Taking a byte out of crime: Tustin Police crime analyst uses computer to solve cases
They were sophisticated. Not some amateur smash and grab outfit. These criminals were good at their craft.
They had been successfully breaking into commercial warehouses all over Southern California, stealing computer parts, thumb drives, DVD players, even bathing suits – anything they would find inside the warehouses they hit. The Los Angeles County Sheriffs set up a multi-agency task force to catch them.
They didn’t limit their thievery to merchandise. They would also steal the company vans and use them to get away. They were really good.
After two years, some arrests had been made. But the thieves were still going strong and no arrests had been made in Tustin.
That’s when Suzanna Howard, the Tustin Police Crime Analyst, made a suggestion.
After Howard’s computer analysis of the crimes, she came up with a theory that the criminals would strike again on Memorial Day weekend in 2012. More specifically, Howard predicted the thieves would strike Saturday between the hours of 1 and 9 a.m. on that Memorial weekend.
Then something happened that you never want to happen when you’re the Crime Analyst and your computer has helped you make a prediction about crime.
Her prediction was wrong.
But only by about 24 hours.
Suzanna Howard was an accountant for 10 years.
“I was doing the same thing every day – telling rich people they were getting richer,” Howard said.
Inspired by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Howard wanted to make a more fulfilling life and help in her community.
She got a Master’s Degree in Forensics, but the science part of crime scenes wasn’t really her thing. Then she started a program at Cal State Fullerton called Crime and Intelligence Analysis – it was a wonky, computerized look at crime.
“I knew I had found my calling,” Howard said. “The numbers and stats attracted me. You can use statistics to predict crime.”
Howard became the first Crime Analyst in the history of the Tustin Police Department when she was hired in 2006.
She spent her first couple of years doing internal reports and crime stats. It wasn’t until then-Detective Ryan Coe asked her for help on a baffling case that Howard became more well-known inside the Tustin Police Department.
Coe was investigating a counterfeiter who had been using fake traveler’s checks to get reimbursed for cash and gift cards. The suspect was working in several counties. Coe handed over the data – addresses where illegal purchases had been made, dates of illegal purchases, amounts of illegal purchases — to Howard.
One day, Coe, who is now a sergeant, came into the Tustin Police Department and a picture of the suspect – a woman named Jem Bryan — was on his desk. Howard had solved the case sitting at her computer. During her analysis, Howard had found a transaction in which Bryan had, among several aliases, mistakenly used her real credit card and her real name.
Bryan was arrested, convicted and sentenced to two years.
And Suzanna Howard had credibility.
In the case of the commercial warehouse burglaries – the biggest of Howard’s career – the LA Task Force had been operating under the assumption that the thieves were operating on the weekends.
Howard, however, noticed commercial warehouse burglaries in Tustin on New Year’s Day, President’s Day and Easter weekend.
She suggested the crimes were being committed on holidays, so she suggested they be ready for Saturday May 26, 2012.
Two detectives were posted and ready to pounce.
When the crooks didn’t show up on the 26th, the detectives didn’t get discouraged.
Police set up around the industrial area near Walnut and Franklin avenues.
Howard thought her theory was a bad one.
“I didn’t think we were going to get hit,” Howard said. That hunch was wrong.
The criminals did just what she expected them to do. They made the mistake of continuing their crime spree in Tustin.
In the early morning hours of May 27, Tustin police saw a gold Honda making u-turn after u-turn on Walnut and Franklin. That car was the lookout.
Within minutes, burglars jumped out of the van, entered the warehouse through a hole they had cut earlier in the roll-up garage door and began filling a stolen white van with $227,000 worth of bathing suits.
Howard was in Fresno that weekend visiting a relative, so she didn’t know about the arrests.
Police caught most of the thieves at the scene. One of the getaway cars started a chase before crashing in Costa Mesa.
In all, nine arrests were made.
Suzanna Howard (along with Detective Eric Haug, who coordinated the sting operation) was named Police Officers of the month.
She wasn’t even in town when her computer work paid off.
“Police have always worked their hunches,” Howard said. “Now we have computers to check on hunches.”