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Originally published August 7, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified August 8, 2010 at 2:27 PM

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Ditched laptop, iPod may implicate friends of 'Barefoot Bandit'

The Apple laptop and what appeared to be an iPod touch that Colton Harris-Moore threw into a few feet of water in the Bahamas could yield a treasure trove of information for federal prosecutors.

Seattle Times staff reporter

He's an Apple guy, and now the Apple laptop and what appeared to be an iPod touch that Colton Harris-Moore threw into a few feet of water in the Bahamas could yield a treasure trove of information for federal prosecutors.

But there are a lot of "ifs" in what the retrieved electronic equipment could produce, experts say.

The "Barefoot Bandit" is the 19-year-old whose two-year alleged crime spree included stolen cars and planes, and ranged from his home on Camano Island all the way across the U.S. and into the Bahamas.

Harris-Moore was caught by police about 3 a.m. July 11 when a boat authorities say he stole at Harbour Island got stuck on a nearby sandbar. He then threw the electronic devices, a 9-mm gun and a knapsack into the water.

Five hours later, in daylight, Jordan Sackett was among those who went with Bahamian cops to retrieve the items. He said one of the electronic devices was "an Apple laptop in a black cover case" and the second was "what I believe was an iPhone, but could have been the iPod touch."

The Bahamians charged the "Barefoot Bandit" with illegal entry, fined him $300 and deported him. Harris-Moore is being held at the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac. He is charged with interstate transportation of stolen goods in connection with the theft of an airplane in Idaho, and he is under investigation for alleged involvement in dozens of burglaries and other crimes in Washington and eight other states.

What information the laptop and iPod touch might provide is important because U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan in Seattle has said the federal investigation includes possible charges against anyone who might have helped Harris-Moore avoid capture.

Emily Langlie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office here, said, "Several items were recovered, including a laptop and what's believed to be an iPod touch. The items are being processed, and we're attempting to find the rightful owners."

Langlie said she cannot go into further detail about what the feds are doing with the devices.

The iPod touch can be used to surf the Web, send and receive e-mails and play games, music and movies. It cannot take photos, but can store up to 90,000 photos, which could be shared by e-mail, for example.

The device does not require the user to subscribe to a provider service, but simply to be able to access Wi-Fi.

Ronald Friedman, a partner at Lane Powell in Seattle but until 2009 a federal criminal prosecutor here for 22 years, said:

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"All of our lives' activities are recorded. All you have to do is look at e-mails and phone and text messaging and you can plot out someone's whole day. Who they contacted, what they said.

"Deleting that material doesn't end it. The FBI has a tremendous capacity to retrieve files and find things that individuals thought they had deleted from their computers, but wasn't."

The ifs in retrieving the data include:

• Did Harris-Moore leave digital traces of websites, e-mail addresses and phone calls he made or received?

• Did the Bahamian cops use proper procedure to inhibit corrosion in the laptop after retrieving it from saltwater, such as keeping it wet until experts could begin data recovery?

• Did anyone plug in the retrieved laptop or iPod touch and turn it on, which could have fried circuits or damaged the hard drive?

The FBI would use its own labs to recover the computer data, assuming it has possession of the devices and took rapid action to preserve any data.

In the private world, retrieving data from damaged devices would be done by a major player such as DriveSavers Data Recovery of Novato, Calif., which charges from $1,400 to $2,300 to recover data.

"Most of the time, there is a chance of something useful being recovered," said Mike Cobb, the firm's director of Mac and Unix engineering.

But, he said, once an electronic device hits the water, "every hour does count" in retrieving information.

The devices were in the water for about five hours before they were recovered and placed inside plastic bags.

The Bahamian police would have had possession of the devices for more than 30 hours, until Harris-Moore was deported to the U.S. July 13.

Presumably, the laptop and iPod touch were turned over to FBI agents waiting for Harris-Moore on the plane that would head to Miami.

The FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office and Bahamian authorities would not respond to questions concerning the electronic devices.

Ideally, said Cobb, the Bahamian police would have placed the devices inside plastic bags filled with water until technicians could get to them.

Corrosion starts as soon as an item hits the water, but taking it out of the water accelerates it, Cobb said.

The corrosion actually leads to physical particles formed on the "read/write" heads that hover over a computer's hard-drive disk as it spins; corrosion even a fraction the diameter of a human hair could do severe damage.

The iPod touch devices don't have hard drives, but they do contain memory chips.

Cobb said that device, too, should have been kept in a bag with water to slow corrosion until technicians could get to it.

Now it's a question of how many secrets the devices contained, and how many of them the feds can retrieve.

Which might make some people a little nervous.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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