Investigation into Sam Martinez’s death complicated by technology

Sam Martinez died on an alpha-tau-omega pledge. Prosecutors announced in June that 15 current and former fraternity members were being charged with misdemeanor charges.

PULLMAN, Washington – There are still more questions than answers about the investigation into the death of a Washington State University freshman at a fraternity party even after over a dozen Brotherhood members are charged with his death.

Sam Martinez died on November 12, 2019 in an Alpha Tau Omega Pledge Event. On June 2, 2021, the public prosecutor announced 15 current and former fraternity members are confronted with Charged with involvement in his death. None of them face more serious allegations.

Pullman police said they had a pretty good idea of ​​what happened the night Martinez died. But a few things slowed their investigation: technology and social media.

Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins has seen hundreds of investigations over the years but nothing like it.

“We spoke to, I believe, over 70 potential witnesses. Most of the witnesses are not residents of Pullman. You are here temporarily as a student at Washington State University, and you live all over Washington state and other states, ”Jenkins said. “So these are the types of interviews we don’t want to do over the phone. In addition, many of the Witnesses were reluctant Witnesses and did not want them to get their friends into trouble. The other difficulty was COVID-19. “

According to police reports, Martinez died on the morning of November 12, 2019 after a night of partying with current and future members of the Alpha Tau Omega Brotherhood. According to records, Martinez and two other members of the Brotherhood started the night with a half-gallon bottle of rum. By 10:30 pm it was almost empty, according to witnesses.

One member described Martinez as “really drunk” and another remembered being carried down the stairs around 11:30 pm. Martinez was eventually put to bed next to a trash can. He was found breathless at around 8:30 a.m. the next morning. The coroner later found that Martinez had been dead several hours from the effects of acute alcohol poisoning. His blood alcohol level was 0.372, almost five times the legal limit. He was just 19 years old.

Pullman Police immediately began setting up a criminal case. They received search warrants for Martinez’s iPhone after his parents gave it permission to access it. But it turns out it wouldn’t be enough.

“We didn’t have the know-how or the equipment to do this ourselves. And so we found a provider who, as a nationally recognized provider, is able to rate phones and break into them to get the data we need. And we handed it over to them. And they kept working on it and working on it. And they were never able to crack the phone, ”Jenkins said. “Ultimately, we have never been able to uncover enough evidence to prove a manslaughter charge.”

Pullman police said they strategically expired the one-year statute of limitations on indictments because they believed they would eventually have enough evidence off the phone to pursue manslaughter charges.

So they turned to that outside provider, Cellebrite, in hopes of cracking the phone’s security. Even if the police can bypass a phone’s security measures, they often have to dig into separate messaging apps like Snapchat, and that can be a lot harder than it seems. Jenkins said there is no way to know someone’s Snapchat username unless they can get that information. In this case, Snapchat was not able to get information about Sam’s specific account. Detectives say they saw notifications from Snapchat on Sam’s phone the morning after his death, but they were never able to get in and read them, though the boss believes the information may have dramatically impacted their investigation.

It’s not a new problem. Snapchat and other apps and even tech giants like Apple became increasingly reluctant to share security bypass information. After two terrorist attacks in San Bernadino and Pensacola, despite a court order, Apple refused to create a back door for law enforcement, saying that their promise of privacy and encryption was paramount and a back door, even to the police, safety for millions of people could weaken customers.

Snapchat also protects the privacy of customers to a high degree, but is also limited by the short-term nature of its platform. According to its online law enforcement guide, snaps or messages are permanently deleted and are not available once they are opened. If a snap is unopened, it can remain on servers, but only for up to 30 days. The Pullman police received search warrants for Snapchat and Facebook content as early as February 2020, three months after Sam’s death. Both came back with no new evidence for Sam’s case.

Meanwhile, Martinez’s family have filed a lawsuit against Washington State University and the national Alpha Tau Omega organization alleging that the culture of harassment resulted in their son’s death. Fifteen current or former members are now charged with delivering alcohol to a minor, an offense punishable by a maximum penalty of 1 year in prison and a fine of $ 5,000. Both Jenkins and the Whitman County District Attorney acknowledge that it is nowhere near enough, but they say that it is the best they can do with the limited evidence they have.

CONNECTED: After the WSU newcomer’s death in 2019, the public prosecutor’s office is indicting 15 members of the brotherhood

“Well, we could have found some text between some of the parties involved in Sam that might apologize for something or make some kind of statement that would lead more towards guilt,” Jenkins said. “There are things that I think we don’t know, there are things that we haven’t been told. I think there are some people out there who were more directly responsible for Sam’s death. And they have to carry that around with them for the rest of their lives. “

KREM 2 has learned that there are options for smaller law enforcement agencies like Pullman to help with these types of technology problems. Larger, neighboring departments can help, such as the Spokane Police Department or the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. The Washington State Patrol said it often helps departments with limited resources, and even the FBI can sometimes use its cutting-edge technology to help places that simply don’t have this type of equipment.

KREM 2 asked Jenkins if he was pursuing these options and said he was “confident that we have exhausted this path with the trials of our regional partners and Cellebrite”.

The national organization of Alpha Tau Omega also issued a statement following Martinez’s death, saying that it “does not condone insulting or distributing alcohol to minors” and that anyone who does so “is for violating the law Responsibility should be held “. The fraternity’s Pullman Chapter was also suspended for at least the next six years.

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