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State explains backlog in investigating abuse cases involving electronic devices

Phone backlog .jpg
Posted at 5:46 PM, Sep 25, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-26 10:56:02-04

GREAT FALLS — Our report on a former Great Falls High School teacher charged with sexual abuse after explicit images were found on his phone left us and others asking - why did the investigation take so long?

On December 14, 2021, former teacher Wiliam Harning spoke with police after he was suspected of sending an inappropriate image to a 17-year-old student. When Harning left his phone unattended, it was seized by the police. However, according to court records, it wasn’t until May 2023 that the phone was finally searched.

State explains backlog in investigating abuse cases involving electronic devices

The officer who took Harning’s phone is the GFPD’s Internet Crimes Against Children ( ICAC) detective. He turned it over to Brian Cassidy, a computer crimes agent with the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation and the ICAC Commander for Montana.

Cassidy couldn’t go into specifics of the Harning case but told MTN there are several factors that can contribute to a backlog.

He says accessing a phone without the passcode depends on the type of phone and the period in which it is seized. And it can be time-consuming. Cassidy says that process can range from as little as 72 hours to as long as up to 23 years.

He adds no two digital forensics cases are the same, and often with cloud services and the types of crimes investigated they usually take more than just one phone, which compounds the amount of data.

“We have to put eyes on every single picture. We have to go through all the file paths,” said Cassidy in a phone interview with MTN. “We have to go through the Internet history, all the data that's contained in an account which is quite lengthy.”

As an example, Cassidy says before encryption, one gigabyte of data can hold up to more than 15,000 pictures.

“We can’t just stop when we find a piece of evidence. We have to find all the evidence,” said Cassidy. “And we also have a duty to see if there is any exculpatory evidence as well, that because we're there we're not there to prove people guilty. We're there to provide facts. That's providing people innocence as well."

Cassidy used to work the cases alone, but additional state and federal money added more help for his department.

Even with more manpower, the job is still massive.

“When I joined the task force back in 2014, 2015, we were averaging 353 trips a year and now we're pushing 2000,” said Cassidy. “We haven't had our busy season yet. Our projection is actually near 2500.”

Cassidy says the delays can also be prolonged due to other cases, such as homicides, taking priority.

After Harning’s phone was searched in May, police reviewed the data from the extraction and noted numerous sexually explicit images of Harning and children ranging in age from 5 to 18.

In August, an outside medical professional examined the findings and concluded six images of children were sexually explicit, resulting in six felony counts against Harning.

The school district told MTN it took immediate action once the situation was brought to light, placing Harning on administrative leave. Harning resigned and GFPS turned all their information over to the Montana Office of Public Instruction, which summarily suspended Harning’s license in the summer of 2022.

In an e-mail from OPI, an agency spokesperson told MTN that Superintendent Elsie Arntzen also sent a discipline recommendation for Harning’s license to the Board of Public Education. The case has been pending as neither the OPI or BPE could locate and serve Harning. OPI’s licensing database, shows that while Harning’s license was suspended the license expired on June 30,2023.

An arrest warrant was issued for Harning on August 31 and his bail was set at $20,000. On September 21, his bail was modified so he can live out of state. He is scheduled for an arraignment hearing in Cascade County District Court on Wednesday, October 4.