MARQUETTE, Mich. (WJMN) — When the investigation of crimes calls for the collection of digital evidence, Michigan State Police has dedicated teams across the state to support those efforts.
In the Upper Peninsula, the MSP Cyber Crimes Unit is based in Marquette. The office is staffed by a team lead, two detective troopers and three digital forensic analysts. They have an affiliate with the Marquette City Police Department and the Michigan Department of Corrections. They also assist more than 50 law enforcement agencies across the Upper Peninsula with any investigations involving digital evidence.
Detective Sgt. Nichole Dyson leads the unit and shared how they get started on many of their cases.
“Anything that comes through those sites or social media platform that flags as possible illegal or abusive content, it then gets sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They do a preliminary investigation pinpointing where it goes. Once they realize what state it goes to, because the task force is nationwide. They will then send it out to the appropriate state. If it’s in Michigan, it gets sent to the Lansing office where a team of analysts go through it, then it will be sent out statewide to the appropriate office or offices,” Dyson said.
Dyson’s team in the 8th District is part of the federal Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. The tips they receive help launch proactive investigations. While they are not strictly investigating claims of child sexually abusive material, those are the main cases the Cyber Crimes Unit takes on.
“In the last six months to a year, we’ve seen an increase in sextortion cases where online predators try to get a child to chat with them, then possibly get them to send explicit images, then they’ll exploit them one way or another, be it to get money or more photos from them,” Dyson said.
Detective Trooper Evan Fezatt is one of two investigators working out of Marquette and covering the U.P. His daily activities include looking at proactive cases and conducting investigations involving child exploitation.
“We review cases that come in through social media as well as online sources regarding childhood exploitation,” Fezatt said.
While some investigations can take just hours, others can span months, depending on the severity of the circumstances.
“I am constantly going to different training. The information is constantly being updated. I’m still learning every day and referring to my sergeant and my partners for how I can become more efficient,” Fezatt said. “There’s always a new task. It fuels me to come back and learn the new task that I have as well as learning the job itself. The ability to help a kid in need is huge.”
Part of what makes his position unique is bridging the gap between physical and digital police work.
“We start out doing search warrants to electronics service providers. We also get to do search warrants to residences. It’s good to see the case from the start where it’s just information all the way to the arrest. Part of this position is you still get the excitement of doing police work as well as doing the background IT work to get where you are,” Fezatt said.
Ryan Frazier is one of two full-time digital forensic analysts and a civilian member of the Cyber Crimes Unit.
“You’re going in with the expectation of, ‘I’m going to find this,’ or ‘We think it’s going to be on this device.’ Sometimes it’s not there and there are a lot of reasons to why it would not be there. Sometimes we will seize many devices, 10 to 15 devices, and it will take you seven, eight, nine devices to finally get to maybe a piece of suspected evidence. It’s very demoralizing, going through and not finding anything when you know there is evidence or that we’ve got evidence of malicious activity. Not finding it can be tough,” Frazier said.
The members of the unit say the job can take a mental toll but they are supported and can rely on each other to balance the stress of the job.
“Getting to save a child is great, but at what point do you remember that a child was also exploited. Once a picture gets out on the internet, you don’t get it back. Once a picture of these minors and children get out on the internet, they are repeatedly sent and shared,” Dyson said.
“The Computer Crimes Unit within MSP does really well at taking care of us. They make sure that we have the office of behavioral science with psychologists that are available to talk to us.” she continued, “We call it team building and reprieve to be able to go out and do things as a team. We go out to lunch, do an escape room, something fun like that. If you’re having a day. If one of my teammates looks at me and says, ‘I need to go,’ I say to just go. We have what’s called shared trauma when someone’s having a struggle day. We’ll sit down as a team and take some of that trauma off their plate for them. But it’s very important that you work together. We have an open line of communication. You become very close with the people that you work with because you share very similar experiences.”
It’s a sentiment of support that Frazier echoed.
“It’s something that we do together,” he said. “It’s not necessarily a one-man job that we’re shouldering the whole burden. We are part of a federal task force. … There’s something to be said that other people are doing the same type of work you’re doing and they are finding ways to handle that burden. It’s not something impossible to do.”
Resources from the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force Program are available here.