Pro Audio Case File
This is C.N.N.
For twelve weeks I have been on C.N.N. as a consultant, speaking about MH370, pingers, Ferguson gunshot analysis of recordings, analysis of foreign terrorist videos, and a number of other newsworthy recordings. One day, while on vacation with family, I was contacted in the middle of the night and asked to verify gunshots heard in the background of a recording. By 6 A.M. I was on the air by Skype, and then on-air again seven times that day, with waveform displays that I had produced, using my laptop computer.
A well-known TV News network asked me to examine a Micro-SD card (15 x 12.5 mm) that had come from an international high-profile figure. I detected some music and conversation files which I digitally enhanced. Then, using special forensic techniques, I searched for deleted files. After some time I was able to recover 10 deleted video files, and 14 deleted photos, some showing other individuals. The content is now being evaluated.
The Sandy Hook School Shootings at Newtown, Connecticut
Using the recorded 911 calls from the school as well as two-way radio recordings, I was asked to determine a precise time for each audible gunshot as well as whether different types of weapons could be determined from the recordings. With sophisticated forensic digital tools I was able to pinpoint the times of gunshots to within one ten-thousandth of a second. This was a rare instance in which I suppressed the speech, and focused on the background sounds.
Nintendo and a Bright Little Girl
A mother came to me saying that she believed her daughter was being treated inappropriately verbally be her ex-husband. The child had the presence of mind to record using a Nintendo game station unit. After some consultation with Nintendo engineers, and experimentation, the recordings were succeffully downloaded and converted to a form suited for litigation.
A Young Man, A Doctor, and a Recorder
AYoung man who had undergone serious back surgery was left in constant pain allegedly because of a botched surgical procedure. In subsequent follow-up visits, the doctor admitted that he had made mistakes. The patient had recorded the meeting, and the recording was used during trial, wherein he was subsequently awarded a settlement.
In 1993 I was contacted by the U.S. Department of Justice to assist in clarifying the tapes of bugs smuggled into the Branch Davidian compound during the standoff, in preparation for the upcoming criminal trial. I was provided copy cassettes and asked to prepare the clearest enhanced copies, as well as the most accurate and complete transcripts of the conversations between David Koresh and his followers.
The assignment sounded simple although the tapes turned out to be the most difficult of my career. There was considerable confusion, firearms were being discharged, tanks were advancing, and everyone was wearing a gas mask, resulting in muffled voices. Nevertheless, using state-of-the-art equipment, I produced enhanced copies and transcripts. The tapes contained conversation with multiple clear references to “lighting it up, get the Coleman fuel, etc”.
When I arrived at the trial I was given access to the original tapes briefly and made some last minute corrections. After testifying, the jury returned with convictions
Then, six years later I again received a call from Washington informing me that a civil trial was scheduled. I was asked to again prepare the clearest enhanced copies and most accurate transcripts. In the time that had passed the state-of-the-art in the field of forensic audio had advanced considerably. By this time I had outfitted the lab with new digital enhancement equipment. In order to produce the best tapes I requested access to the original tapes. The photo shows me at the Federal Bureau of Investigation laboratory at Quantico, preparing digital noise-free distortion-less copies for me to use back at my lab. While there I was treated royally and given a tour of Hogan’s Alley, the training facility with the “most robbed bank in the world”.
I received a call from Woody Allen’s attorneys asking for assistance. Briefly, Woody was accused of allegedly physically abusing his young daughter. There was a videotape purporting to show his daughter talking to Mia about Woody’s actions. After some negotiations I was permitted to examine the original videocassette for discontinuities and irregularities at the lab. I testified that the tape was actually composed of 12 distinct recordings made at different times and at a variety of locations. Thus, the child could have been coached between segments.
This is a courtroom sketch of my testimony at trial. Woody and Mia are in the center. This sketch was done by Christine Cornell and was broadcast on NBC television.
Woody, the man, was like a young boy in a man’s body. I gave him a gift of a kaleidoscope, and he opened the package with the excitement of a boy on Christmas (or Hannukah) morning. A complex man to say the least.
John DiGilio was the a real life Tony Soprano. He ran Bayonne. I heard him say “Bayonne is mine” on a wiretap. I was retained by the Government to testify as to my enhancement of undercover bug tapes of some of his conversations.
