“Frankly, the password is printed on the bottom of the keyboard,” the lawyer admitted to the two police officers. “I know how bad that is, and the only thing that makes it worse is that a quarter-million dollars are missing from our trust account.”
Senior partner David Young sat in an interview room with police Lieutenant Randy Brooks and Detective Yolonda Pryor, explaining how his firm had been the victim of a fraudulent transfer of money from the firm trust account to a bank in Grand Cayman Island. The Seattle-based law firm had over 300 lawyers that occupied four floors in a high-rise building on Columbia Avenue and had a reputation for quality legal services to the largest corporations along the pacific rim.
“I have kicked myself, taken responsibility, and we have covered the loss by transfer from our general account. No client will suffer any loss, but we need to know who in our firm did this,” the lawyer explained. David Young had returned to the law firm after serving as a King County Superior Court Judge. He practiced with the firm for 12 years following graduation from law school. After a decade on the bench, his former partners lured him back to the firm and appointed him the managing partner.
A new corporate client, Premium Storage International, a Panamanian entity, made a sizable deposit by check into the firm’s trust account, agreeing to apply the funds to future legal fees and anticipated settlement of claims. The check was deposited in the firm’s bank account, and lawyers assigned to the client anticipated receipt of information about the lawsuits against the company. A few days later, somebody ordered a refund of $250,000 to the client by wire instructions to the firm’s bank using the password required to initiate the process. The problem was the client’s check had not cleared the law firm’s bank, and after the trust funds were wired, the client’s check was returned NSF. The trust account is a pooled fund from several clients, so there was a sufficient balance in trust to cover the wire transfer.
“If a client demands an early refund, we wait until the client’s deposited check has cleared the bank. But in this instance, the refund request, if it was a valid request, never came to the firm. Somebody knew how to make that happen and knew how to find the password to initiate the wire transfer instructions,” the lawyer concluded. “We have since determined the client never existed in Grand Cayman or any other place. It was a setup.”
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but why not use a password manager app?” the Detective asked.
“We do have a password manager app which lawyers on our management committee can access, but when it comes to the bank wire transfer password, I wanted to keep it available to as few people as possible. My thought was that putting it in one hidden location would be both secure and accessible. Another copy is in my office safe,” the lawyer explained.
“How is it printed on the keyboard?” the Lieutenant asked.
“Come to the office, and I can show you,” the attorney advised.
The police officers agreed it was time to look at the crime scene and arranged to meet Mr. Young at his office. Lieutenant Brooks told the lawyer not to touch anything around the computer workstation until they arrived.
“Do you have security cameras inside the office?” the Lieutenant asked after being escorted by the receptionist into Mr. Young’s office. The office faced west, offering a picturesque view of Elliott Bay through the glass wall on the twentieth floor. His legal assistant’s desk was across the hall and was visible through the glass door of the lawyer’s office.
“The only security camera is at the reception area and front door.”
“Do you need credentials to use a computer?” Detective Pryor asked.
“Yes, you need to logon with a unique PIN. I can use any computer in the office with my PIN, but I can only access what is allowed based upon my PIN,” he explained.
“And only two computers with access to the trust account are your computer and the computer at your legal assistant’s workstation. Is that what you told us?” the Lieutenant followed up.
“Correct, and we know the bank transfer instructions came from my legal assistant’s computer.
“Where is your legal assistant, and what is his or her name?” asked the Detective.
“Her name is Agnus, and she is the one I told you is on vacation,” the lawyer reported.
“When did she leave on vacation?”
“In early March sometime, I have it on my iPhone calendar. Hang on for a second. Yes, her last day was March 2, last Tuesday,” he advised.
“Show us the bank wire transfer password, Mr. Young,” the Lieutenant instructed as the two officers stood and walked across the hall. The lawyer followed them to the desk.
Detective Pryor put on vinyl gloves. She carefully picked up the keyboard by the edges and turned it over. The two police officers inspected the bottom of the white plastic device. “Where is the password? We expected to see a label or handwritten printing,” said the Detective.
“I’m an amateur, but I’m not that stupid,” the lawyer said with a smile. “Well, maybe I’m both. Anyway, look at the manufacture label with all the serial numbers, warnings, and the usual small print, and you will see a series of 16 alphanumeric characters that almost match the font and print colors of the other information at the bottom,” he said pointing with his pen. The two officers moved together and looked where he was pointing.
“Actually, that is clever,” said the Lieutenant. “Did you use clear tape on a label maker?”
“Exactly,” the lawyer replied.
“How do you type the password on the keyboard once you see it on the back? Don’t’ tell me you memorize it,” Detective Pryor suggested.
“You have spotted the weakness in the system, but there are a couple of ways to make it work. If I’m doing the transfer, I memorize it in two sections and type it sequentially. The other way is to take a photo of it with a smartphone and then erase it after typing in the password. It slows the process, but dealing with client funds should be done with more care than simply paying a bill online,” he explained.
