Alexa may have been listening, as she almost always is, when Christine Sullivan was stabbed to death on Jan. 27, 2017, in the kitchen of the home in Farmington, N.H., where she lived with her boyfriend.
But does Alexa remember any of it?
That’s the question state prosecutors are hoping will produce key evidence in the murder case against Timothy Verrill, who is accused of killing Sullivan and her friend Jenna Pellegrini over suspicions that they were informing police about an alleged drug operation. Prosecutors say Alexa, the voice service for Amazon’s Echo smart devices, was sitting on the kitchen counter the entire time.
Now, a judge has ordered Amazon to turn over any recordings the Echo device may have made from Jan. 27, the day the women were killed, until Jan. 29, when police discovered them tucked beneath a tarp under the porch.
“The court finds there is probable cause to believe the server(s) and/or records maintained for or by Amazon.com contain recordings made by the Echo smart speaker from the period of Jan. 27 to Jan. 29, 2017 . . . and that such information contains evidence of crimes committed against Ms. Sullivan, including the attack and possible removal of the body from the kitchen.”
Verrill has pleaded not guilty. His defense attorney could not be immediately reached for comment.
Verrill’s case marks at least the second time Amazon has become entangled in a high-stakes murder case in which its device, a task manager activated on voice command, morphs into a de facto witness for the prosecution. (Amazon’s founder, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)
In a statement to The Post, an Amazon spokesman indicated that Amazon wouldn’t be turning over the data so easily, appearing to prioritize consumer privacy as it has done in the past.
“Amazon will not release customer information without a valid and binding legal demand properly served on us,” the spokesman said. “Amazon objects to overbroad or otherwise inappropriate demands as a matter of course.”
There’s no guarantee that Alexa will turn into a star witness. For the Echo smart device to be activated, typically it has to be prompted by the words “Alexa,” “Computer” or “Echo” — the “wake words” that cause the device to begin recording.
But if Alexa really were listening, evidence indicates that it would have heard a horrific attack.
Investigators laid out the mostly circumstantial evidence against Verrill during an evidentiary bail hearing last summer.
On Jan. 29, Sullivan’s boyfriend, Dean Smoronk, who owns the house in which the women were killed, told police he arrived home from a trip to Florida to find that the house had been turned into a crime scene, New Hampshire State Police Sgt. Brian Strong testified during the hearing. He couldn’t find Sullivan, so he called 911.
When police arrived, they found blood splattered on the kitchen walls and the refrigerator, Strong said. It was soaked into the mattress in the upstairs bedroom, where police think Pellegrini was stabbed 43 times.
Verrill had previously lived at the house with Sullivan and Smoronk and had been friends with them. Strong revealed under questioning from Verrill’s defense attorney that the house was also at the center of an alleged drug trafficking operation in which Sullivan and Smoronk were suspected of being involved, Foster’s Daily Democrat reported. Verrill’s attorney, Melissa Davis, suggested that this left open additional avenues for the investigation of other suspects and maintained Verrill’s innocence, Foster’s reported.
But prosecutors contended that Verrill’s behavior on the night of the killings and in the days following made him the prime suspect.
Smoronk received a phone call from Verrill in the early morning hours of Jan. 27: Verrill, Smoronk told police, was concerned that Pellegrini was an informant, Foster’s reported.
Soon afterward, surveillance cameras captured Verrill arriving at the house wearing a flannel shirt and a baseball cap, Strong testified during the bail hearing. Within 20 minutes, he was captured attempting to obscure the lens of three surveillance cameras before ultimately shutting the system down.
Over the next several days, prosecutors say, he made suspicious trips around town, according to footage of the hearing from WMUR-TV. He bought cleanup products from a Walmart — salt and ammonia cleaner later found at the scene. He got a new phone and went to see a priest. And he had “not one, but two breakdowns that take him to the hospital,” the prosecutor said.
Verrill was arrested after he traveled to Massachusetts for a drug-treatment program on Feb. 6, the Rochester Voice reported.
When searching the property, Strong said, he found the women’s bodies under the tarp and found the knives buried a foot beneath the ground, wrapped in a flannel shirt. The police found a shovel speckled with blood, believed to be Sullivan’s, resting on top of the porch.
And in the kitchen, they found Alexa, and took the device into custody.
The case recalls a 2015 Arkansas murder investigation in which a man was found dead in a backyard hot tub the morning after the man who lived there, James Bates, invited friends over to watch a football game. Bates was soon charged in his death and pleaded not guilty.
Just as in the New Hampshire case, police found Alexa sitting on Bates’s kitchen counter and suspected she might know something.
Amazon initially resisted law enforcement officers’ efforts to obtain the potential relevant recordings, as The Post reported in December 2016. In a 91-page brief, Amazon moved to quash the search warrant on First Amendment grounds. It advanced the same argument put forth by Apple in 2015, when the company refused the federal government’s request to unlock the iPhone of the accused San Bernardino shooter for customer privacy reasons, believing compliance with the request would greatly weaken iPhone security.
"Amazon does not seek to obstruct any lawful investigation, but rather seeks to protect the privacy rights of its customers when the government is seeking their data from Amazon, especially when that data may include expressive content protected by the First Amendment,” Amazon wrote in its brief.
Amazon ultimately relented after Bates gave permission for his Amazon Echo to be searched — but it didn’t turn into the linchpin prosecutors hoped for: They dropped the charges against Bates in November 2017 after finding that the evidence, including the Echo recordings, supported more than one “reasonable explanation” for the victim’s death.
Tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Apple with its iPhone and Google with its Home device are what a recent article in the Harvard Law Review called “'surveillance intermediaries' ... entities that sit between law enforcement agencies and the public’s personal information, and that have the power to decide just how easy or difficult it will be for law enforcement to access that information."
According to the article, there were more than 32,000 requests for information by law enforcement officials to Facebook alone during a six-month period in 2017.
“While intermediaries must comply with statutory and constitutional law governing law enforcement requests for information,” the article noted, “they still hold a large degree of discretion when processing those requests: discretion in how critically they evaluate the legality of requests, in slowing down the process by insisting on proceduralism, and in minimizing their capacity to respond to legal requests by implementing encryption.”
Verrill’s case is set for trial in May 2019.