A fundamental premise of the prosecutor’s case in the Pinyon Pines Murder trial was the pattern of connections to the various cell towers made by the defendants on the night the murders were committed. The prosecution made much ado about their proximity to the entrance to Highway 74, the road that leads up the hill to where the crime occurred.
For a simplified version of the case they tried to make, imagine this: Let’s say there is only one tower that serves the entire valley floor. Let’s say it is located near the beginning of Highway 74, and that it can be reached at a few points along that road up the hill, but is blocked by various hills and dales along the road up.
Now imagine that you are driving around on the valley floor, making phone calls. Does the fact that you are connected to that tower indicate that you are driving up the hill?
No, clearly it does not.
In the prosecutors scenario, there are three or four towers involved. Robert Pape connects to the tower 707 near 111 and Date Palm, around 7:00. At 7:01 he connects to the same tower again as he calls Sacred Heart Catholic Church, where he claimed he was going. (As it turned out, Mass had ended.)
His next call is to his friend Sam at 7:04. This time he is connected to tower 705. This indicates that he is travelling south, toward Highway 111. The prosecutors say that this means they are driving towards the entrance to 74, but it also could indicate that they were travelling toward Sacred Heart Church before, and they are just still rolling in the same direction.
The next connections, at 7:05 and 7:06 are still connecting to tower 705. To the prosecutor, this implies still travelling south toward 74. It also just implies that they could be anywhere in that coverage area. They could have turned east, from their southward trajectory, and are just driving somewhere near the tower.
It should be pointed out at this time that, after 12 years of delays and failures of the investigation, the cell tower ‘sector’ data has long since been erased. Sector data allows a person to see not only which tower was connected, but on which side of the tower the call was made from. Have you ever noticed that, on any given tower, there are three banks of emitters, each bank 120 degrees apart? The data is usually available as to which of those three banks you attached to. This is critical. You could be north of the tower, but without sector data, they can say you are actually south east of the tower. Or some such variant.
Remember that, in trial, it is the prosecution’s burden to put you at the crime scene. It is not your burden to prove you were not there. Nonetheless, with the sector data long gone, you are at a disadvantage when trying to convince the jury that the prosecutor is mistaken. It is not supposed to be your job to do so. The misleading and incomplete data should be disallowed. But if the judge goes along with the prosecutor’s request, you’re screwed. He did. The defendants were screwed. The jury can now be misled.
Back to our tower connections: The next contacts were at 7:09 and 7:10. At this time they are connecting to tower 523, which is located on Country Club at Washington, right near the 10, in Palm Desert. One would think that this implies that the defendants were east of where they were before. They were probably travelling east on their last connections to tower 705, and now they are closer to 523. Makes sense.
But, if you really really want to believe the defendants are travelling up Highway 74, you can find a patch of coverage where tower 523 is visible from somewhere on 74. The patch isn’t very large, but I suppose it could happen. But it’s a stretch. It all depends on what you want to believe.
There is a flaw here, though. Remember the call at 7:06 that connected to tower 705? If they were travelling south to 74 and on their way up the hill, that call should have connected to another tower, Tower 745. It is right next to Highway 74. They would have driven right past it! But, instead, they connected to 705, as if they were travelling east.
Now, here comes the clincher! The last connection made was at 7:13. Four minutes later. This one did connect to tower 745, the tower next to Highway 74! At this point, the prosecutors say that they must be a long ways up the hill. But wait, there’s a problem! Even though that tower is right at the base of the road up the hill, the vast majority of its coverage travels north. Very little of it covers the 74 once the road starts winding. To make that connection from 74, they would most likely still have to be at the base of the road. But they already passed through the 523 coverage area, so, that’s not possible. Only a teeny tiny coverage area appears further on up the road.
A More Likely Scenario
Take all those same tower connections and apply them to this speculated path.
7:00pm Frank Sinatra, heading east, approaching Monterey. – Tower 707 (Date Palm/111)
7:01pm Monterey, heading south, towards Sacred Heart Church – Tower 707
7:04pm Monterey, heading south still – Tower 705 (C.O.D. campus)
7:05pm Monterey, heading south still, Planning easterly turn onto Fred Waring – Tower 705
7:06pm Fred Waring, traveling east – Tower 705
7:09pm Fred Waring, traveling east, turning left on Cook – Tower 523 (Country Club and Washington)
7:10pm Cook St, traveling north, preparing to turn left on Country Club – Tower 523
7:13pm Country Club, near Cook. Connected to Tower 745!
Here’s where it gets interesting. At this point, tower 705 is decidedly closer. But wait! Something is in the way. The elevation at CC and Cook is 250 ft above sea level. The elevation for tower 705 is 190 ft. Sixty feet lower. Add to that, the car was a street level. House level. Every building between the car and tower 705 was in the way! Line of sight is pretty critical for cell towers. The expert witnesses testified to as much.
But wait, there’s more!
The elevation of tower 745 (next to the entrance of Highway 74) is over 500 ft! A clear shot from Country Club and Cook.
So, the idea is simple: you can make all the same cell tower connections that these defendants made, simply by driving around on the valley floor. It is a stretch to come up with a scenario that fits the prosecution’s case. But that doesn’t stop them. That’s their job!
The prosecution made a big deal out of this. Like several other items of evidence (shoes, footprints, DNA, spent cartridges, bank statements and the rest of the avalanche of meaningless evidence) the idea is to mislead and baffle the jury into finding the defendants guilty.
It’s not about justice, it’s about winning!
In the twelve years since the horrendous murders occurred, cell towers, sectors and cell phones have changed dramatically. Therefore, making sense out of the data and testimony is impossible. It is impossible to recreate the situation, therefore we are left with two or more possible scenarios; what the prosecution portrays, the defense portrays, what we presented here, and potentially others. But the burden of proof is on the prosecution. It is not moral to convict two people on a possible scenario when other, equally possible scenarios exist.
*Rather than obtain cell town information from Verizon, the prosecution paid close to $20,000 to an outside company as their “expert witness”.