The investigation to solve a recent string of armed robberies in the Portland area involved a sweeping demand for Google user location data by the FBI, according to court documents.
The court-approved demand, first reported on by Forbes magazine, would have included data on every Google location services user in the area of two or more robberies within 30 minutes of the crimes, including innocent bystanders. Despite being served with a search warrant, Google never complied with the demand.
This week, an investigation by The Associated Press found that many Google services on Android devices and iPhones store users’ location data even if they’ve used a privacy setting that says it will prevent Google from doing so.
Earlier this year, local police and the FBI were investigating more than a dozen unsolved robberies of small businesses in the Portland area that occurred over a period of less than a month, including a cluster of four in the span of just over 24 hours.
The unusual rash of robberies alarmed area small business owners and their employees. Police increased their patrols and advised people to comply with the robber’s demands rather than try to resist. Still, some business owners were frustrated and defiant, and one put a loaded gun behind his convenience store counter when the robber hit a nearby shop.
According to a search warrant signed on March 30 by Maine U.S. District Judge John A. Woodcock Jr., the FBI demanded that Google, the technology giant based in Mountain View, California, turn over data that would identify any person using Google location services on a mobile device near “two or more of the locations where the robberies occurred at the date and time the robberies occurred.”
The warrant sought comprehensive information on each user including “full name, physical address, telephone numbers and other identifiers, records of session times and durations, the date on which the account was created, the length of service, the IP address used to register the account, log-in IP addresses associated with session times and dates, account status, alternative email addresses provided during registration, methods of connecting, log files, and means and source of payment including any credit or bank account number.”
The warrant also included a gag order prohibiting Google from notifying customers about the FBI’s demand for their data.
According to a subsequent warrant filed with the court on Aug. 6, the tech giant never turned over the data.
“Google did not provide information responsive to the warrant,” it says.
OTHER MEANS TO CATCH A SUSPECT
A man suspected of being the robber evenually was caught. Westbrook resident Travis Card, 38, pleaded guilty on Aug. 2 to 11 of the 14 robberies or attempted robberies. He now faces up to 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine for each of the 11 crimes.
Card ultimately was identified and apprehended through other investigative methods.
Westbrook police arrested Card on William Clarke Drive on April 13 at 6:30 a.m. on his way to work. He had a family home in Windham but had been staying with his father in Westbrook. A search of the father’s apartment that day turned up a black pellet gun and a pair work boots that matched footprints at one robbery, according to a prosecution document filed with the court.
The investigators used shoes, surveillance footage, DNA samples and other evidence to tie Card to the crimes. The prosecution document stated that Card robbed eight businesses in March and April: Riverton Gas Station in Portland on March 20; Lil’ Mart Gas Station in Falmouth on March 21; Good Things Variety in Westbrook on March 22; Express Mart in Cumberland on March 22; the Daily Grind in Westbrook on March 24; Subway in Westbrook on March 26; China Eatery in Old Orchard Beach on March 29; and Gulf Mart in Westbrook on April 6.
He left each business with sums of money ranging from $198 to $650, according to court records. The total amount stolen was nearly $3,000.
The prosecution document also states that Card attempted to rob three other businesses: China Taste in Portland on March 25; Aroma Joe’s in South Portland on March 27; Moby Dick Variety in Old Orchard Beach on April 11. In those incidents, Card left with nothing. At China Taste, a language barrier prevented him from communicating his demands. The clerk at Aroma Joe’s locked herself in a bathroom, while an employee at Moby Dick Variety brandished a club.
During the robberies, Card brandished what appeared to be a firearm. The prosecution document identified it as a black pellet gun.
The investigation did not connect Card to similar robberies at businesses in Auburn, Topsham and Brunswick.
Travis Card at his arraignment in Superior Court in Portland in April. (Brianna Soukup/Portland Press Herald)