The FBI told East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III nearly two weeks ago that a third party was trying to crack the encrypted iPhone of one of the San Bernardino, California, shooters and that the method, if it worked, could help Moore open the cellphone of slain Baton Rouge mother Brittney Mills.
The prosecutor said Thursday the heads-up from FBI officials was not a commitment or guarantee that what worked in the California case could, in fact, be used in the Baton Rouge homicide investigation.
“They just said if we get in the phone, we’ll be able to reach out and help you, and kind of left it at that,” Moore said.
In a Monday court filing, U.S. attorneys told a federal judge in California they had, in fact, found another way into the iPhone of Syed Rizwan Farook and no longer needed the help of technology giant Apple. Prosecutors had been trying to have the court compel Apple’s aid in bypassing the phone’s encryption.
Deemed by the FBI as homegrown U.S. extremists inspired by foreign terrorist groups, Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, went on a shooting rampage in December, killing 14 and injuring 22.
Farook, who expressed support on Facebook for Islamic State terrorists, and his wife were gunned down in a shootout with authorities.
Since the disclosure Monday, Moore said, he has not heard yet how, if or when the FBI would turn its attention to the slaying of the 29-year-old Mills, but the prosecutor said he is optimistic that at some point investigators will get into Mills’ phone.
“It’s still early on,” said Moore, who said he has remained in contact with the FBI.
Moore is hoping Mills’ locked cellphone, which investigators believe contains her diary, can shed some light on who shot her and create some new momentum in the stalled case.
Prosecutors have accessed all the cellphone information stored online, but Moore said the last several months of activity before Mills was killed remain on the phone.
Mills, who had a daughter but also was pregnant, was shot April 24 at her front door after someone knocked, and she refused a request to use her car. Doctors delivered her unborn son, Brenton, but he died several days later.
Craig Betbeze, spokesman for the FBI’s New Orleans office, declined comment Thursday.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that a Little Rock, Arkansas, prosecutor said the FBI agreed to unlock an iPhone and iPad in a homicide case there, but the FBI later backtracked, saying agents didn’t know yet if they could open the devices, according to the The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
The Arkansas prosecutor’s office didn’t return a message for comment. The FBI in Little Rock couldn’t immediately respond Thursday to those reports.
The battle to access Farook’s phone, which the FBI says it needed to follow up on the attacks, has pitted privacy rights against the government’s push to protect an open society against terrorism.
In the Farook and Mills cases, authorities have search warrants to access the iPhones, but the phones have encryption that Apple says even it can’t get through.
Continued guessing of the phones’ passcodes could lead to destruction of the data.
The FBI wanted Apple to build a way through the encryption on Farook’s phone, portraying the request as a limited, one-time effort.
But Apple CEO Tim Cook said the FBI wanted his company to create a new back-door through Farook’s iPhone. He and an array of civil liberties group who joined Apple’s cause in the federal case contended the request would do just what Comey said it wouldn’t: Open a route through the encryption of millions of iPhones.
Barbara J. Mills, 60, the mother of Brittney Mills, said Apple’s high-minded arguments about protecting its customers’ privacy ignore a reality in her daughter’s slaying and in the San Bernardino shootings.
“She was an Apple consumer, so were most of the people in San Bernardino, so my thing is: Why aren’t you protecting those consumers, the ones who are here,” she said. “The dead don’t have any privacy, so why can’t you give us assistance in finding who was responsible?”
The legal dispute over Farook’s iPhone was never settled in court as federal prosecutors agreed this week to drop the case once the unknown third party found a way in.
A federal judge in New York ruled in late February in a separate case that the U.S. government couldn’t force Apple to open the locked phone of an admitted meth dealer.
While that ruling is on appeal, Apple’s attorneys informed the court last week — before the FBI’s announcement Monday — that Apple would test the FBI’s methods if the FBI contended what worked on Farook’s phone wouldn’t work on the phone in the New York case.
Farook had an iPhone 5C, which has an operating system with a tougher encryption than the phone in the New York case, which is an iPhone 5. Mills had an iPhone 5S.
Moore said he is not certain what entity opened Farook’s phone and aired the possibility of a foreign intelligence agency or private company looking to sell its methods. He said he doesn’t know how easily those methods can be applied across the country where law enforcement agencies have run into similar roadblocks with Apple’s encryption.
He said however the method is shared, it is likely to become public as prosecutors seek warrants to access those idle cellphones.
Barbara Mills, who is a retired nurse now caring for her daughter’s surviving child, said she remains hopeful the FBI’s success in the Farook case will mean prosecutors in Baton Rouge can access Brittney’s phone and bring justice for her daughter.
“We’re optimistic because I have God on my side,” she said. “It’s all going work out.”
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter, @NewsieDave.