Sequestered in a small room at the Dakota County Sheriff's Office, an investigator inspects electronic devices, digging for any evidence they may hold for domestic abuse cases.

The Dakota County Sheriff's Office hired Jeremy Roberts in March after it received a $200,000 grant for its electronic crimes unit to investigate domestic abuse cases. Roberts has assisted on 47 cases involving 144 electronic devices so far in the latest strategy to combat domestic abuse. He looks at every such case involving a device, from a recent homicide to protection order violations.

Victim advocates say the careful examination of the technology used in all domestic violence cases, even the misdemeanors, is without precedent in the metro. Roberts' work has helped police and prosecutors elevate some cases to more serious charges of felony stalking or harassment.

Along the way, he's discovering — and sharing with victims — the ways cellphones, software and other devices can be used by abusers to threaten or follow. There's more evidence to be found beyond a text or call history displayed on a screen, authorities say. And Dakota County's effort has drawn the attention of other agencies.

"The tactics are the same, [abusers] are just using different tools," said Safia Khan, a program manager with the Minnesota Coalition of Battered Women whose expertise includes technology safety.

Capt. Jim Rogers, who supervises Dakota County's electronic crimes unit, said that until recently it would have been unheard of for misdemeanor-level protection order violations to receive such a close eye. It took too long: Devices would often need to be held for weeks or months and misdemeanor cases would rarely be handled. Now, he said, Roberts can return a victim's phone within a few hours.

Other metro agencies, including the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, have full-time investigators who specialize in electronic forensics. Anoka also recently gutted an ambulance to create its digital forensic "lab on wheels" that can travel to crime scenes when needed. However, Commander Brian Podany said the county's misdemeanor domestic cases are more commonly handled by police patrol officers on site, who may snap a photo of a phone's screen.

Outreach to victims

Roberts' work as a civilian in Dakota County's electronic crimes unit, itself a three-year pilot project, includes collaboration with local groups that combat domestic violence.

Ann Sheridan, director of violence prevention and sexual assault at 360 Communities, said she's already seen the benefits of Roberts' outreach to victims. Sometimes, she said, shelter residents would report an ex showing up outside, unaware of how he found them. Roberts explained that pictures posted online can also provide embedded geographic information, revealing where the photo was shot.

"I can't imagine not having this," Sheridan said of the partnership.

Roberts, known as the "tech guy" around shelters, also describes how apps meant for parents to keep track of children or other apps like Find My iPhone can be put to more pernicious use. Roberts has also found evidence of "spoofing" software that makes it look like phone calls are coming from a different number.

"They're very simple to get," Roberts said. "You don't have to be a computer expert."

Roberts hooks up cellphones, tablets and laptops to software that extracts data that can prove patterns of harassment or a suspect's whereabouts. That could include text messages, social media posts, or recent online purchases.

While analyzing a cellphone in a July case, Roberts discovered that a man suspected of repeatedly violating a protection order had purchased a GPS tracking device online to follow his ex-girlfriend.

"To me, that's harassment, that's stalking," added Rogers, Roberts' supervisor.

Michael Duane Condon Jr., 27, is now in jail awaiting trial on charges of stalking and numerous protection order violations. Authorities could pursue a stalking charge that carries a possible 10-year prison sentence, thanks in part to Roberts' assistance, detailed in a search warrant. The charges, also elevated because of Condon's prior convictions, led to a higher bail amount of $250,000.

Both Khan and Sheridan say they haven't seen other agencies take such a close look even at misdemeanor domestic violence cases. Sheriff Tim Leslie said the effort has caught the attention of nearby Washington County, with whom he has shared information about the job. He said he will also brief the Minnesota's sheriff's association on the concept in December.

Stephen Montemayor • 952-746-3282