Four men, work friends, had beers and vodka shots until late one November night in Arkansas at one of their homes. The next morning, the owner of the house called police to report one of them dead, floating face-up in the bloodstained water of the hot tub on the back patio.
Physical evidence including bloodstains and broken objects around the body of 47-year-old Victor Collins eventually led to a determination of homicide. Evidence inside the house and injuries on homeowner James Andrew Bates’ hands and body led to his arrest on murder charges.
But beside the traditional trace evidence showing a violent struggle, police have also consulted an unusual witness: the Amazon Echo at the crime scene.
The voice-responsive Echo device may have recorded some clues as to how Collins ended up strangled and drowned in the hot tub that night, authorities say in court documents.
As reported by The Verge, the Bentonville Police Department executed two search warrants to seize data on the cell phones of Collins, Bates, and the Echo in Bates’ home.
The latest warrant, dated from August, indicated a detective was able to extract all the data from the Echo and the LG cell phone of the victim – but not the Huawei Nexus cell phone of Bates, since it was encrypted at the chipset level.
The Echo was being used to wirelessly stream music throughout the house and to the back patio the night Collins died, according to the search warrant. Detectives believed the Echo – which is constantly on alert for the “wake word” to make it responsive – may have recorded some of what transpired in the house on Southwest Elm Manor Avenue, during the early morning hours of Nov. 22, 2015.
“The Amazon Echo device is constantly listening for the ‘wake’ command of ‘Alexa’ or ‘Amazon,’ and records any command, inquiry, or verbal gesture given after that point, or possibly at all times without the ‘wake word’ being issued, which is uploaded to Amazon.com’s servers at a remote location,” the search warrant reads. “It is believed that these records are retained by Amazon.com and that they are evidence related to the case under investigation.”
But what police and prosecutors have learned from the silent witness is not yet clear.
The police are withholding comment on the evidence collected in the case. Chief Jon Simpson told Forensic Magazine in a prepared statement he directed all questions on the pending case to the Benton County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Nathan Smith, the prosecuting attorney, told Forensic Magazine by phone that though they have retrieved data from the Echo, there is more yet to be taken from the machine.
“We still need data from the device,” said Smith. “Maybe it’s something, maybe it’s nothing. But we have an obligation to find out what’s on it.”
Amazon has not yet responded to a request for comment. However, they told the Verge the company “objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.” The company announced this week that “millions” of the Alexa devices were sold this year.
The company reportedly said they would obey any search warrant that legally bound them to provide the data. Smith and his prosecutors are expecting more data than Amazon has thus provided, he said.
“I’m going to hold them to that,” said Smith. “We obtained a search warrant. The question is, will they comply with a lawful search warrant?”
The police warrant does indicate some of the data retrieved could be pertinent to the case.
“This agency maintains custody of the Echo device and it has since been learned that the device contains hardware capable of storing data, to potentially include time stamps, audio files, or other data,” it adds. “It is believed that the device may contain evidence related to this investigation and a search of the device itself will yield additional data pertinent to this case.”
Bates, 32, pleaded not guilty in April to the first-degree murder and a count of tampering with evidence count, according to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
The alleged killer has been free on bond since April. The next scheduled court appearance is a motions hearing in March, Smith said.
Diana Goovaerts, editor of Wireless Week, contributed to this story.