Investigators are counting on advances in mining data from cellphones to unearth the information they need to charge a man they've long believed met with a 17-year-old boy for sex, then shot and killed the teenager before dumping his body in a wildlife refuge in Shakopee.
Jonathan Lee Easterling, 17, of St. Paul, was located by police Nov. 24, 2001, face down in the grass in the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge. He had been shot in the head three times.
Police soon arrested a man who was 21 at the time on suspicion of killing Easterling. Law enforcement found gunshot residue on the cuff and sleeve area of the man's leather jacket, but a "lack of sufficient evidence" led to his release from jail and no charges since then, according to court documents filed as recently as last week.
After being set free, the man was convicted in Hennepin County of soliciting sex from a minor in 2005 and again for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl in 2007.
In 2011, during a second look by police, DNA from the teen's fingernail clippings was collected and found to be a match with the suspect. Still, charges have never been filed. The Star Tribune generally does not name suspects in a specific crime before they are charged.
With many additional allegations of sexual assault from girls and young women being reported to law enforcement — several involving a firearm — the man was eventually confined indefinitely in 2015 to a state hospital in Moose Lake after being classified as a "sexually dangerous person," the newly filed documents noted.
While all of the man's reported victims have been female, Easterling was known to dress as a female and arrange to have sex with men who didn't know the teen's actual gender, the filing read.
Now, in this latest attempt to solve the case following previous failures, police were granted court permission this month to have the cellphones of Easterling, his sister and the 43-year-old lone suspect forensically examined by one of the world's leading companies in the field.
"In recently reviewed case files, I discovered no specific exam of [the suspect's] or Easterling's cellphone," police detective Corey Schneck wrote in a search warrant affidavit filed with the court that explained why the phones needed to be examined. "There have been significant advancements over the past two decades involving cell phone technology including certain extraction tools to view the content of a cell phone."
The phones were first submitted earlier this year to experts with the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, "but limited extractions were available," the detective's court filing read.
Police have since turned to a private company in Eden Prairie, Ontrack Data Recovery, which operates more than two dozen labs around the world, where engineers have performed more than 700,000 data recoveries on an array of devices.
The desired result is, "To determine any evidence of ... communication between [the suspect] and Easterling, as well as pre-planning of a murder."
Members of Ontrack staff declined Thursday to discuss the Easterling case, but they agreed that there have been technological advancements in ferreting out data no matter how long ago deletions were made.
Also working in Ontrack's favor is the fact that cases involving phones that are decades old are "as a whole" easier to crack, said Steven Hruska, Ontrack's flash memory mobile manager.
Helping solve crimes is a small percentage of Ontrack's business, but when a law enforcement agency "has a significant backlog and there could be a little bit of urgency, they might say, 'If we pay this company, we could avoid waiting six or nine months.' "
This case includes phone contact between Easterling and the suspect on the day he was last seen by his family, according to the court filing:
Easterling's sister told police she last saw him Nov. 23, 2001, and filed a missing person's report a couple of days later. She said he left home with a man she knew as Tray. She added that she found in their home a piece of paper with that name and a phone number.
A female friend of Easterling's disclosed to police that she would go with him whenever he posed as a woman to have sex with men in exchange for marijuana or money "to provide protection, since the situation would sometimes become volatile if the male discovered that Easterling is a male," the filing read.
The friend arranged for Tray and Easterling to meet, and she believed Tray thought Easterling was a woman. She said she knew Tray kept a gun in the glove box of his vehicle and described him as "crazy and dangerous." She then identified Tray by name during a police photo lineup.
Investigators soon tied the phone number on the piece of paper to Tray, and arrested him at his St. Paul residence. Two cellphones were taken from him, including one with the same number as on the slip of paper. Cellphone records showed two calls were made from that number to Easterling's phone on the day Tray picked him up.
Easterling's body was located the next day in the wildlife refuge.
Oraetta West reminisced a few days after her son's death that he liked sketching cars and playing clarinet, and said he was searching for what he wanted to do in life.
"He was very unselfish," West said. "He was the type of kid if another kid was being bullied, he would try to protect that kid."