SEBRING - About six months ago, Jason Dionne was asked to assist deputy U.S. marshals who were investigating a sexual predator in Lake Placid.
The computer was still running, it was still connected to the Internet, so the forensics technician went to work.
"In the old days," said Capt. Randy LaBelle, "they just started unplugging stuff."
But this is the CSI Era, and Dionne is trained to lift a computer's fingerprints.
"I can extract passwords while it's still running," Dionne said. He can copy everything that's in the RAM, a computer's temporary memory. "If you pull the plug on it, it's gone."
Two years ago, Highlands County Sheriff's Office often sent computers to Polk County, which has three forensic computer techs like Dionne.
But then Sheriff Susan Benton had breakfast with Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. In the 21st century, he told her, law enforcement offices need their own forensics technicians.
"But we didn't have the funds to do our own," Benton said.
So Bailey found the money for a $76,850 FDLE grant, Highlands applied, and Dionne, who was already in the sheriff's Internet technology department, was promoted.
"But it's not just the person," Benton said. "It's the equipment, the training."
So Dionne was sent to Polk County. He learned which hardware and software to buy and how to operate it all. Two months later, he set up Highlands County's program.
Now Dionne takes the load off Polk County by assisting Okeechobee County Sheriff's Office, and even Frank Mercurio and the Sebring FDLE office, who are all part of the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Sometimes, Dionne is handed a Blu-ray player or a phone. It may have been stolen or pawned, and it's up to him to determine the rightful owner through its downloads.
Two of his best tools are Cellebrite, a notepad-sized machine that copies data from cellphones and other mobile devices, and Lantern, which does the same from iPhones and Apple products.
"It will dump whatever is in the memory of the cellphone," Dionne said. "It can break pass codes too."
In 2012, Cellebrite recovered information from a suspect's phone that resulted in a warrant for violating a domestic violence injunction.
"He was sending abusive text messages, which was obviously a violation," Dionne said.
Back in high school, Dionne watched TV shows and movies that showed forensic investigators doing what he does today. But he didn't think it would ever be his job.
"It's a niche market," Dionne shrugged. He worked in the sheriff's information technology department for seven years before earning the promotion.
"Even then, though, he was a go-to guy," said LaBelle, the Highlands County chief of detectives. Even without the formal training, Dionne was able to help detectives.
"We, basically, had to farm everything out back then, mostly to Polk County," LaBelle said. "They were extremely gracious, but a lot of this stuff is time sensitive, and it may be two, three weeks, if we're lucky, before we get it back. They aren't going to bump their own cases."
So when they absolutely, positively had to have it overnight, they called Dionne.
"He was the one who answered the phone," said LaBelle, who calls Dionne a detective without a gun.
Last year, Dionne attended FDLE classes, Internet Crimes Against Children courses in Orlando, and one from H-11 Digital Forensics, a private company that provides digital computer and mobile forensic training as well as professional forensics services. Some of his classmates worked in the private sector, like a Publix investigator who performs forensics on cash registers when corruption is suspected.
It's no fun downloading child porn photos from a sexual predator's hard disk. But Dionne gets a sense of achievement.
In a 2012 case, he recovered images and videos that resulted in a warrant for 233 counts of child pornography against David Corbett Frost, who is still in Highlands County Jail while awaiting trial.
"It was so crystal clear," Dionne said. "I saw his search terms, what he previously downloaded. They were hidden in the registry. But that case was rock solid."
Now that Dionne's work has resulted in dozens of arrests in just one year, Benton has decided the sheriff's office can't go back. She added Dionne to the budget.
"You cant' put a price on what he does," LaBelle said. "Not only what he does, how quickly he does it, and that often results in a case or not. He is as important as any detective we have. That position is that important. Actually, we could probably use another one."