The tapes were made using a secretly hidden surveillance recorder worn by an undercover agent. Unfortunately the batteries were almost depleted at the time of the meeting. Most of the conversation was recorded, at which point the recorder stopped dead. The agent, unaware, turned it off while Mr. DiGilio left the car they were in, and turned it on again as he approached again. It ran for another few minutes before dying again. At trial I testified about the battery depletion and showed how it was similar to an almost-dead car battery, recharging a little between attempts to start a car with the bad battery.
During trial Mr. DiGilio’s attorney asked me if I knew him. I said that he was one of the only attorneys that I ever had to sue to recover a fee, having worked with him several years earlier. During a recess in the hall, Mr. DiGilio lunged at me, and in so doing, collapsed in the courthouse, with a heart condition. Law enforcement agents said “we’ve been trying to get this guy off the streets for years, and you just did it”. After a recess of a week or so, Mr. DiGilio was convicted.
I was retained by the team representing
Texaco, Inc. Tapes had been made by a Texaco employee using a hidden
microcassette recorder. The conversation was thought to contain racial
slurs. Including a reference to “niggers”. I traveled
to the F.B.I. office at New Rochelle, N.Y. where I was given access
to the original microcassettes. After making digital copies, I returned
to my lab and, after some experimentation, I produced clear digitally
enhanced copies. The conversation turned out to be one about holidays
and the specific phrase was “St. Nicholas”. Hannukah and
Kwanza were discussed, as well.
Bear Gall Bladders
apparently are used as aphrodisiacs in Korea. An elderly gentleman
and his wife were captured on videotape in a sting operation in Virginia
where an undercover agent gutted a black bear and packaged the gall
bladder for his client. My job was to clarify the audio from the videotape,
which was muddy as a result of poor microphone placement.
Attorneys for a certain billionaire who shall remain nameless (let’s just call him Donald) contacted me about a telephone conversation that he had with another casino owner in Atlantic City. It seems that the other casino owner had purchased a parking lot one block from his casino and intended to build an elevated walkway across Donald’s property. There was some discussion, and then the other casino owner later, under oath, accused Donald of being abusive and cursing during the telephone call, not realizing that Donald had recorded the conversation. I was called in to examine the recording for discontinuities. I found that the recording was continuous, and the man’s credibility was severely diminished.
Karen Weinstein, a teacher and mother, in New Jersey, was studying to become an assistant principal. She used a small micro-cassette recorder to record her notes in preparation for her assistant principal exam. One night she made the mistake of stopping at a strip mall for a sandwich. A young man carjacked her and drove off with her in the car, threatening to kill her as he drove to a deserted area. He told her that he wanted the car, and she told him to take it while pleading for him not to hurt her. Somehow, despite being terrified, she managed to record a good amount of the conversation using her microcassette recorder.
Tragically, her body was found some time later, along with the microcassette. After a preliminary examination by the State forensic lab, the tape was sent to me for further study. After careful examination and digital enhancement I was able to recover an additional 22 minutes of conversation, including information useful in making a positive identification of the killer. He later pleaded guilty, saying that he wanted the car for his birthday.
Two college sweethearts from different schools found themselves in serious trouble when the girlfriend discovered that she was about to have a baby. She called and left a message on her boyfriend’s answering machine, hysterical, saying that she hoped that her worst nightmare wasn’t coming true and to get over there right away. The message was very noisy and distorted. The baby’s lifeless body was later found in a dumpster.
The tape was sent to the state lab as well as to the F.B.I. lab before coming to P.A.L. Aftr careful enhancement I was able to recover additional information. A plea agreement was ultimately agreed to, by all parties.
A number of bikers placed ads in newspapers advertising for “models” to lure girls to their “party” house for sex. The girls were fed alcohol and qualuudes to put them in a semi-conscious state. They were then gang-raped. The bikers, in their infinite wisdom, videotaped the sessions, and in several cases actually attempted to extort money from some of the girls by threatening to show the tapes to the girls’ families if they didn’t empty their bank accounts and pay them. One girl’s recollection of the vents led to a search warrant , in which the self-made evidence videocassettes were seized.
