A Day in the Life of MSP's Cyber Section Team

Office of Performance and Transformation's Communication Representative Monica Drake follows different State of Michigan employees throughout the year

In the last 20 years, technology has changed everyone’s personal and professional lives, and this is especially true for the Michigan State Police (MSP). Smart phones, laptops, tablets, GPS units, and even smart refrigerators – all of these devices have transformed the way police officers investigate crime.

In 1999, the MSP created a computer crimes unit to assist investigators with crimes involving technological evidence.

Shortly after formation, Colleen Auer-Lemke joined the team as a Digital Forensic Analyst. When she first started, there were only two offices, located in Lansing and Livonia, and they investigated just 540 cases in the first year. 

Today, the MSP Cyber Section has seven offices (one in each MSP district), and they investigate approximately 4,000 cases annually.

“In the beginning, we only investigated crimes involving a computer and, now, about 70-80 percent of our investigations involve cellphones,” said Auer-Lemke. “The section has evolved a great deal since I started working here.”

Auer-Lemke shared one of the cases she helped solve, which involved the murder of a retired police officer and his wife during a home invasion.

“Officers arrested a possible suspect and found a GPS device in his vehicle. The GPS was brought to our office, and we did an extraction. It led us right to the driveway of the deceased couple,” she said. “The suspect had his GPS on in his car the whole time. There was no DNA or fingerprints left at the scene. The only thing that linked him, at the time of arrest, to the location of the crime was his GPS device.”

One of the Cyber Section’s main priorities is assisting investigators who are assigned to the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and Auer-Lemke said these child sexual exploitation cases are some of the hardest investigations she performs in her job.

“Even though I’ve been doing this for a long time, I will never get used to reading through the officers’ investigative reports, affidavits, and search warrants and looking through the pictures stored on suspects’ computers and cell phones. I just cannot understand why somebody would want to hurt an infant or a child,” she said.

“It’s all part of the job, and we have to do it. The best part of the job is that we have a high adjudication rate, and the work we do helps get the ‘bad guys’ off the street and protects other children from getting hurt.”

D/Sgt. Mike Teachout of the MSP Computer Crimes Unit said child sexually abusive material makes up the vast majority of their proactive investigations.

“We get 300 to 400 tips every week from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Each one of those tips potentially has a victim at the end of it,” said Teachout. “Some days, we’re looking through dirty pictures, and other days, we’re going into dirty houses to execute search warrants and confiscate property. We also perform undercover operations where we’ll pose as underage boys and girls online.”

Teachout has worked for the MSP for 20 years – 12 years as a trooper on the road, six years on a narcotics task force, and two years in the Polygraph Section. Even though he’s been in his current position for only six months, Teachout said this is his favorite position by far.

“In this position, with most of the cases we work on, we’re saving kids,” he said.

A couple weeks ago, Teachout and his team helped prevent the rape of a 14-year-old girl.

 “A father was trying to entice his daughter to meet him to have sex,” he said. “We were able to locate the father and arrest him before he was able to meet up with his daughter. We got the tip on Wednesday night, and, by Friday morning, he was in custody.” 

Teachout said that while working in the Computer Crimes Unit, he has become more aware of things he didn’t even know existed.

“I had worked for the MSP for 19 years, and I thought I saw everything. But then I came here,” he said. “You think you know what a predator will look like. But we’ve arrested priests, teachers, judges, doctors – there’s no profile for a predator. It can be anybody.”

The Cyber Section office is filled with equipment – including devices that can be used to unlock a phone or laptop. This is the most time-consuming part of the job. Sometimes, phones can be unlocked in a couple hours. Other times, it takes days or weeks.

“There’s a lot of time involved,” said Teachout. “And then, once you have access to the phone’s contents, sometimes there’s 30,000 images we have to go through. We have to find the time to do this and also not neglect any of the new tips coming in. We’re always busy.”

While Auer-Lemke and Teachout have the tools to forensically examine cellular devices, there is still a way for criminals to remain anonymous. And that’s where Alex Dwornick comes in. He’s a Cyber Analyst with the Michigan Cyber Command Center (MC3), and he focuses solely on crimes committed on the “Dark Web.”

“The Dark Web is used through a separate browser. It allows you to be anonymous and not let service providers track you,” he said. “It’s very difficult to track people – but it’s possible.”

Like Liam Neeson’s character in the movie “Taken,” Dwornick has a “very particular set of skills.”

“Being ‘good’ at the Dark Web just means you’re on it all day. Because there’s no Google on the Dark Web, a lot of times I’m reading through forum after forum just to see if I can find anything. It can be frustrating but the more you do it, the better you get at finding information,” he said.

Dwornick, who served in the military previously, decided to join the MC3 in March because it was something he had never done before and always wanted to learn.

“I like that I work in a place where I’m not the smartest guy in the section. We have network intrusion specialists, cyber analysts, investigators – it’s such a large range of individuals with different specialties, so I’m always learning new things,” he said.

For more information about MSP’s Cyber Section, visit https://www.michigan.gov/msp/0,4643,7-123-72297_72370_72379---,00.html.