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April 27, 2014

How technology helped local police quickly catch bomb-threat suspect

EBENSBURG —  Ever wonder if Big Brother is watching over your shoulder? Just ask the Johnstown man sitting in the Cambria County Prison charged with calling in a bomb threat to the courthouse last week.

Steven Jablonski was pinpointed within minutes after allegedly using a prepaid cellphone to call the Cambria County 911 dispatch center and tell the operator a bomb had been planted in the 200 S. Center St. location.

Even before the courthouse could be completely evacuated, the 911 center, Ebensburg Borough Police Department and Cambria County Sheriff’s Department knew the call came from a prepaid phone purchased at the Richland Township Wal-Mart.

Authorities also were able to determine the phone purchased by Jablonski was used to make four calls to the Cambria County Clerk of Courts Office around 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, a half-hour before the office opened.

At 8:46, while in the parking lot of an East High Street convenience store a block away from the courthouse, police say he dialed 911 and made the bomb threat. The message did not include a detonation time or location within the three story and basement building.

“Sometimes it’s good to be lucky. Everything fell our way,” Ebensburg police Chief Terry Wyland said. “It went like clockwork.”

President Commissioner Douglas Lengenfelder said the operation was anything but luck.

“Things like this don’t happen by luck. Sometimes luck is hard work meeting opportunity,” he said. “We had a  lot of hard work which met with opportunity when a lot of people came together and made things happen.”

Lengenfelder, a retired Air Force colonel and former combat commander in the Philippines who experienced near daily bombings by Abu Sayyaf terrorists, said he takes a bomb threat seriously.

It was that same serious approach used by the 911 center, where immediately upon receiving the call dispatchers knew the carrier and called Verizon, setting in motion the process that led to Jablonski’s detention a few hours later.  

With Verizon’s help, police were able to determine that the phone was purchased at the Richland Township store at 4:40 a.m. Tuesday.

As county and judicial officials were being notified and the decision was made to evacuate the building and use bomb-sniffing dogs, authorities were on their way to Wal-Mart, where they viewed a tape from a security camera.

The camera, at the register where Jablonski made the purchase, provided his photo along with one of a female companion.  

The prepaid phone must be activated, whether by store personnel or on the purchaser’s computer, authorities said.

Jablonski and his companion had the card activated by the store employee and again were caught on camera .

The activation needed to allow user access also activates a chip in the phone, making it possible to track in most cases, authorities said.

Keys in this case were use of a newer model cellphone, the security cameras at the store, Verizon’s quick response to provide tracking information and the Facebook page of the sheriff’s office, said Robbin Melnyk, deputy director of Cambria County Department of Emergency Services and 911 coordinator.

Posting the photos of Jablonski and his companion resulted in identifications within five minutes from multiple sources, authorities said.

The tracking information from Verizon is something few have access to, she said. It is limited by Verizon and other cellphone carriers to law enforcement, she said.

Erica Sevilla, Verizon’s public relations senior consultant for the Ohio/Pennsylvania/West Virginia region, said she is unable to comment on criminal cases, but added that while customer privacy is vital, the company adheres to its responsibility to help law enforcement.

“Protecting our customer’s privacy is one of Verizon Wireless’s highest priorities,” Sevilla said in an email. “Verizon Wireless also has a legal obligation to provide customer information to law enforcement in many situations.”

Sevilla added that Verizon has a dedicated team to assist law enforcement and processes to ensure that it fulfills legal obligations to provide information only when authorized by law.

Melnyk and Ron Springer, executive director of the county emergency department, said Cambria and other government 911 emergency services have immediate access to communications companies with experts manning the phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But despite all of the technology and help to law enforcement, tracking phones can be challenging, Melnyk said.

A call from a landline gives pinpoint information – city, street and house address – making for an easy trace, she said.

A mobile phone based on a monthly contract can be a little more difficult, she said.

“We do know when we answer a call if it’s wireless, but if we have to get a cellphone call, it’s best if it’s a Phase 2, where we know the owner and a call-back number,” she said.

Tracking a Phase 1 cellphone call is much tougher because only the number and the provider comes up.

“TracFones can be very challenging for us,” she said. “The only thing we get is the number and the provider.”

Whether one’s view of technology is positive or negative, it is becoming a life-changer. Just ask Jablonski.

“Everybody did what they were trained to do,” Springer said.

“With technology, it’s getting more and more difficult to get away with anything.”

Jablonski’s preliminary hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in front of Ebensburg District Judge Frederick Creany.

Kathy Mellott covers the Cambria County Courthouse for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/kathymellotttd.

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