Monday, February 26, 2024

Modern technology meets old school: How law enforcement investigated the suspected Holden Beach murderer

The tiny beach town of Holden was rocked when 71-year-old Judy Brock was murdered, allegedly by her husband. Find out how authorities made their case using data stored by cell phone and internet companies.

Brunswick County Sheriff's Office is among nine agencies assisting in Holden Beach Police Department's first murder investigation. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office is among nine agencies assisting in Holden Beach Police Department’s first murder investigation. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Modern communications technology paired with old-fashioned interview tactics are helping at least nine agencies build a strong case against Phillip Brock, a 71-year-old indicted last week for the first-degree murder of his wife.

From the day Brock first reported his wife missing until the first week of April, 15 search warrants have been issued. Some search warrants are what one might expect in a murder investigation: a property search, DNA and cheek swab collection, or bank transaction tracking.

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But others, like those with a 48-hour return directive — effectively a legal rush-order — to out-of-state companies including Yahoo!, Google, Inc. and Verizon Wireless, show how law enforcement agencies are taking advantage of ubiquitous data collection practices that are more often used to sell targeted advertising.

Traditional investigative techniques, like noticing inconsistencies in an interview, opened up suspicion against Phillip Brock. Brock called 911 to report his wife missing at 3:16 p.m. on March 15. Fine-tuned location data — sourced from a cell phone — could further reveal Brock’s precise movement that day — information that could remove any doubt about his involvement in Judy Brock’s murder.

And communication records, which were examined alongside cellphone use, could help the prosecution clear up any suspicion about Rhen Wise, Brock’s alleged mistress, and the extent — if any — of her involvement in the murder; initial communication records show Wise continued to communicate with Brock after his wife’s murder for five days, until his arrest on March 20.

Warrants cite the pervasive nature of cell phone use as part of their usefulness in tracking behavior. Cell phones “generally geographically mirror their user’s pattern of movement over time,” multiple warrants in the Brock case state.

Suspicion

The investigation began as a missing person case. After Brock reported his wife missing, officers conducted an initial search of his waterfront Holden Beach home. No signs of forced entry were present.

Initial forensics conducted on Judy Brock’s cell phone — which was left at the residence — showed her husband texted her at 8:02 and 8:03 a.m., with no response. He told investigators he left home that morning at 5:45 a.m. and that his wife was still sleeping.

Forensics conducted on Brock’s phone showed data before and during March 15 had been deleted. According to the search warrant to Google Inc., issued on March 18, deleting communication records to conceal them from law enforcement can show “consciousness of guilt,” information that can help prosecutors frame motive and intent to commit a crime.

Information Google Inc. provides — which according to the warrant is likely to be stored both inside and outside the U.S. — “may tend to identify potential witnesses and/or suspects” in a “chronological and geographic context.”

These initial forensics also showed Google searches from two weeks prior for escort services near South Carolina. This information served as probable cause to serve the first two search warrants on March 18: the first to Verizon Wireless and the second to Google Inc.

At this point in the case, Judy Brock’s disappearance was being investigated as an “endangered missing person suspected by foul play.”

Investigators believed Judy Brock could still be alive. After issuing the first search warrant to Verizon Wireless on the afternoon of March 18, Major Laurie Watson with the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office re-faxed it twice the next morning, at 7:03 a.m. and at 8:51 a.m. with the urgent message:

“I am requesting [range to tower records] as soon as possible in hopes of finding her alive.”

According to the law firm Yavitch & Palmer, Verizon Wireless stores range-to-tower records, or RTT data. RTT data helps narrow down the distance from a device to a cell tower (or multiple cell towers) at the time of receiving or placing a call or text message. This type of data can track a device’s precise measurement to about one-tenth of a mile. But it’s only maintained by carriers for less than two weeks.

Major Watson also requested the location of each of Verizon’s cell sites (equipment including antennas that transmit signals) and towers (the structures sites are attached to), including the horizontal beam widths and orientations of the cell sites.

Locking down location

It wasn’t until officers searched the Brocks’ Holden Beach property on Greensboro Street that they discovered data tying Phillip Brock to the crime. The property was searched on March 20, the warrant shows, which included a search of vehicles at the scene.

Forensics showed Brock’s 2018 Ford 150 revealed recent GPS locations in Sampson County — a location Brock told investigators he had not been to in months. The locations tied Brock to Wright Bridge Road – a 3.5-mile road that cuts around several acres of woods off U.S. 701 in Sampson County.

Later that day, multiple law enforcement agencies found Judy Brock’s body in the same location, after discovering tire tracks and freshly-disturbed ground off Wright Bridge Road. Phillip Brock was arrested at 5:30 p.m. following the discovery.

Ongoing investigation, expanded focus

New search warrants show the focus has expanded to Brock’s suspected mistress, who continued to communicate with him for at least five days after Judy Brock’s suspected time of death.

Bank records revealed a financial relationship between Brock and Wise, in which Brock paid Wise’s phone bill, provided her with credit cards, and gave her funds and covered other expenses. The two also met in several hotels since 2018, according to an April 4 warrant for Wise’s Yahoo! records tied to her email account.

Holden Beach Police Department, which still is handling the case according to a Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, did not respond to multiple inquiries. It’s not clear whether Wise is a suspect — as of April 29, Wise has not been arrested by the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office.

It appears that, from an investigative side, the state has more than what it needs; after a review of Brock’s court file Wednesday, no new search warrants have been issued since April 4. On April 15, a grand jury returned a bill of indictment after hearing evidence presented by Watson and Detective John Duncan of the Holden Beach Police Department.

Brock’s murder marks the first for the small beach town, home to less than 1,000 residents.


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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