After child predator case, Md. county launches own digital forensics unit

The case of sexual predator Carlos Bell inspired Charles County, Maryland’s Sheriff’s Office to create its own digital forensics unit, which was introduced to the public on Friday.

Because of a backlog at the state forensics’ lab, Bell, of Waldorf, was free for six months after police seized his cellphones, and he preyed upon eight more children before his eventual arrest on assault and child pornography charges in 2017.

“We had to do something, and something had to change,” Sheriff Troy D. Berry said of creating the new unit. “This delay in analysis could never, ever happen again.”

The Digital Forensics Unit has been in operation since August. Since then, it’s participated in 255 cases examining everything from cellphones to computers and thumb drives.

“It still takes time to go through these devices, but we no longer have to wait for an outside source, and we can initiate these searches immediately,” Berry noted.

Bell initially was suspected of sending inappropriate text messages to students. Berry said his agency and community were shocked and dismayed to eventually learn that Bell — who was a coach and teaching assistant — had sexually assaulted 42 children.

“This unit is critical because it helps us move faster on investigations into child sexual abuse cases and other crimes,” said Capt. Joseph Pratta, commander of the office’s Criminal Investigations Division.

“Of the 500 devices our analysts have received, 40 have been connected to child-related investigations. For child abuse cases, this averages to 2.1 cases a month,” Pratta said.

The effort is funded through the office budget, Berry said. The unit makes itself available to assist other area police agencies as needed.

Bell, convicted of state and federal charges, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

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