The prosecutor’s office engaged me to enhance the audio and prepare discovery copies for trial. Ultimately, all defendants pleaded guilty and none of the girls had to be subjected to a painful trial. The bikers were sent to Rahway state prison for long prison terms.
Everything From Birth to Death
I once said that, over the last 28 years I have heard everything from birth to death as well as everything in between. The birth was recorded on a videotape made by an expectant father in the hospital delivery room. Unfortunately there were complications, and resulting litigation. The videotape was used, after enhancement, to show which procedures were performed by the medical staff during the delivery.
The death was during an undercover meeting being taped in a car by an agent posing as a city official about to take a payoff in return for giving a target illegal taxicab medallions. During the conversation there was a crashing sound as a man, committing suicide jumped from a building and landed on the car in front of the wired vehicle. Obviously the undercover conversation ended there. The last thing heard on the tape was a woman screaming “Oh my God……………………look what he did to my car”.
Many years ago a stockbroker friend gave me a present of an “antique” telephone scrambler that he had found in the closet of new office space on Wall Street. He had heard that it had been owned by a fellow who was involved with the “mob” and who was later found shot dead. I put it on the shelf and didn’t give it another thought.
About 5 years passed and the U.s. Department of Justice brought me a tape of a telephone call that had been intercepted, between several known heroin dealers, one in the United States and one in Europe. The problem was that it was scrambled. The voices sounded like squawks. No amount of enhancement was going to help because this was clearly not a case of speech plus noise, but rather one of intentionally encrypted voice. The attorneys asked whether it was possible to decode the conversation.
After dusting off the old scrambler, I powered it up and began to experiment with different combinations of the encryption controls. After some time the voices became clear, first Mickey Mouse-like, and then more naturally sounding, and a conversation regarding flights and a rendezvous was downloaded and copied. The defendants pleaded guilty shortly thereafter.
Some time ago the internal security division of a federal law enforcement agency suspected two agents of dealing in illegal substances as well as selling information on informants. Rooms were bugged and a video camera was installed at the agents’ computer desks, and a log was kept of times when the agents logged onto the informant files, and for how long. Conversations were recorded and the tapes were enhanced. The agents went to jail; a sad day indeed.
Scrambling a Witness’s Testimony
There was a labor investigation in which a number of witnesses of illegal activities came forward but refused to testify for fear of reprisals. I was contacted by the judge who asked whether there was some way to disguise their voices as they provided testimony from an undisclosed location supervised by attorneys on behalf of the judge.
I designed a system that allowed all attorneys to speak clearly by telephone while the witnesses‘ voices were changed so as to be non-identifiable while all parties could hear each other. Thus, the safety of the witnesses was maintained while the facts were entered into evidence.
New York Chief Judge Sol Wachtler was having an affair. When the lady involved ended the affair, the Judge, wanting to continue, kept calling his lady friend. Then one day she received a threatening call from someone using a voice changer. The voice was distorted and clearly had been changed using an electronic device.
Federal prosecutors gave me the tape and asked whether I could unscramble the conversation. Using a computer as well as several consumer speech changers I was able to restore the voice along with a stable hum recorded at the time of the conversation. This hum signal served as a reference to tell me that the scrambling had been successfully reversed. Lo and behold, the voice on the phone was that of the judge.
In San Francisco there was a rash of post office robberies. A group called the Bailey gang specialized in breaking into post office safes and stealing cash and stamps. The government arrested one of the gang and convinced him to work undercover. He recorded conversations both on the telephone as well as in person, plotting future robberies.
The informant was a colorful character. He named his son Sam Quentin, after the place where he had spent considerable time. He had “made in Taiwan” tattooed on his heel, “like the little statues in the tourist shops”. His testimony along with tapes of his conversations to corroborate his testimony resulted in convictions of these postal predators.
A number of the Hells Angels, including
Sonny Barger, their leader, were on trial
One night, supporters of the Hells Angels killed a pig and left its blood-smeared head at the door of the Federal courthouse. That day I shipped my family off to visit relatives, and stayed in a different hotel each night checked in under an assumed name. All defendants were convicted.
Irwin Feiner was a con man. His modus operandi was to purchase yachts and jets and overfinance them by getting them appraised for more than their actual value. He would then take a half million dollars from the loan proceeds and hide it. The jet or yacht would be leased for a while and then he would default on the loan payments. And then he would go to the next bank and start all over again.
