.
“I received images of the Mac computers back from HSI a day later,” Wenatchee Police Detective Jeff Ward wrote in his affidavit, submitted to receive one of many search warrants issued in the case. Ward had already made his own disk images of three other devices taken from Wilson’s home: a thumb drive, a memory card, and an external hard drive.
A second Wenatchee ICE agent also gathered information in the case. According to other court affidavits, the same day Zornes was questioned at his office, another agent interviewed at least two of Wilson and Cowell’s fellow students at the Academy of Hair Design, where they were both enrolled at the time of her murder.
“The investigators that we used — we’ve known them for a long time, we know they have capabilities as interviewers and that type of thing,” said Wenatchee Police Capt. Doug Jones, spokesman for the Cowell task force. “And with all the tips that we had and were going through, they were certainly welcome as far as a resource to use.”
States and agencies often sign “memoranda of agreement” with Homeland Security, allowing formal cooperation on specific projects. No such contracts were required in the Cowell case, Jones said.
“(ICE) volunteered their services, and we accepted,” he said. “... We definitely have a good working relationship with them on different types of cases, and they come to us when they need some local information and different things. From my understanding, they’re encouraged to actually help out local agencies when they can.”
Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett pointed to ICE’s participation in the Cowell task force as a positive interface between local and federal law agencies.
“That is what I call true teamwork and mutual aid, as opposed to, ‘This is my town, we’ll handle this,’” Burnett said.
Homeland Security helps finance local public safety ... but grant dollars are slipping
Aside from investigative advantages, NCW law enforcement has also benefited fiscally from Homeland Security measures. Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Okanogan and Kittitas counties comprise Washington’s Homeland Security Region 7, which in the last three years has received more than $2.3 million in emergency management grants from the federal department.
That money is parceled out to individual counties on the basis of population, said Kyle Foreman, spokesman for Grant County Emergency Management, the administrative agency for Region 7. At the county level, the cash has gone largely to “interoperability” measures — allowing increased communication and cooperation between city, county and rural safety agencies. Homeland Security funds have gone to upgrade radios and in-car computer terminals for both sheriff’s deputies and municipal police departments, finance training and equipment for SWAT teams, and buy radios and pagers for rural fire districts.
But the fund pool is dropping. Region 7’s grant fell from $820,000 last year to $410,000 in the current fiscal year. Another 50 percent reduction is in the cards for next year, Foreman said.
“The funding for the entire region, we believe, will be around $200,000 to divide up between the five counties,” he said.
Chelan County’s portion of the grant has averaged about $175,000 for the last two years, and it’s paid salary and benefits for one emergency management specialist, said Sgt. Kent Sisson, head of Emergency Management and Special Operations for the Chelan County sheriff. If next year’s grant award to the county falls to just $89,000 as expected, that position could be in jeopardy.
— Jefferson Robbins, World staff
Chelan and other counties have signed on for ICE aid of a different kind. With Douglas, Grant and Okanogan counties, Chelan now subscribes to the Secure Communities program, a national effort to electronically route fingerprints of inmates booked into local jails to a Homeland Security database.
The program, pitched as a method of rooting criminal aliens out of general jail populations, had a troubled genesis. States including Washington, represented by the Washington State Patrol, declined earlier this year to provide the biometric data sought under Secure Communities, saying fingerprints and other inmate vitals were the province of individual jails.
“They put a lot of pressure on us to make unilateral decisions for the state, which we declined to do,” said Washington State Patrol spokesman Bob Calkins. “We did a lot of technical work to facilitate, but our position was the fingerprints belong to the county. ... It would be like the guy who owns the mini-storage giving people access to your stuff.”
But a wave of Washington counties told the State Patrol they wanted in on Secure Communities — 19 counties as of early September. To honor those requests, the State Patrol must route fingerprint files it already shares with the FBI to ICE as well.
Secure Communities’ electronic infrastructure isn’t yet in place, and the data is only flowing to ICE from six Washington counties, none of them in NCW. ICE expects full implementation across the country by 2013 — bolstering its longstanding protocol of sending agents to local jails to hand-sift unauthorized immigrants from among the inmates.
Burnett said he opted into Secure Communities at the request of Phil Stanley at the Chelan County Regional Justice Center, which houses prisoners for both Chelan and Douglas counties.
“It’s looking at illegal aliens that are doing crimes,” Burnett said of the program, “and if you’re not being booked on a crime, you’re not going to be targeted.”
Stock noted that Secure Communities collects all fingerprint data from participating jails, not just those of immigration offenders.
“It mostly gets the press because of immigration issues, but everyone who gets arrested gets their prints transmitted,” Stock said. “So local law enforcement is arresting someone, and information goes up to Homeland Security, which has a huge dossier on everybody now.”
Burnett said information-sharing with federal law enforcement lends strength to his deputies’ work in the field, but added that he’d review Secure Communities and other partnerships with ICE as they develop.
“I wouldn’t call myself a hardcore constitutionalist, but at the same time, I’m a local elected official, and we want to keep local people’s rights in mind,” Burnett said. “... The more resources we have that keep us productive in the job, the better we are for it. But we’re going to monitor it.”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123
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