by Kevin Taylor and Ted S. MacGregor & r & The retired federal agent believed to be Moto-Brock runs a computer forensics company in Spokane and has been hired as an expert witness in cases across the country. He is talented enough in his field that federal defense attorneys -- who once lined up against him -- now hire him to work their side of a case.
He has also been called an incompetent dumpster-diver by a leading figure in the computer forensics industry, who appears to have a bone to pick.
Meet Marcus Lawson. If there were a "virtual yearbook " for the Ferris High class of 2005, Lawson would be voted "Most Likely To Be Moto-Brock. " The few details released about Moto-Brock fit Lawson, say those familiar with the man and his work.
"This is a particularly small community, especially in terms of computer forensics, " says Roger Peven, the head federal defender in Spokane. "I know Marcus Lawson to be a former special agent with customs in Spokane. I know him to have investigated child porn cases. I cross-examined him. "
Lawson would not say he was Moto-Brock, but he also would not say he wasn't.
"Our client list is confidential, " Lawson said on Tuesday. "We don't discuss our client list one way or the other. "
Even with the recall about to begin, and an institutional promise of transparency, "We are not identifying Moto-Brock, " says Duane Swinton, attorney for the Spokesman-Review. "The newspaper has an agreement with that individual that the relationship shall remain confidential. "
Peven describes Lawson's work as excellent, adding that now that Lawson is in the private sector, he does on occasion hire Lawson to work for the defense.
Several members of the legal and law enforcement community confirmed for us their suspicions that Lawson is Moto-Brock. When his employee, Josiah Roloff, appeared as an expert in a recent Spokesman-Review story, that sealed it for all of them.
Early last year, the Review took the unusual step of hiring a computer forensics expert -- Moto-Brock -- to make sure the man they thought was Mayor Jim West in gay chat rooms was, indeed, West. As the scandal hit newsstands, citizens pushed a recall measure through for a vote. West has admitted visiting Gay.com on his city computer, but he has denied any violation of personal-use guidelines. He's denied improper offering of internships. He also calls allegations of sexual abuse "flat lies. "
Recall ballots are being mailed Friday, and none of the third-party investigations (FBI, City Council) into any charges against West are complete. So what do people base their votes on? Largely on Moto-Brock.
So why didn't the Review reveal Moto-Brock's identity when they first uncovered West's secret life on May 5? Editor Steve Smith said earlier this year that it was because Moto-Brock still worked with law enforcement and Homeland Security, and because he didn't want the media glare on him.
Earlier this week, Smith added that, "There's nothing nefarious about it. But he deserves the same protection that we have provided other sources.
"At some point, " Smith continued, "he absolutely will be named. All of our anonymous sources are conditional. In the event of litigation, their identity will be divulged. But I question whether [Jim West's promised] lawsuit will ever be filed. It will cost an enormous amount of money. If the mayor would like to sue us, I will walk over to the courthouse with him tomorrow -- if there's a chance I could ask him questions [under oath] before Dec. 6. "
On this, at least, West's attorney Bill Etter agrees: "When this gets to court, we'll know who Moto-Brock is. "
The Inlander called Etter and fellow West attorney Carl Oreskovich, who also speculated Moto-Brock was Marcus Lawson, but they were not our initial sources for this story.
A Second Career & r & After 18 years in law enforcement, including a stint as a special agent with the U.S. Customs Service, often working to break up child pornography rings, Lawson went into business as a consultant and expert witness. His firm, Global CompuSearch, located on Spokane's South Hill, is growing, as courts have come to rely more and more on computer evidence. The company started in 2000, and Lawson hopes to hire two new investigators.
Digging into Moto-Brock's background offers a peek behind the curtain of an emerging and somewhat chilling industry. For example, the Web site also says that, "We have examined the computers of teachers and other employees suspected of inappropriate computer use without their having been aware, " offering a glimpse at how Big Brother probably is watching us.
Defense attorneys across the nation have hired Lawson as a consultant or expert witness. And, unlike in the Moto-Brock sting, Lawson's identity is not kept secret. A Google search uncovers video clips of Lawson testifying in the kidnap-murder trial of David Westerfield in San Diego. Lawson is quoted as a forensics expert in articles on the CNN and Court TV Web sites.
It was a quote from Lawson from an August 2003 Court TV article about how things get onto hard drives that set off Jason Coombs, a nationally noted computer forensics expert who now appears to be Lawson's biggest critic.
The article asked whether incriminating files or other materials wind up stored on a hard drive without the owner or user's knowledge or permission? Computer experts quoted in the story note that "Trojan Horse " programs can be implanted like a computer virus, allowing users other than the owner to work the computer. But the experts also said people claiming this in court are merely using a new variation of the "It wasn't me! " defense.
Here's the Court TV quotation from Lawson: "You wouldn't want to just throw that out there as your defense. An experienced computer forensics person could tell you whether it was because of [a Trojan Horse virus] or not. "
Coombs notes that such programs are the way spam has been shipped out remotely. More recently, it has been the method of choice for child pornographers hoping to cover their tracks -- they can store their images on thousands of computers all over the world without the owners knowing anything about it. It's what Coombs calls a "drone army " of computers.
