Steve Bushaw murder trial: Enter the cell-phone records

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

It was an educational day at the Steve Bushaw murder trial on Wednesday, as testimony took a turn for the technical.

As prosecutor Jeff Baird continued to call witnesses in his case against Brandon Chaney and Bryce Huber, accused in the February 2009 West Seattle murder to which two others already have pleaded guilty, there was much for observers to learn.

Today’s witnesses were two Seattle Police homicide detectives, Paul Takimoto and James Cooper, and a state-employed expert in analyzing cell-phone records, Valentine Luu.

First, from Det. Takimoto, we learned how the SPD homicide unit is set up, as questions focused on his background and role, before moving on to his part of the Bushaw murder investigation.

Baird’s questions led him through his background: 22-year SPD veteran, almost 9 years with the homicide unit, also handling “serious felonies” such as assaults and kidnappings.

The unit has 14 homicide detectives, 12 currently in a “rotation” as six 2-person teams, working as partners, taking homicide cases as they come in, Det. Takimoto explained, adding that they work weekdays, nights every third month, but a team is always “up for the next homicide” – and when it happens, they will get a call, whatever time it is, wherever they are.

The night Steve Bushaw was shot to death, the detective said, he got a call at home around 1:20 am – less than two hours after the shooting – and drove to the scene, arriving by 2 am, after his partner, Detective Cooper.

One of the things he looked for – “routinely” at such scenes, he said – was cameras. He said he’d inquired at Poggie Tavern, since there was some reason to believe the victim had been there. But there were no cameras anyplace he inquired that would have yielded anything “showing any aspect of this crime.” Det. Takimoto said he had spoken to Holly (who testified on Tuesday about trying to help Bushaw after he managed to make it back into Talarico’s. He said he saw “blood stains on her person.”

After a “couple hours” at the scene that morning, he went to his office. Steve Bushaw’s family had left a voice-mail message, he said, and he arranged to meet them later in the day, speaking to Steve’s father Ron Bushaw.

“Did Mr. Bushaw say a name you hadn’t heard before?” asked Baird.

Yes, Det. Takimoto replied – “Bryce.” He testified that he asked Bushaw’s father to check his son’s phone “to see if he had a number for Bryce,” whose full name was learned shortly because Det. Cooper, overhearing his conversation with the victim’s father, put the name “Bryce” and the phone number into a database and came up with the name “Bryce Huber,” along with an address and registered vehicle.

At 7:50 pm on February 3rd, still less than 24 hours after the shooting, Det. Takimoto said they went to the Northgate address they had come up with for Huber, but he wasn’t there.

The prosecution then made way for defense questioning of the detective. Chaney’s lawyer Jim Roe asked about other law enforcers assigned to the investigation (bringing out another fact you might not have heard before, that a prosecutor is usually sent to a homicide scene). Roe asked who had put the detective in touch with Holly; he couldn’t remember.

Both Baird and Roe brought in the name of robbery unit Detective McGann, who Det. Takimoto said he spoke with around 9:50 am the morning after the shooting.

Huber’s lawyer Tony Savage asked the detective, “When is the first time you heard the name ‘Bryce’?”

Reply: When he talked with Bushaw’s father around 6 am the morning after the shooting. Steve Bushaw had died by then; a family friend had gone back to the scene to get his car. Savage asked if there was any chance that the name (Bryce) was known to officers on the street? The detective didn’t think so.

At 10 am, less than an hour into the morning, Baird called his next witness, Detective James Cooper, who has been a constant presence at the prosecution table throughout the trial (and was in the earlier proceedings, dating back to last January, before the trial was delayed). Like his partner, Det. Cooper outlined his experience in response to questions; he has worked for SPD for 22 years.

“What can you learn from cell-phone records?” Baird asked him.

Det. Cooper listed points: You can identify people, whereas otherwise your investigation might just have yielded a street name and phone number. You can also find out approximately where the cell phone in question was located during any time you request records. If police apply to get cell-phone records, they can tell who called the phone or who was called from the phone, “and you can develop other persons of interest.”