Yolanda set the keyboard back on the desk. “Has anyone used this computer since the fraudulent transfer was made?” she asked.
“Yes, I needed some work done, so I asked another secretary to do a couple of things for me yesterday while I was in a meeting,” the lawyer replied.
“Did this man or woman secretary use their own PIN?” she asked.
“I’m sure she did, and that would be the normal process,” the lawyer replied.
“I guess we can forget about fingerprints, Detective,” said the Lieutenant.
“Fingerprints? Were you thinking that whoever typed the transfer instructions left fingerprints?” the lawyer asked.
“Yes, on the keyboard,” said the Detective.
“They are gone now,” the Lieutenant interrupted.
“Tell me again the date of the bank transfer,” Yolanda persisted as she looked at her notes.
“March 4 at 6:15 AM,” the lawyer said, checking the bank documents.
“And then yesterday, March 10, you had another staff person use this computer for the first time, is that right?” Yolanda asked.
“Yes, I never considered fingerprints,” the lawyer said apologetically.
“What did she type on this computer?” Yolanda asked.
Lieutenant Brooks interrupted, “She corrupted the fingerprints on the keyboard. End of story. Who cares what she typed?”
“We need to take the keyboard into evidence,” the Detective advised, ignoring the Lieutenant.
“Detective, she has her prints all over the thing. And whatever she typed yesterday is of no value,” the Lieutenant insisted. The lawyer stood across the desk and listened to the exchange between the two officers.
“Humor me, Lieutenant, please,” Yolanda said with a polite smile.
The Lieutenant reluctantly nodded his approval and walked to the doorway of the lawyer’s office and looked out at Puget Sound.
“Mr. Young tell me what tasks she performed at this desk,” the Detective said, turning her attention back to the lawyer.
“She replied to an email for me and then transcribed a letter.”
“Can I see them?”
“Well, they may have privileged information in the one to a client. Will you have to take them into evidence?” he asked.
“No, but if it comes to that, we will get a search warrant.”
Lieutenant Brooks stepped from the doorway as the lawyer walked across the hall to his office. As he was leaving, the lawyer glanced at the Lieutenant and stopped.
“Lieutenant Brooks, did you testify in hearings related to the 2009 Lakewood murder of four police officers?” the lawyer asked.
Brooks looked over his shoulder at Yolanda and then back at the lawyer. “Yeah, I was part of the team that arrested the killer’s accomplices. Why, did you represent some of the defendants in court?” he asked.
“No, I was the trial judge that handled initial appearances and issued search warrants.”
Brooks paused and looked closer at the lawyer and thought for a moment. “Yeah, Judge Young, I didn’t put that together until now,” he said. “That was a difficult time for law enforcement,” he added.
“It was difficult for all of us. I can only imagine what it meant to police officers. The killer got what he deserved,” said the attorney as he returned to the desk where Yolanda was waiting.
“Here is a copy of the email,” he said as the Lieutenant joined them. Yolanda read the reply email the lawyer had sent to his client:
“Meet me at the front door of the courthouse tomorrow at 9:00 am.”
“Do you mind if I take a photo with my phone?” she asked, and the lawyer nodded his approval.
When she finished with the photo, the lawyer handed her the letter, which was addressed to another lawyer in the city and it read:
“Via email only:
My client rejects your settlement offer of $775,000.00. To avoid delay and further litigation expense, my client will accept $1,100,000.00. This offer expires the close of business Friday. We look forward to your prompt reply.”
The bottom of the letter had the customary notice of a copy sent to the client and signature block.
“Was everything below the pre-printed letterhead typed by the staff person?” she asked.
The lawyer looked at the letter and then responded, “No, the signature block is a macro that I added from my computer because I have various closures, such as ‘Sincerely yours’ and ‘Respectfully,’ depending on how I want to end the letter.
“Do you have the authority to give us permission to take this keyboard into evidence?” she asked. The lawyer gave approval to the request.
The Lieutenant said, “Yolanda, I think our time will be better spent interviewing people that were in this office early in the morning.” He turned to the lawyer, “What do you think, Judge, should we start interviewing witnesses?”
“I don’t know that one thing precludes the other,” the retired Judge said with a grin.
Lieutenant Brooks nodded and brought a plastic evidence bag out of his coat pocket. Randy Brooks had been with the Seattle Police Department for twenty-two years and was recently promoted to Lieutenant in charge of the white-collar crime unit. He was Yolanda Pryor’s immediate supervisor and had identified her as a prospect for detective work when she was a patrol officer. “I would like the names of people working at the firm on March 4 in the morning,” Yolanda advised the lawyer.