Getting at the truth is not easy, Coombs says, and computer forensics experts must venture beyond a mere snapshot of the hard drive. Instead, they need to analyze everything on its own terms. The goal is to figure out which items have been activated and used by software, and which items have been activated and used by human users. That can take time, Coombs says, sometimes even involving calling the original programmers of the software to ask about how they wrote their code.
Coombs, who is also hired as an expert for trials, was angered enough by Lawson's quoted response that he began lobbing up Internet postings to say that Lawson "is typical of the opinion of 'computer forensics' professionals. " Coombs believes that many computer-experts-for-hire are too quick to blame the user or the computer's owner for the contents of their hard drive: "It's a big, fat lie told by self-important people. "
Essentially, Coombs has a big problem with his industry being out of control, with no standards. Lawson, in his view, is merely a poster child for what's wrong.
"To me, it's disgusting that hard drives are being used as evidence, " says Coombs from his home in Hawaii. "The hard drive is the dumpster, and we are convicting large numbers of people in this country for what's on their hard drive. [Lawson] knows how to look at data, but he's botching investigations. What he is doing is digging through people's garbage. He's dumpster diving. "
Coombs' opinions were so strong, and so visible within the computer forensics world, that Lawson's attorney sent a cease-and-desist letter in August.
Coombs, who has written four books and been in the computer forensics business for 15 years, is unapologetic: "Computer forensics is in its infancy, and everyone is enamored with its power. It's a very big problem. Obviously, [Lawson] thinks all defendants are guilty. "
Virginia attorney Philip Cave, who often defends soldiers being court-martialed on computer porn or misuse charges, is aware of the Coombs-Lawson flap.
Cave has several comments:
ON COOMBS "I am aware of Jason Coombs. He has good ideas, but his problem is he's so volatile, he has trashed his credibility. "
ON THE INDUSTRY "There is no oversight of computer forensics examiners in the private sector or in the public sector. These people are not accredited. There are no standards. It's been suggested. The Department of Justice has been involved. Lots of meetings on the topic. No action. It's a self-regulated industry. "
ON LAWSON "One of Coombs' criticisms is that Lawson is too dyed-in-the-wool [as a cop]. Lawson has hired Josiah Roloff to fill that gap. Marcus is a good guy. "
The issue of whether Lawson is too pro-prosecution to be an effective defense witness was raised in the Westerfield rape and murder trial in San Diego. Westerfield's defense attorney, Steven Feldman, hired Lawson as a consultant and asked prosecutors for copies of alleged pornography found on Westerfield's computer.
Prosecutors initially refused, saying the files appeared to be child porn, and they would violate federal law if they made copies. Lawson agreed, which later came up in cross-examination, Feldman says, "which was not good for the defense. "
But, the attorney adds, "It's an indication [that Lawson] walks the straight-and-narrow. It's an indication of his ethics. "
Lawson was hired, Feldman says, to make sure the prosecution computer expert "was on the money. "
Westerfield was convicted, but Feldman was able to show that some of the pornographic files arrived on the computer when Westerfield had no access to it -- because he was being questioned by police at the time.
Shoddy Work? & r & In West's case, which is more of a private investigation than a criminal case (although the FBI is still looking into it), Moto-Brock's qualifications, oversight and skill have been called into question. Specifically, the mayor wonders why a key passage -- in which he allegedly offered an internship to Moto-Brock -- was lost from the transcripts.
"It's the crucial moment, in my mind, " says West attorney Carl Oreskovich. "To me, that smells. Maybe it's a coincidence, but it stretches the imagination. The sloppiness of the transcripts tells the story. "
Smith acknowledges that he would rather have a record of all the chats, but explains their method of capturing screens as PDFs wasn't perfect: "There are a handful of lines, maybe seven to 15 lines, that don't exist. My response is that it doesn't matter. It is corroborated by our live source, and it parallels individuals who came forward later. "
West also claims other parts of the transcript are clearly out of order: "Who knows what else is missing here? " he asks.
Swinton, the newspaper's attorney, says West's complaints don't carry much weight. "He is raising a very large red herring. He is questioning the credibility of somebody but not denying the essential fact. "
West also says Moto-Brock, whose profile he claims stated he was interested in "Action/Sex, " was the first to initiate contact -- the first "to say 'Hi' " as West puts it. He also says Moto-Brock "pestered " him for a while before West finally responded. West says Moto-Brock was the first to bring up sex and the idea of an intership.
Smith says Moto-Brock has a different recollection, saying West solicited him first and was the first to discuss sex.
And more recently, Global CompuSearch's Josiah Roloff has signed off on an affidavit stating absolutely that the only way potentially pornographic files could have gotten on West's work computer was if he downloaded them himself. The mayor has said those images are "highly offensive. " But he also says he didn't put them there.
After being briefed on the situation and Roloff's affidavit, Coombs said discovering how files get on a hard drive is not so easily known. West's lawyers agree, and they filed an affidavit from Garv Brakel, the city of Spokane's computer manager, who said he created a duplicate of the mayor's computer, visited Gay.com and had 451 image and picture files download onto the hard drive before deliberately clicking on any profiles.
In the end, though, there's no denying how good Moto-Brock was at what he does -- all his "LOLs " certainly fooled the mayor. If you need more proof, consider how, according to a Journal of Business profile, Lawson met his wife: in an online matchmaking service.
Editor's Note: Kevin Taylor is a former Spokesman-Review reporter. He was fired from his job there in January 2005.