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Cell phone probe fuzzy in case against college official

Can you hear me now?

Cell users often experience fuzzy reception, and it can be frustrating.

I’m starting to feel that sort of frustration the more I look into the details of the theft investigation of College of Southern Nevada Associate Vice President for Facilities Management William “Bob” Gilbert and three other employees. They are accused of stealing materials and equipment and working on college time to build Gilbert’s home in lower Kyle Canyon. Gilbert is charged with 13 felony theft counts and four counts of misconduct by a public officer. He’s also fighting the attempt by the attorney general’s office to seize his house — the kind of forfeiture action usually reserved for mob bosses and drug kingpins.

Gilbert is neither. He’s accused of stealing cinder blocks, two-by-fours and construction equipment Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen values at “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” Civil attorney Brent Bryson has countered that only a few thousand dollars in materials is in question, and it’s all accounted for. Attorney John Momot, who represents Gilbert in the criminal case, is preparing a motion to dismiss.

Speaking of intriguing reception, in a March interview Hafen said the evidence gathered during the investigation by then-attorney general’s office investigator Anthony Ruggiero was “really straightforward.”

Perhaps so.

Hafen’s confidence no doubt is bolstered by the 63-page investigative report Ruggiero filed in the case in April 2008. Ruggiero also testified under oath before the grand jury. He made much of the use of cell phone tracking in making the case that Gilbert and the three other men were talking on their phones while working on his property on company time.

But in his April 9 deposition in connection with the forfeiture action, Ruggiero was compelled to admit that he had no expertise in cell phone triangulation. He also couldn’t recall whether he had ever testified in a felony criminal proceeding.

He said he relied on Metro’s expertise, but he couldn’t recall the name of the Metro expert he relied on.

Nowhere in the investigative report — the one Hafen uses to help navigate his prosecution — does Ruggiero mention the name of the Metro specialist who concurred with his admittedly unspecialized research.

Ruggiero testified under oath before the grand jury that cell phone records clearly indicated Gilbert and CSN employees were working on his residential construction project on company time.

That sounds convincing, the kind of testimony that would sway grand jurors and be devastating at trial.

Too bad it’s inaccurate.

At one point Bryson asked, “But my question was: What did you ask Metro to do?”

“I asked them to — how they were able to use cell phones to find persons, subjects, how that was done,” Ruggiero replied.

The defense has hired former Metro Detective Kerry Tritschler, a 25-year department veteran who until 2009 was one of two investigators considered an expert in cellular technology and tracking. Tritschler’s expert opinion differs mightily from Ruggiero’s speculation.

Tritschler concluded, “From the investigative report and grand jury transcript there were no physical surveillance conducted to verify that the target phone was at any of the mentioned locations. Assumptions were made because the target cell phone was registered to a tower in the area. A cell phone registered to a base station could be at or miles away from the target location. Without follow-up during the investigation the information that the target cell phone is at an exact location is an assumption and not fact.”

Assumption, not fact.

That won’t play well with any jury.

Gilbert is a long way from being vindicated, but this development calls into serious question the thoroughness of the investigation.

If the prosecution can’t hear that by now, I suspect it will soon enough.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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