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Cyber sleuthing snares suspected killer
ST. LOUIS -- Perhaps it was cockiness that got the best of Maury Troy Travis. Maybe it was his naivete about cyberspace.
Investigators say Travis didn't emerge as a suspect in the killings of black prostitutes around St. Louis until he sent a computer-drafted letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. More important, he sent a map off the Internet.
"Before that, his name to my knowledge never came up," said police Capt. Harry Hegger, who has led the investigation into the deaths of 10 women whose bodies have turned up on both sides of the Mississippi River since April 2001. "That letter was the critical piece of evidence."
Though the mailing was unsigned, Travis' electronic fingerprints were all over it. He was arrested June 7.
Three days later the case took another twist: While jailed on federal charges in the abduction, torture and stranglings of two prostitutes, Travis, 36, was found hanging in his cell. It was ruled a suicide.
While stunned by his death, police credit computer forensics for cracking the case. Others question whether the tool is an Orwellian "Big Brother" thing.
"It's almost really science-fictionlike," Charles Marske, a St. Louis University sociology and criminology professor, said. "I suspect most of us are pretty oblivious to this. As long as it doesn't affect us directly, we may yawn and go about our business.
"But I think people who get on the Internet really fail to realize that their comings and goings through cyberspace can be tracked."
Letter: 'Nice sob story'
The FBI declined to discuss the case. But the federal criminal complaint against him offers some insight:
On May 24, five days after the Post-Dispatch profiled one of the slain prostitutes, the newspaper received a letter, its return address "I Thralldom" in New York City. The stamp was of an American flag, pasted onto the envelope upside down -- an international distress signal.
In neat, red computer-generated cursive, the letter compliments a Post-Dispatch reporter on a "nice sob story." Enclosed was a computer-generated map indicating where a victim's body was, showing an intersection in St. Charles County's West Alton, along with a handwritten X.
Investigators supplied with the letter found human skeletal remains within 50 yards of the location shown by the map's X, about 300 yards from where two other prostitutes' bodies earlier were found.
Four days later, investigators determined that the letter and map were mailed locally, and learned "I Thralldom" was a Web site for bondage and sexual torture. By definition, thralldom is slavery or someone in moral or mental servitude.
An Illinois State Police search of online mapping companies led to an exact match between features on the newspaper-received map and one found on Expedia.com.
On June 3, Microsoft Corp., which tracks access to that Web site, gave the FBI a computerized spreadsheet showing that only someone with the Internet Provider address 126.96.36.199 days prior to the mailing to the Post-Dispatch accessed the Expedia.com site and searched the West Alton area. Technology even showed the person zoomed in 10 times to better define the map's location.
The user name of that IP address: "MSN/maurytravis."
Investigators followed Travis for 24 hours, determining he lived alone in Ferguson in north St. Louis County. On June 7, investigators arrested him at his home.
Most of the victims, authorities say, suffered blunt trauma on the back of the skull and had ligature marks on their necks. Their wrists were bound. In Travis' house, searchers allegedly found a locked file cabinet with ligatures and belts splattered with what appeared to be blood.
Stunned by Travis' death, authorities pledge that the investigation goes on.
Computer forensics in recent years have surfaced in high-profile hunts for suspected spy transmissions, missing Clinton White House e-mails and, most recently, missing Enron Corp. accounting documents.
"A lot of people are so naive on this stuff," says Michael Anderson, a retired, longtime IRS criminal investigator. He is now president and CEO of New Technologies Inc. The firm, among the nation's first private companies specializing in computer forensics when founded six years ago, has trained thousands of police officers and military workers on computer-tracking techniques.
In terms of computers, "the public has got this false sense of security, and they're running naked," Anderson said.