WATERFORD HOMICIDE: Federal Judge Denies Request To Suppress Cell Phone, Social Media Evidence

Investigators from the Vermont State Police Crime Scene Search Team continue to search the Duck Pond Road property of homicide victim Michael Pimental in Waterford in October, 2018. (Photo by Todd Wellington)

A federal judge has denied a request to suppress cell phone and Facebook evidence allegedly related to the 2018 homicide of Waterford resident Michael Pimental.

Pimental, 37, was found dead off Victory Road in Concord on Oct. 14, 2018. He had been shot multiple times.

The government suspects that John Welch, 34, of Woodsville, N.H. was the shooter. Welch has not been charged with murder but he has been charged with several federal crimes that include carrying and using a firearm during a drug trafficking crime that “caused the death of an individual.”

U.S. District Court

Welch has also been charged with discharging a firearm during a drug trafficking crime and conspiring to use a firearm during a drug trafficking crime. Welch is also facing charges of unlawful transport of firearms and conspiracy to distribute narcotics.

In June of 2020, Welch, though his attorney, filed a motion to toss evidence obtained during searches of his cell phone and Facebook records arguing that the search warrants granted to police were overly broad in scope and lacked enough probable cause to justify a search.

The government opposed both motions which have now been denied by U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss.

Judge Reiss said her 13-page decision that Vermont Superior Court Judge Robert Bent was correct when he granted the warrant to search Welch’s phones.

“It was reasonable for Judge Bent to believe that Defendant Welch’s phone records would yield evidence of the crime of murder during a designated period,” wrote Judge Reiss in her decision filed earlier this month in U.S District Court in Burlington.

Welch also argued that the cell phone warrants failed to establish that his phone records were connected to a murder. But Judge Reiss again ruled that Judge Bent’s decision was well supported.

“Judge Bent had a ‘substantial basis’ for his conclusion that probable cause existed to search Defendant Welch’s cell phone records for a period of time spanning approximately six months for evidence of murder because there was a fair probability that these records would reveal evidence of that crime,” wrote Judge Reiss.

Welch’s argument to suppress evidence obtained during the search of his Facebook records was again based on an allegation of the search warrant being overly broad and lacking in probable cause because the supporting police reports ‘did not present a fair probability that [his] Facebook account contained evidence related to the death/murder of Mr. Pimental,’ according to the decision.

Welch also argued in court documents that the warrant lacked “particularity” and was overly broad because it requested all data from his account between April and October of 2018. But Judge Reiss again ruled in favor of the government writing that Welch had not met his burden to demonstrate that he had a reasonable expectation of privacy by not submitting any information about steps he took to keep his Facebook records private.

In October, the court approved a second round of digital search warrants related to Welch and several other suspects believed by prosecutors to have been involved in the homicide of Pimental.

Prosecutors successfully argued that advances in technology may help them uncover even more evidence from the devices even though they had already been searched by state police.

Investigators are now re-examining 25 electronic devices connected to the case including cell phones, Tracfones, Android tablets, iPads, WiFi cameras and a smartwatch seized by police as part of the Pimental investigation which includes a related drug trafficking investigation.

According to court documents, the list of approved search items includes financial records, lists of drug customers, names of drug suppliers as well as digital communications related to drug trafficking and further evidence of the Pimental homicide.

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