A member of the Grafton County Sheriff’s Department stands in rare company.
Less than three years after the GCSD established a digital forensics unit that investigates crimes ranging from offenses against children to drug cases, arsons, and homicides, the detective running it has been awarded top forensic examiner for 2020 by the U.S. Secret Service National Computer Forensic Institute.
“I’m humbled by it,” Detective Justin Charette-Combs said Wednesday. “The Secret Service has recognized the work and it definitely is an award that is difficult to obtain and be nominated for.”
The Secret Service, in fact, bestows nationwide just 50 of the awards annually, and the one for Charette-Combs is the first ever awarded for a New Hampshire examiner.
“An accolade like this is just a testament to the kind of person and investigator that Justin is,” said Grafton County Sheriff Jeff Stiegler. “He’s really a special person to have on our workforce.”
It also goes to show that the GCSD is being recognized for the amount of forensics it conducts, said Charette-Combs.
Since launching in October 2018, that work to date has involved analyzing thousands of digital devices, from computers to cell phones.
Last year alone, Charette-Combs was involved in more than 260 cases and received 673 devices for examination, about the same number of devices in 2019.
In his three years as sole examiner of the unit, he’s been involved in about 600 criminal cases.
To keep up with the ever-evolving technology, Charette-Combs trains regularly with the U.S. Secret Service’s National Computer Forensics Institute in Alabama.
Eligible for the award, which was established five years ago and rates the volume and quality of work an examiner produces, are all of the examiners who train there.
Yearly, thousands are trained, and out of that sea, Charette-Combs rose to the top.
Bestowing the honor at the GCSD on Monday was Timothy Benitez, the U.S. Secret Service special-agent-in-charge for Vermont and New Hampshire, who said the volume of work the GCSD produces doesn’t even compare to the more metropolitan areas like Boston, Connecticut, or anywhere in New England.
“He had reached out to me about a week ago and told me how impressed he was over the past year with Justin’s forensic work,” said Stiegler.
The first of its kind north of the Lakes Region, the forensics unit at the GCSD can unlock and extract data and information on computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, and other digital devices, as well as monitor Internet activity, and preserve the evidence gathered.
In some cases, it can determine the location of a suspect at the time a crime was committed.
In 2019, when the unit moved to a larger space at the sheriff’s department, Charette-Combs said in just about every crime case today, a phone or digital device is really a second crime scene.
The GCSD forensic lab initially launched with a focus on crimes against children being investigated with the New Hampshire Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, for which Charette-Combs serves as a forensic analyst.
“The main focus was ICAT cases, but about two years ago we opened our doors as a regional resource, taking drug overdose cases, arson cases, and cases from the DEA [U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration] and New Hampshire State Police,” said Charette-Combs, who joined the GCSD with a background information technology. “All kinds of different agencies are coming to us now.”
They now include agencies from all over New Hampshire and a growing swath of Vermont that seek Charette-Combs’ special examining skills that go beyond basic computer forensics.
On Monday, for instance, he was contacted by police in Bennington, Vt., regarding a homicide case.
Charette-Combs, who holds a degree in computer science from Southern New Hampshire University and another degree in criminal justice from the New Hampshire Technical Institute, is currently the sole examiner in the GCSD forensic unit, but if demand continues to grow, another examiner could be added.
“We hope to train other personnel in the future,” he said. “That is the hope and dream, that we can continue to grow as a resource and expand more resources out to local agencies. Growth is always the vision. We are trying to get there.”
Stiegler said, “He’s in a place now where he’s doing a stellar job. I’d like to see him some day as a mentor. Justin would make an excellent teacher.”
For investigations, Grafton County law enforcement agencies come first, but the growth of digital forensics and Charette-Combs’ expertise that includes high-end analysis in the lab means the service provided by the county could be in greater demand, including by the federal agencies that have already sought his skills, said Stiegler, who called Charette-Combs one of the top three forensics investigators in New Hampshire.
“We want to be a good neighbor and there may be a day when we need something,” he said. “To reciprocate is very important.
While the county pays Charette-Combs’ salary, his training at the institute is paid for by the U.S. Secret Service, which also pays for equipment in the GCSD forensics unit.
His training has also been paid for by the Department of Homeland Security.
“He continues to earn certifications and bring back skill sets, which is a really good thing for the county,” said Stiegler. “I can’t imagine being a police officer or police chief and not having this available.”
For his total annual training, done weeks at a time, Charette-Combs is away two to three months out of the year.
“Our relationship with the Secret Service has been amazing,” said Charette-Combs. “They provide us with a lot of the training and hardware. They are the main reason we exist and why we were able to get started.”