And then came the boards with phone numbers for which Det. Cooper had requested “full information” from cell-phone companies. He explained that the information came in over a course of months – “it took ten months to investigate this case before charges were brought … and basically, this is the first homicide I came across where there were multiple defendants. We started off with the victim’s number there, Mr. Bushaw, and … in a homicide investigation, usually a victim’s cell phone, depending on how sophisticated it is, can tell you the victim’s whereabouts, the last person she or he talked to before the person became deceased …”

He mentioned bringing in a Secret Service task force agent, Det. David Dunn, to examine Bushaw’s phone. And he acknowledged that while he didn’t know most of the names involved in the case when the investigation began, he got them through phone records.

Looking at phone records, Det. Cooper elaborated, doesn’t mean just looking at the time frame of the crime. “I want to see everything about (a) number … I want to see, is this random, is there a history behind a victim?”

Then, using the AT&T phone records of John Sylve – one of the two men who have pleaded guilty to murder in the case – as an example, Cooper ran down a long list of what kind of information those records contain, from date/time to how long it rang, duration of the call, sometimes what kind of phone the call was made from, the latitude/longitude of the first (antenna) site the phone hit and the last one … “If I had to bring all the records in on paper, we’d need handtrucks, and we’d be buried in boxes,” said Det. Cooper.

He then explained how he had asked for help from analyst Valentine Luu of the State Patrol, who works with records like this as part of high-level drug investigations. “I put it all on disc and turned it over to her and asked her to chart these numbers for me.”

Luu was the next witness. And from there, it got more technical, with more boards brought out – maps of the routes across which certain phones were tracked, and a diagram with photos of key figures in the narrative and lines showing whose phone connected to whose phone, and when.

ADDED 5:20 AM: As the afternoon session began, the front of the courtroom was lined with the aforementioned large maps and diagrams, to the point where, for a short time, Superior Court Judge Joan DuBuque and the lawyers/defendants were out of each other’s line of sight.

Cross-examining Luu, Chaney’s lawyer Roe held up the map marked as showing where his cell phone was tracked, pointing to key locations that were labeled, but establishing that the information used to mark locations was not a pinpoint – “not GPS.” He mentioned what appeared to be at least five attempted calls from Chaney’s phone to the phone of Danny O’Neal (one of the two confessed triggermen) between 11:33 pm and 11:35 pm, close to the time of the shooting. Though they were listed as a minute in duration, she acknowledged that means, the way cell-phone companies keep records, each could have lasted from zero to 60 seconds, and so multiple calls could be shown as overlapping.

Regarding the maps and diagrams, he also sought to clarify that while all calls made by the tracked figures in the case were represented on the maps, the diagrams showed only the calls involving any 2 of those eight phones (which include those of the victim and all four of the men charged in the murder). In response to other questions, Luu acknowledged that a phone could hit a tower from anywhere within one to 50 miles or so, and that text messages, for most cell services, do not hit cell towers, so there are no phone records associated with text messaging, and it was reiterated that these records only show which phone called which phone, not who was speaking.

“Can you tell (from records) if a phone is running out of power?” asked Roe. Luu said no.

When Huber’s lawyer Savage took over questioning, he also asked about how precise the locations are – whether you could be close to one tower but transmitted through another. Various calls were mentioned, jumping back and forth on the timeline of the last hour or so before the shooting, and that’s where testimony ended for the day.

Today (Thursday) will be a shorter day in court, per permission already given by Judge DuBuque, due to a scheduling conflict involving one of the defense lawyers and an unrelated case that’s long been on the schedule in a separate court. And then, unless a change is made at some point before the day ends around 2:30, the trial will be in recess, per the judge’s original scheduling announcement, until Wednesday of next week.

3 Replies to "Steve Bushaw murder trial: Enter the cell-phone records"

  • bridge to somewhere August 11, 2011 (7:33 am)

    what’s the thread at the end of the story? then appear to be notes?

    • WSB August 11, 2011 (8:05 am)

      They were, a few trailing lines. Gone now. Thanks for flagging, I’ve been out on another (early) story. Today the very thorough Katie Meyer will be in court on behalf of WSB. – TR

  • bridge to somewhere August 11, 2011 (11:14 am)

    Cool, you’re welcome. Great coverage. . . I feel like I’m in the court room . . .

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