On Uncle Sam’s dime, an outside tech company helped state investigators finally hack into the iPhone of a Miami reality TV star accused of extorting a Miami socialite over stolen sex videos.
Text messages on the phone of Hencha Voigt appear to undermine her defense.
They seem to show Voigt and her then-boyfriend actively plotting to get $18,000 from a social-media celebrity known as YesJulz in exchanging for not releasing the video clips to the internet. “We on some Bonnie Clyde sh-- I couldn’t have choose a Better partner crime lol,” reads one text sent from Voigt’s boyfriend’s phone.
The newly released evidence validates Miami-Dade prosecutors’ efforts to force Voigt and Wesley Victor, 34, to give up their phone pass codes, a controversial legal strategy that critics say violates a citizen’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
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That effort didn’t work. A Miami judge earlier this summer ordered Voit and Victor to give up the pass codes, but they claimed they couldn’t remember them.
After Miami Herald coverage of the case, the FBI contacted Miami-Dade prosecutors, offering to pay for an outside company to hack into the devices. That company: Israel-based Cellebrite, which is well-known for contracting with law enforcement around the world to get into encrypted electronics.
Victor’s lawyer declined to comment. Voigt’s defense attorney, Kertch Conze, said he had not reviewed the new evidence but insisted that prosecutors had taken other text messages from his client “out of context.”
“I know my client did nothing wrong,” Conze said Friday night.
Judges across the country have struggled to determine how much access law enforcement can get to smartphones, tablets and hard drives that increasingly use sophisticated encryption technology. The blossoming legal conflicts are being closely watched by civil-liberties groups and tech companies wary of police intrusion.
In May, the FBI said that in the first six months of the fiscal year, agents encountered more than 6,000 devices for which they had judicial authorization to open.
In the most-prominent case, the federal government last year asked a judge to force Apple to order the company to help unlock an iPhone owned by the Islamic State-inspired gunman who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California. The company resisted, but the government eventually dropped its court battle after an undisclosed third party got into the phone.
Cellebrite was widely rumored to have been the company that helped the FBI, a claim that was later debunked, according to media reports. Cellebrite, which has its U.S. office in New Jersey, is also developing software that will help police determine whether a driver texted before a crash, a technology also under scrutiny by privacy advocates.
Most often, the legal frictions center around forcing a defendant to give up their pass codes.
Last year, an appeals court in Sarasota ruled that a man could be compelled to give up his pass code for a phone that might contain illegal images. The Florida Supreme Court has yet to rule on the issue, and appeals on other cases are pending.
A Broward judge recently ordered a Hollywood man to serve 180 days in jail for failing to give his pass code for a phone that might contain evidence of child abuse. He insisted that he had given the right code; a judge didn’t believe him.
For Miami-Dade prosecutors, the Miami Beach “sextortion” case was the first of its kind.
Voigt, 29, and Victor were arrested in July 2016. Police said they demanded $18,000 in exchange for not releasing sex videos stolen from the phone of YesJulz, whose real name is Julieanna Goddard.
YesJulz is a well-known event promoter who parties with rappers and athletes. Voigt is a self-described “fitness model” who last fall starred on E!’s “Miami WAGS,” a reality show that followed the wives and girlfriends of sports celebrities.
Detectives arrested Voigt and Victor together in South Beach, seizing four phones. A judge signed a search warrant authorizing police to enter the devices. Analysts were able to gain access to a “trap phone,” which detectives believe was used to communicate with the victim. But they couldn’t get into the other three, including Voit’s personal iPhone.
Voigt’s defense attorney claims she only reached out to YesJulz, her friend, because she was “trying to help.”
“There is no evidence she ever threatened to publish those videos,” her lawyer, Kertch Conze, said during an April hearing.
Prosecutor Michael Filteau told the judge he believed the text messages between Voit and Victor would show she knew exactly what her boyfriend was up to.
The state attorney’s office asked Circuit Judge Charlie Johnson to force the pair to give up their codes. “For me, this is like turning over a key to a safe-deposit box,” he said in agreeing to their request.
Johnson, in June, declined to hold either of them in contempt of court because both claimed to not remember pass codes for the phones — which had been seized nearly one year earlier.
It was only afterward that the FBI’s National Domestic Communications Assistance Center reached out to prosecutors to offer a “voucher to pay the private vendor for the service of bypassing the pass code lock,” according to a search warrant.
Just how much it cost the federal government was undisclosed. But it worked. Voigt’s iPhone was sent to Cellebrite’s New Jersey lab, where technicians downloaded the data. The analysis showed that Voigt had tried to delete many of the incriminating messages between the former lovers.
In one message to Voigt, Victor appears to suggest YesJulz would agree to pay because the video clips show “her face clear as day.”
“We are trouble together but I love it,” Victor allegedly wrote.
The phone data also showed Voigt emailing the video clips to one of her own email addresses and helping Victor identify someone depicted in a video clip. She also acknowledged to him that she was in contact with the extortion victim.
“I told her about other videos she knows,” Voit allegedly wrote to Victor in one message.