Retired CIA agent helps keep Wright County safe
By Starrla Cray
WRIGHT COUNTY, WAVERLY, MN Catching criminals with digital forensics is a bit like “finding a needle in a haystack,” according to former CIA agent Dave Holmes of Waverly.
Holmes (husband of Waverly Mayor Connie Holmes) is technically retired, but as a volunteer computer forensic investigator at the Wright County Sheriff’s Office, his skills are being sharpened on a daily basis.
“He’s just one of those guys who doesn’t do retirement very well,” Wright County Sheriff Joe Hagerty said. “He’s very talented and has a lot to offer.”
Holmes has been training other members of the Wright County office, a service Hagerty says would cost a great deal if Holmes weren’t a volunteer.
“He shows up for work every day, doesn’t get paid; he’s just so dedicated to us,” Hagerty said. “He’s really been a mentor for me and members of our office.”
What is digital forensics?
Digital forensics involves developing evidence pertaining to digital files, which can be used in court proceedings.
From uncovering embezzlement to linking burglary suspects together, Holmes knows how to extract all types of incriminating information from computers and cell phones.
“Any type of crime has the potential of involving digital forensics,” Holmes said.
One aspect includes digital devices that are an integral part of the commission of the crime. An example of this might be using a computer to disseminate child pornography, or using a cell phone to send a threatening text message.
The second aspect involves digital information that contains evidence to solve a case. For this, a criminal might have done a Google search to find a place they were going to rob, or a drug dealer might have called a client, for example.
“We deal with both types,” Holmes said, listing home invasions, fraud, criminal sexual conduct, burglary, sexting, harassment, deaths, violations of orders for protection, and invasions of privacy as a few possibilities.
“That’s just a sampling of the broad range of the types of offenses we can encounter,” he said.
An intelligent field
Growing up in a tiny town in southern Iowa, Holmes never dreamed he’d work for the CIA.
“I joined the Army Reserves right after my 17th birthday,” he said. “First, I was in infantry, then in intelligence.”
Holmes started working with computers in 1959, at Iowa State University.
“The computers could do statistical analysis, but they were very limited in terms of what they could do,” he said.
Initially, Holmes studied economics. He then made the progression from computer science to computer security to computer forensics.
He can’t disclose specifics about his career with the CIA, and is under a lifelong “pre-publication review.”
“That means that anything I write, and presentations I give, have to be approved by the agency that’s for anything associated with what I did before,” he said.
After Holmes “retired” for the first time, he spent four years volunteering in the central intelligence unit for a large police department in Virginia.
In 2007, he and his family moved to Waverly to be near family.
Hoping to be of service in his new hometown, Holmes inquired if the Wright County Sheriff’s Office would be interested in his help.
Hagerty remembers the proposal being brought up at an administrative meeting.
“In our business, if it seems too good to be true, we usually stay away from it,” Hagerty said.
As is standard protocol, the department tried to conduct a background check on Holmes. However, as a former CIA employee, Holmes’ background wasn’t readily accessible.
“We couldn’t even tell if he existed,” Hagerty said.
After several attempts, the Wright County Sheriff’s Office was eventually able to get the necessary information, with help from Holmes.
“Of course, he’s squeaky clean,” Hagerty said, adding that with an increasing number of crimes being committed digitally, Holmes’ help couldn’t have come at a better time.
Previously, Wright County’s digital forensics was handled by an outside firm. Having Holmes in-house has expanded resources and made for faster turnaround times.
Perseverance and skill
Gleaning digital evidence isn’t instantaneous, however.
“On TV, crimes get solved in 30 minutes,” Holmes said. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Hard disk drive sizes have increased dramatically over the years, complicating the process.
A one-terabyte drive, for example, has 1 trillion bytes (the unit for digital information).
To visualize how large this is, Holmes said to imagine each byte were one 12-point font character on a piece of paper. The paper would be printed to fill the page on both sides, with standard margins. Each sheet of paper would then be organized into reams, filling a standard size paper box. These boxes would then be placed end-to-end, stretching 6.25 miles.
Fortunately, Holmes is a patient person.
“I have a high tolerance to dealing with details,” he said. “I can stay at one thing half a day.”
An impressive place
For Holmes, working with the Wright County Sheriff’s Office has been highly rewarding.
“I’m very impressed with the department in Wright County,” Holmes said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group to work with. I’m very grateful for their friendship and what they’ve taught me.”
He’s especially appreciative of Hagerty, former Wright County Sheriff Gary Miller, Lieutenant Todd Hoffman, Lieutenant Sean Deringer, Sergeant Brian Johnson, and Sergeant Becky Howell.
“They gave me a chance,” Holmes said. “It wasn’t easy to get me here.”