Chief Investigator Corley Weatherford of the Hopkins County Sheriff’s Office is grateful for some special help from Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas). Ratcliffe, whose 4th Congressional District includes Hopkins County, was a sponsor of the Strengthening State and Local Cyber Crime Fighting Act, signed into law by President Donald Trump last year. It was written to expand the use of digital evidence law enforcement, including crimes against children. Ratcliffe said it has led to the prosecution of dozens of child exploitation cases throughout Northeast Texas since it was signed into law by President Donald Trump last year.
“I’m incredibly grateful that my new law allows law enforcement officers in Northeast Texas to better leverage digital avenues to get dangerous child sex offenders off the streets,” Ratcliffe said.
The Strengthening State and Local Cyber Crime Fighting Act equips state and local law enforcement officers to properly identify and collect evidence needed to prosecute an increasing number of cases involving digital footprints. The law enables officers from across the country to learn about the collection of cyber evidence from Secret Service agents at the National Computer Forensics Institute in Hoover, Ala.
Weatherford recently met with Ratcliffe’s district staff to discuss the impact of his law on the Northeast Texas community. He is a graduate of multiple classes at the NCFI that focused on computer forensics and mobile device examination, which have helped him solve child exploitation crimes in coordination with the North Texas Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force.
Weatherford was nominated and accepted in 2015 for the highly specialized training by the United States Attorney's Office, Federal Bureau of Investigation and Secret Service in light of work he has done in the area of computer crimes involving sex crimes against children. After he graduated, he had a complete computer lab that is needed to conduct forensic investigation with all kinds of electronic devices. Previously, electronic investigation had to be sent to a laboratory in Garland, a process that could involve a lengthy amount of time.
Weatherford is the sheriff’s department’s dedicated Internet Crimes Against Children investigator.
On top of the training, Weatherford said the NCFI provided him with top-of-the line equipment to bring back to his local law enforcement agency, which allows him to provide forensic services to Northeast Texas. This training and equipment is now used in a growing number of investigations in the region.
“Forensics were once looked at as something that is reserved for only the highest priority cases,” he said. “Today, most adults and many children have smartphones with them daily. These mobile devices find their way into many investigations other than traditional computer crimes."
Because of this, the NCFI training is very important to his work.
“A mobile device may be extremely valuable evidence in practically any case if one considers the possibility of location data, call logs, text or chat conversations, web history, and many other artifacts that can be found on these devices," Weatherford said.
Ratcliffe said he too saw how important the training that NCFI offered was.
“Whether it’s a cell phone call that was made or a geolocation that was sent — we’ve got many emerging ways to pinpoint predators in our communities," he said. "It’s critical that our state and local police know what digital evidence to look for and how to find it, so we can prosecute those who commit sickening crimes against the most vulnerable in our society.”
Weatherford said his NCFI training has played a critical role in his work on dozens of child exploitation cases that led to prosecution on the state and federal level. This included the conviction of a Cumby school teacher involving 100 child victims and a conviction in a Sulphur Springs case involving a local pastor for child pornography.
Weatherford said there are a number of things parents can do to prevent their children from online predators. Most importantly, parents should monitor the child who has a phone or any Internet access.
“I have talked to a lot of parents that have had children involved in a situation that became a very dangerous situation for their child, and there was little to no monitoring of what the children were doing online,” he said.
As the former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Texas, Ratcliffe’s prosecution and conviction of a Nacogdoches sheriff’s deputy for child sex crimes gained statewide acclamation. This work encouraged him to introduce the Strengthening Children’s Safety Act of 2017, which passed in the U.S. House of Representatives last year to boost children’s safety by closing loopholes in the federal laws that punish sex offenders.
The bill extends the life of the NCFI for five years. The new bill makes it an agency entirely inside the Secret Service. The NCFI has trained close to 7,000 local officials from all 50 states and three U.S. territories.
The bill provides for grants for local law enforcement to work with the agency for training and other purposes. It also authorizes programs to promote sharing of information found in the investigation of Shelby County Man Arrested on Child Exploitation Charges both with other law enforcement and with the general public.