The amazing thing about this scheme was that he continued it while in jail. He called bank officers and explained the echoing of the prison saying he was at his health club. All telephone calls at the prison were recorded on a 40-channel tape but there was no way to determine which of the thousands of inmate phone calls were from Feiner. Each large reel had the capacity of recording 40 telephone lines for 24 hours.
My job was to design a system to automatically detect all of the touch tones of the phone calls, download them into a computer, compare them with the known 105 telephone numbers Feiner was known to call, and output a printout of the relevant phone call dates, times and channels for review and downloading of the pertinent conversations.
I had just visited the laboratories of Thomas Edison, one of my personal heroes, and I had purchased his complete papers and memoirs. I remember reading Edison’s papers that Sunday afternoon and then taking a nap. When I awoke, somehow I knew exactly how to design the system. I remember looking at the book as I woke up and saying “ thanks Tom”.
We had our initial output two weeks later and ultimately Feiner was convicted of fraud while in jail.
In Miami a misguided young man aspired to become a part of organized crime. He decided to manufacture “hit kits” to be used for assassinations. Each kit consisted of a black attaché case with a concealed Ruger pistol equipped with a silencer, and a ring near the handle to fire the gun. He even put black electrical tape over the firing hole so that the case looked authentic from any angle. All the killer needed to do was to walk by the intended victim in a crowded location, and suddenly the target would fall as if he had suffered a heart attack.
Agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms had this man under surveillance on foot, by phone and from helicopters. At an appropriate time the man was arrested and some of his “hit kits” were seized. The amazing part of this case was the selling price of these assassination kits…… $300 each. Risk vs. reward. He received 20 years.
During the course of multimillion dollar brokerage transactions, conversations are routinely recorded not for “instructional purposes” as the pre-recorded messages woule have you believe, but rather for insurance for the recording party in the event that there is a difference of opinion as to recollection of details after the fact.
In this case there was a multi-million dollar conversation that was recorded on a 60 channel logging recorder. Unfortunately the bank of amplifiers containing the fateful channel 19 malfunctioned. The tape, when played back, sounded blank with just a little noise and no trace of a conversation.
My assignment was to retrieve the conversation, if possible. First I modified the recorder to run at quadruple speed since the faster a tape crosses a tape head, the higher its output. Next, I designed low-distortion amplifiers to lower the noise floor. Finally I had a recording head manufacturer design a custom channel 19 only head with closer tape to head contact. With all of these modifications, and considerable experimentation, followed by digital enhancement, we were able to retrieve about 95% of this “almost lost” conversation. I felt like a true “audio archeologist”.
The U.S. Senate Committee on Governmental Affairs retained me to determine whether there were any signs of tampering of tapes recorded at the White House to document the President’s various activities. Specifically at issue were tapes of White House coffee chats arranged with high-level political donors. I first met with attorneys at the Senate, and then went to the White House where I was given access to the original tapes. Copies were made and tests were run back at the lab. It was determined that the tapes reflected various segments of recordings but that there was no evidence of tampering or editing. I reported these findings in an appearance on the CNN program Politics Today.
The National Archives is the custodian of the original Nixon tapes recorded at the White House, including the tape on which 18 minutes have been erased. On this the 30th anniversary of Watergate, the National Archives has decided to invite qualified forensic scientists to participate in a feasibility study to determine the likelihood of retrieving the missing 18 minutes of conversation.
The plan was to distribute two preliminary recorded and subsequently erased tapes of increasing similarity to the actual tape, to insure that an examined tape is preserved with no damage to it as a result of any examination, and also to evaluate the product of laboratory techniques used in attempting to recover recorded speech that has been erased.
Currently, we have just received the second preliminary tape, and are in the process of examining it, in preparation to attempting to do our “magic. Stay tuned for results.
I’ve tried to give you a
glimpse into the life of a tape expert, illustrating the different
types of cases that I deal with on a daily basis. In addition, there
are lectures to law enforcement in the use of tapes during investigations,
and an ongoing dialogue with surveillance and recorder manufacturers
so as to insure that the tapes recorded are valid legally as bona
fide evidence in courts of law, along with supporting expert testimony.