Sheriff used expert to authenticate racist texts, official say

The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office used a well-known computer forensics expert to authenticate the alleged racist text messages that resulted in last week’s firing of two long-time employees, a department spokesman said Tuesday.

That contradicts the assertion from Capt. Thomas Flanders’ attorney, who said that the authentication process was inadequate and didn’t account for computer programs that could have altered the texts.

“We’ve been extremely disappointed with the investigation that’s been conducted by the sheriff’s department in this matter, especially with the conclusions that they reached,” said Doug Brannon, Flanders’ attorney. “We feel that they should have done a lot more as far as forensic evaluation of these text messages because they can not be authenticated.”

Flanders and Detective Michael Sollenberger were fired Feb. 13 after Sheriff Phil Plummer said an investigation showed they exchanged dozens of racist text messages between late 2011 to early 2013. Three other deputies were suspended for varying amounts of time in what started as an anonymous complaint to the Dayton NAACP in August.

“It’s always been my client’s position that he did not make these derogatory comments,” Brannon said. “He has had a spotless 20-year career with the sheriff’s department.”

Flanders said the Sheriff’s Office just used one of their own deputies to scan the phone with the Cellebrite program.

“The problem with that is the content on cellular phones and the content contained in text messages can be altered,” Brannon said. “There’s some very cheap computer programs out there where these text messages are downloaded onto a laptop. Their content can be changed and it looks as if it’s original content that can then be downloaded back onto a cellular phone.”

The sheriff’s office did not use one of its deputies to authenticate the text messages, said Maj. Daryl Wilson. Instead, the phone was sent to computer forensic expert John L. Priest of the Upper Arlington police department, and he authenticated the racist text messages, Wilson said.

“On Jan. 22, our office transported the phone and messages up there for (Priest) to review,” he said. “We are confident that the text messages are authentic.”

Priest did not return a phone call seeking comments Tuesday afternoon. However, an online professional profile lists him as a contract instructor for Cellebrite, but also as an expert in several other forensics-related programs and processes. Priest’s profile also says he is a lead investigator in the Franklin County Internet Crimes Against Children multi-jurisdictional unit.

In 2011, he was one of 52 people honored by U.S. Attorney Eric Holder for their leadership protecting children from sexual abuse and exploitation.

Jennifer Sollenberger or a friend seemingly used a computer program to alter text messages sent between Sollenberger, Flanders and others to include racist language, Brannon said last week. Flanders was targeted by Sollenberger’s wife because Flanders was scheduled to testify for his co-worker in a child custody case, Brannon said.

Brannon has requested the cell phone that his client is accused of using to send the text messages, but was denied, he said. However, the sheriff’s office doesn’t have the original phone, but instead downloaded all of its contents onto a previously blank iPhone, Wilson said.

Flanders will take legal action against the sheriff’s office designed to get his job back and possibly involve First Amendment violations, Brannon said. Additionally, Flanders may have union protection because he was a sergeant at the time the texts allegedly were sent, the attorney said, noting that Flanders no longer has his old cell phone. Union representatives have declined to comment on behalf of Sollenberger.

Brannon said Plummer backed himself into a corner when he announced the investigation instead of doing an internal inquiry. “Once they come to light, that certainly puts some public pressure on (Plummer) to react to these situations without necessarily having the full story,” he said.

As of Tuesday evening, a gofundme.com website purportedly started by Flanders’ wife had raised more than $2,000 of a $5,000 goal for Flanders’ legal defense.

Wilson said care was taken to make sure the investigation was complete.

“We’re confident we went through all the steps for the sheriff to make his decision,” he said. “Personally speaking, I think everybody would want a fair hand at this, not only for the individuals, but for the office.”

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