“At six in the morning, that could be difficult,” the lawyer responded. “We have computer technicians who come in early to work on our system before we open the doors. Usually lawyers come early if they are preparing for trial.”
“Can you send me an email with the names later today?” she asked.
“Do as she asks, Judge. Life will be better for both of us,” Brooks advised as he put a seal on the evidence bag containing the keyboard.
Yolanda Pryor was a Seattle native, a Garfield High School graduate, and went to Gonzaga University on a basketball scholarship. She graduated GU with honors and decided she wanted to work in law enforcement. After working for three years in the Spokane PD, she returned to Seattle to be closer to aging parents and family. She had been with the Seattle PD for seven years and was quickly promoted as people recognized her intelligence and hard work.
At the station, Yolanda printed both the email and letter photographs from her phone. She laid them out on her desk and then placed beside them a copy of the wire transfer instruction to the bank. The instructions read:
Please transfer $250,000.00 from Trust to our client Premium Storage International via wire by the close of business today. If you have questions, call me before 10 am PST.
She compared each letter and symbol in the wire transfer instructions written on March 4 with the letters and symbols in the email and letter typed on March 10. When she finished, she walked down the hall to the Lieutenant’s office.
“Come in,” Brooks said without looking up to see who knocked on his door.
“The email has 18 unique letters and symbols, counting punctuation. The letter has 32 unique letters and symbols, counting punctuation,” Yolanda advised as she sat in the only empty chair.
“What are you talking about?”
“The wire transfer instruction has 28 unique letters and symbols, counting punctuation,” she continued.
“OK, so you are talking about the law firm theft, right?” observed the Lieutenant.
“Yes, and here is what we need to do with the keyboard,” she replied.
“I can’t wait.”
“Dust the ‘2’ and the ‘Q’ keys for prints.
“May I ask why? I do not doubt you, but I’d be interested in how you came to that conclusion,” he asked.
“Because those are the only keys used in typing the wire transfer instructions not repeated in the email and letter,” she advised. “Unless there were typos in those two documents, any fingerprints on those keys would not have been compromised.” Brooks sat and looked at her across the desk without speaking as he considered what she was saying about the keyboard. A smile started to form around the edges of his mouth.
“Just dust two keys for prints?” he confirmed in the form of a question.
She nodded. “Yes, but three keys including the ‘2’ on the numeric keypad.”
The next day a technician lifted two usable latent fingerprints from the keyboard, which were entered into a database for comparison with known fingerprints. There were no matches in the database. Yolanda contacted Mr. Young by phone and advised him that she needed to come to the firm to obtain patent fingerprints from employees to compare with the latent fingerprints. Since they were not getting a search warrant and not making arrests, they would only take prints from volunteers, starting with Mr. Young himself.
“When is your legal secretary returning to work? I believe you said her name is Agnus,” she asked the lawyer.
“She will be back tomorrow,” he replied.
“Do you know if she is aware of the situation with the fraudulent transfer?”
“No, and since we have not told most of the employees about the problem, she will not be aware until I talk with her in the morning,” he said. They arranged a meeting at the firm the following day after lunch.
As Yolanda was escorted to a conference room, she glanced down the hall and saw that Mr. Young’s legal assistant was not at her desk. The Detective was arranging materials for taking fingerprints on the conference table when Mr. Young came in and started rolling up his shirt sleeves. Yolanda had him sign a waiver permitting the fingerprinting.
“Is your legal assistant, Agnus here?” Yolanda asked as she rolled his fingers on an ink pad.
“No, she didn’t come in, and we have not heard from her. Somebody called her cell phone, and it went to voicemail,” he reported. The Detective finished applying his fingerprints on a card, handed him tissue to wipe ink off his fingers, and asked for the computer techs to be fingerprinted next.
“I’m sorry but only one tech is here. The other one is not available right now,” he said.
“Is his name Daniel Platter?” asked Yolanda.
“Yeah, how did you know that?”
“I’ll tell you after you tell me why he isn’t here,” she instructed.
Mr. Young didn’t move, “I called him after I sent you the email list you requested yesterday and told him you would be here and why. He said he didn’t have time, and I told him we would pay for his time to get the prints. Then he declined, saying it was a violation of his privacy,” said the lawyer.
“And, after you talked with him, he called your legal assistant, Agnus on Grand Cayman Island,” Yolanda responded.
After a pause, the lawyers asked, “How do you know that?”
“After I got your email with his name on the list, I did some investigation. I know that he is your legal assistant’s cousin. Agnus closed her bank accounts and moved out of her apartment the day she started vacation on March 2. I’m guessing that she has your money and he used her PIN to access the computer. He knew where to find the password on the keyboard, which he then used to make the bank transfer on March 4,” Yolanda suggested.
“We will be asking one of your former Superior Court colleagues for search warrants later today,” she announced as she packed up the materials on the table. “I suggest you start searching for a new legal assistant.”